Hello and welcome to my second “Playing God” post, where I discuss my take on the different elements of world-building in fantasy fiction! When it comes to writing a good high fantasy story, there is little more important than having strong world-building to back it up. Last month, I commenced this new segment with a reasonably comprehensive list of the essential elements of world-building—check it out and let me know if I missed anything!
Today, we head right back to the beginning and take a look at writing creation stories: what they are, why they’re important, and what different types of “creation myth” are out there. At the end I give you a sneak preview into the creation story I’ve developed for my own fantasy WIP Graceborn. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to write a good creation story, and if you’ve made one for your own WIP!
Why do you need a creation story?
The short answer is: you don’t. It is completely up to you whether a creation story is necessary given the depth of your plot and the detail of your world. However, there are a few very compelling reasons for why you should at least give some consideration as to how your world was made. These include (but are absolutely not limited to!):
Cosmology relates to understanding the nature and properties of the universe. During the world building process, you should develop your universe and its physical laws, and understanding how that universe came to be is a part of all that. Are the forces that created the world still in play today? If not, what happened to them? Does the way the world was made influence the way it works? These questions cannot be answered without having a solid grasp on your creation story.
If magic exists in your world, how did it come to be there? Unless you have a different and/or unique idea, chances are that magic has been around as long as the world has. Understanding how your world was created therefore has flow-on effects for understanding your magic system and its origins. Not only that, but there comes a time in any good fantasy story where the magic-using characters discuss the genesis of magic and the world—so you need to get your story straight!
As described in the next section, creation stories are very closely tied to religion. Religion may or may not play a part in your world and your plot, but if it does—even in a small way—it’s a good idea to think about what that religion believes in terms of the world’s creation. You might even need to come up with a couple of different creation stories depending on the number of religions in your world! These stories may not even be “the truth”, but the process is still the same.
Often you don’t realise how many specific religious and cultural phrases litter your common vernacular until you start writing about a world in which none of them apply. For example, “let there be light!” pops up all the time (hence the title of this post), but your characters can’t exactly say that unless it’s consistent with your world’s creation story. There’s another good reason to flesh out your creation story: you can come up with world-specific vernacular that really adds depth and realism!
Finally, if the plot of your WIP involves apocalyptic stakes, then you absolutely need to have your creation story down pat. After all, how can you possibly understand how the world can be destroyed if you don’t know how it was made in the first place? End-of-the-world scenarios aside, there are myriad other plot-related reasons as to why you might want to have a good handle on your world’s creation. And even if it’s not particularly relevant, coming up with a creation story is a good exercise anyway!
Types of creation story
If you decide to go ahead with fully outlining your world’s creation story, there are plenty of examples to draw inspiration from in mythology and religion. There are literally hundreds out there, and various schemes have been applied to try and and classify the different motifs within creation stories. According to Wikipedia, there are five basic and common types of creation story, which are described below. Feel free to mix and match or come up with something new!!
🌌 Ex nihilo
Creation ex nihilo means creation “out of nothing”, and is arguably one of the most common creation stories in the world today. Here, a creator—usually a god—brings the world into being through speech, though, breath, a dream, or sometimes even bodily secretions. The creator may or may not be existing some kind of physical surroundings, but they do not create the world from these surroundings.
💥 Creation from chaos
This type of creation story centres around the theme of bringing order from chaos. In the beginning, there is nothing but a formless, shapeless expanse called “chaos” (meaning “disorder”), which is sometimes described as primordial water, darkness or an abyss. The world is then created by bringing this pre-existing, eternal matter into “order”. Evidently, there is some overlap between this and ex nihilo creation.
👫 World parent
World parent creation stories describe the separation or splitting of a primeval entity. The first type involves two parents, often described as Mother Earth and Father Sky, who are pulled apart to create the world. In the second, creation springs from the dismemberment of the primeval being. Here, each body part is somehow severed or sacrificed to form the different parts of the world.
In emergence stories, the world already exists, and “new” lifeforms pass through a series of other worlds and/or metamorphoses until they reach the current one. These other worlds are often conceptualised as subterranean or cave-like, or as the “womb” of an “earth-mother”, and the passage between worlds is driven by some kind of germination or gestation process. The emergence is thus akin to giving birth.
The earth-diver is a very common character in traditional creation myths. The diver, usually a bird or amphibian, is sent by a supreme being into the primordial ocean, where it digs up pieces of sand or mud out of which a terrestrial world can be made. This is also connected to various flood myths, where a bird is sent out over the water and returns with a twig or similar which indicates land is near.
Graceborn: The creation story in my WIP
It took me a long time to hash out the details of the creation story for my WIP fantasy series Graceborn. One of the key reasons for this is that the truth of the world’s creation is intimately connected to the plot, and I found it difficult to finalise the details of the creation story in such a way that it remained consistent with the plot and the “laws of the universe” I’d already put together.
I can’t go into too much depth about it, because there are *spoilers* involved, but what I can say is that the creation story widely accepted by the humans in the world of Graceborn has some pretty significant holes. The main features of it are as follows…
Name of event: the Making
Type: Creation from chaos, with a bit of a world parent flavour
Creator: the Maker (called Shemok in the Ancient Tongue)
Summary: In the beginning there was the Maker and the Maker was all there was. There was no time, no space, no matter, no darkness, just the brilliant shining light of the Maker’s infinite energy, known as Grace. To create the world, the Maker gathered a vast but finite amount of Grace and channelled it outside of Herself. She separated Sea from Earth from Sky, lit the sun and set it rotating around the world, and painted the moon and stars across the sky when it went dark. Next, the Maker created the First Races…
And I’m going to cut it there! That’s the gist of my “commonly believed” creation story, but as I mentioned, the “truth” is a little more complex, a little more involved, and is very much tied up in the end-of-the-world scenario my characters are going to find themselves in. Ultimately, writing these creation stories was a lot of fun, and was a really useful exercise in understanding my world—I highly recommend giving it a shot!
Have you written a creation story for your WIP? What features do you think a good one should have? Are there any interesting examples you’ve come across in fiction?