When it comes to writing a good high fantasy story—that is, a story set in a “secondary” world rather than “our” world—there is little more important than having strong world-building to back it up. World-building is defined as the process of constructing an imaginary or fictional universe…and it’s a little like playing God, right? YOU get to create the world, YOU get to choose how it works, and it is ultimately YOUR decision when and how it ends.
Over the last few months, I’ve been hard at work world-building for my epic fantasy series Graceborn. There is a LOT to think about given the scope of my story, and as a result I have come up with a list of what I believe to be some of the key elements of world-building for high fantasy fiction. I go through each of these below—with the aim of exploring each element in more depth in the coming months—and I’d love to hear what YOU think!!
Cosmology is all about the origin, nature, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe, and you should understand how this relates to the world of your fantasy WIP. What is the world’s creation story? How does the universe work? Are there any important physical laws? Is anyone anticipating an apocalyptic event?
Religion is usually very closely tied to an accepted creation story and/or world cosmology. Once—or even while—you’ve made decisions on these, you can develop the religious beliefs and practices of those living in your fantasy world. How does this relate to mythology? Or are the people completely secular?
Let’s get (un)real for a moment—if your WIP is of the fantasy genre, chances are pretty high that magic is involved. In many instances, a world’s magic system is connected and intertwined with its cosmology and religion. So what is the nature of your magic system? Where does the power come from? What are the limits and constraints?
Geography relates to land features, physical phenomena and inhabitants within your world. What and where are the land masses and oceans, mountains and forests, deserts and sheets of ice? What nations or kingdoms or empires are there? An excellent way to present all this information is by drawing a map!
Weather is the short-term, day-to-day state of the atmosphere, whereas climate is the average weather over a long period of time, and incorporating aspects of these will make your world more authentic. Does it rain or snow a lot where your story is set? Or perhaps it’s sunny and hot? Is climate change an issue in your world?
There is little doubt that history shapes the world, so you absolutely cannot overlook relevant historical events in your fantasy WIP. Are there different time periods and do they have names? Were there civilisations that rose and died out? Have any major wars been fought? What happened a decade ago? A year ago?
Unless one of the key points of your story is that everyone is “the same”, it is likely your fantasy world consists of people of different races—or perhaps even different species! Either way, each different group of people will have their own culture and customs, and being able to describe these adds so much depth and diversity to the story.
Intimately connected with culture is the use of language. Are you going to create a language for your fantasy world? Does it have any pertinent linguistic features? What terms do people use to address each other? Are there honorifics? Swear words? How about unique metaphorical expressions?
Music, Art & Writing
Taking this a step further, how does language translate to music, art and writing within your world? Will you write the lyrics to a popular ballad or tavern rhyme? Are there any famous artworks or textbooks or poems? Or perhaps these forms of expression are forbidden—and if so, how does this affect the culture of the people?
Infrastructure relates to the basic structures and facilities within your world, and unless you’re writing about animals, chances are these will be significant. What are the cities and villages like? Are there any unique architectural features? Is there electricity in your world? What transport systems are in place?
As long as there are “people” (human or otherwise) in your world, there is also likely to be some form of government structure. Is your society ruled by a monarchy, or does a form of democratic process reign? What is the political landscape like? Remember that this is likely to vary depending on culture—not everyone is the same!
What are the laws like within your world? Are they secular, and written and enforced by the ruling government? Or perhaps the laws are more religious in nature, and overseen by some kind of clerical hierarchy? Maybe there are now laws, and the story is driven by the resulting anarchy. Or perhaps a combination of these!
Economics is a key driver of the world we live in, and is likely to be a key driver in your fantasy world too! What is your currency like? Are there coins or notes or letters of credit from the bank? What industry brings the most income to each of your societies? Are there trade agreements in place? How does it all link together?
*Icons from www.flaticon.com
What world-building elements do you consider important? Have I missed any on my list? Do you have any examples of books with strong or interesting world-building?