👍 Introduction | 💡 Creation | 🌟 Cosmology | ☯ Religion | 🔮 Magic | 🌍 Geography | 🌦 Climate & Weather | ⏳ History | 🎭 Race & Culture | 💬 Language | 🎵 Music, Art & Writing | 🏠 Infrastructure | 🤴 Government | 📜 Laws | 💰 Economy
When it comes to writing a good high fantasy story, there is little more important than having strong-world building to back it up. In this new “Playing God” series, I discuss my take on the different elements of world-building in fantasy fiction! Today, we’re going back to basics and having a look at cosmology: the building blocks of your world. I’ll give you a few examples from my own fantasy WIP Graceborn, and would love to hear about the cosmology of your own WIP!!
What is cosmology?
Cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution and the eventual fate of the universe. The word itself is derived from the Greek kosmos, meaning “world” (or sometimes “harmony” or “order”), and is technically a branch of astronomy that deals with understanding the nature and properties of the universe and its constituents.
Physical cosmology is the branch of physics and astrophysics that deals with the scientific study of the universe’s origin, its structure and dynamics, its ultimate fate, as well as the physical laws which govern these. In our world, some of the key areas of study in physical cosmology include the Big Bang Theory, dark matter and energy, and gravitational waves.
Religious or mythological cosmology is a way of looking at the origin, history and evolution of the universe through the lens religious or mythological beliefs and traditions. It usually consists of a creation story and eschatology (i.e. “end of the world” scenario), as well as acts and processes taken by a deity or larger pantheon.
Philosophical cosmology is a discipline involving the philosophical contemplation of the universe as a whole, as well as its conceptual foundations. Included in this is metaphysical cosmology, which examines the placement of humans in the universe in relation to all other entities. It deals with questions beyond the scope of science, such as the ultimate “reason” or “purpose” of the universe.
Why do you need to know your world’s cosmology?
The answer to this question will depend on the scope and depth of your story and the degree of detail your world requires. It may also depend on the sub-genre—for example, high fantasy with magic vs. a fantasy-scifi crossover are likely to have different requirements when it comes to cosmological understanding. However, some of the key reasons you should consider your world’s cosmology, and questions you may wish to ask yourself, include:
Your plot will be one of the key determining factors in how much you need to understand about your world’s cosmology. For example, if your WIP involves apocalyptic stakes or an “end of the world” scenario, how, exactly, can/will the universe end? Conversely, how did your universe start, and are the two related? Are there any physical laws you should be aware of which influence what can and will happen (e.g. time travel)?
If magic exists in your world, is it an internal force or an external force? If it’s an external force (i.e. comes from the “outside” world), it is going to be connected to your world’s cosmology. Therefore, understanding how the universe came about and how it works will have flow-on effects for understanding how your magic system works. And even if magic is an internal force (i.e. comes from “inside” a person), cosmology may have implications for how it came to be there!
☘ Religion vs Science
Ah, the age-old debate of religion vs science! As detailed above, cosmology has both scientific and religious subsets, and these may be relevant to your world in differing degrees. Is there a religious organisation which purports a particular view about how the universe works? Do those views contrast with the scientific and/or magical understanding and does this cause any conflict? This could be a plot point in and of itself, or perhaps it’s simply a background “issue” which adds richness to your world!
⛅Geography & Climate
I use this heading in very broad terms, but your world’s cosmology may have implications for the physical landscape. Whether due to physical/natural processes or some other “force” at work, cosmology may indeed play a large role in shaping geographical and climatic features—and perhaps “space” if you’re writing a SFF crossover! One author who does this very well in his fantasy works is Brandon Sanderson (e.g. Mistborn, The Stormlight Archive).
Graceborn: Cosmology in my WIP
Like my creation story, it took me quite a while to sort out the details of the world cosmology for my WIP fantasy series Graceborn. The reason for this is that the plot follows an end-of-the-world scenario which requires the creation event, “laws of the universe”, and eschatology to be intimately connected and well understood (by me!).
I’m sure I’ll come across aspects that need to be hashed out in more detail, but here are some of the key general, physical, religious and philosophical features of my WIP’s world cosmology…
General: During the Making (i.e. the creation event), the universe was divided into separate yet interconnected corporeal (physical) and ethereal (intangible) worlds. “Life” exists in the corporeal world, with only certain individuals (e.g. Graceborn Adepts) able to tap into the ethereal plane.
Physical: The universe is governed by the Law of Preservation, whereby Grace (the world’s “energy” force) cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed by natural processes or by Graceborn.
Religious: Religion is the one major world-building element I have not yet finalised. However, the world religion is likely to closely follow important historical occurrences—for example, when the Shadow falls across the lands (as it has done twice in the past), the corporeal world will end unless…*spoilers* (sorry not sorry).
Philosophical: I intend for my world’s philosophical cosmology to be closely connected to religion, and also the “magical” practices of the Graceborn. In terms of the metaphysical place of humans, humans are really the only species not directly created by the Maker. Instead, they evolved from one of the four Ancient Races.
Have you thought about the cosmology of your WIP’s world? What aspects do you think should be considered? Do you have any examples of fantasy novels that deal with cosmology well?