When writing science fiction or fantasy, creating a new and original world can be the key to setting your story apart. While characters should be well developed, plot should have a clear arc, and other elements such as tension, imagery, and pace should all be carefully considered; fantasy authors often have the added task of building a believable and manageable world from scratch. Today’s article will reflect on some of the key elements of world building.
Rules and Systems
The most fabulous element of fantasy writing is that you can literally create anything you want. Cacti that speak German and shoot lasers out of their magically appearing eyes are not only possible, but believable if done well. To create a viable world, there have to be rules. I’m not saying there should be a sign somewhere listing Rule #1, Rule #2 and Rule #3, although that certainly worked for Asimov.
Instead, your created world should have a system that limits certain capabilities in a predictable and practical way. Are your characters time travelers? Then assign some rules about how to determine the time and location of the destination, how to indicate a readiness to travel, and how many individuals can be transported together. Does your story include zombies? Readers will want to know to how to become a zombie, how to avoid infection, how fast the infection spreads, and how to kill a zombie. The specifics of each rule are up to you, but forcing your characters to work within those rules will create situations that bring about tension and conflict.
Without rules, characters will be allowed to do whatever they need to without building any real interest from readers. One of the only books I have ever started—but neglected to finish—included a baddie who could mutate his DNA. No matter how hard the group of characters worked to trap or evade the villain, he would just mutate into something to get to them again, such as a bacteria in the air vent or a huge beast with enough strength to crash down steel doors. After a while it became clear that, without any rules to limit the baddie, the story wasn’t going anywhere.
Technology and Weapons
In our real, existing world, technology has taken a well-known path. Archaeologists and historians have identified the Stone Age, The Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Edged weapons such as swords went the way of the dodo around World War I, when artillery became available. Today we live in the modern nuclear era.
One strategy for world-building involves selecting a historical time period and sticking with it. Authors with this method consider not only the weapons available in their chosen period, but also methods of travel, telling time, health and medicine, farming and food availability, and every other aspect that might affect a population.
The other option includes mixing or creating all new technologies. For stories that take place in the distant future, this is often the only option. Time travel, space ships, faster than light speeds, and intergalactic communication must be fabricated by the author. As with all elements of an original world, the rules and systems need to be clear and be consistent.
Location and Nature
Regardless of the time period in which a story takes place or the events of that story, the author must choose or create a physical space where the story unfolds. Characters might be in a school, a forest, a desert, an alien planet, or an underwater seascape; no matter the specific area chosen, as with all other elements of fantasy, consistency is paramount.
Just with time periods, some authors choose to use existing locations while others choose to create. Settings can be as specific as a city such as London, New York or Syndey, or as broad as the Arctic, the Sahara, or the Pacific. The location, however, should always jive with the time period, technology, and other elements of the story. If you write about people who have the magical ability to breathe underwater, then perhaps a desert is not the ideal setting.
One of the most underrated elements of world building is the flaw. No world is perfect, not even one in fantasy. Nations go to war. Diseases spread. Food goes scarce. Many authors struggle with the idea that a fantasy world is an ideal world. In some ways, authors can hope to alleviate the stresses of the real world by creating a world without those problems. However, the unfortunate side effect is a world that doesn’t merit believability.
All societies and worlds undergo political conflict, evolution of religious systems, power struggles, technology reform and every other form of social change. Eliminating these elements removes the most realistic part of your created realm. It is the flaws in ourselves that make us human, and it is the flaws in our worlds that make them authentic.
The true challenge in designing a world is the open-ended nature. Literally anything and everything is possible and, with so many options, finding the right combination can seem like an insurmountable task. While it is said that God created the Earth in seven days, fantasy world-building can take months—even years. When designing your world, don’t forget to build your characters and your plot. Even the best of worlds need to have great stories take place within them.
About the Author:
RS McCoy didn’t ever plan on being a writer. With a career teaching high school science, writing is the last thing she expected. But life never goes the way you think it will.
While battling cancer, she picked up her laptop and let the words flow out. One year later, her first published fantasy novel has been released on Amazon and her second novel is in the works.
She is a wife, mother of one with another on the way, a scientist, baker, gardener, and life-long science fiction and fantasy addict.
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