Being the avid reader of fantasy that I am, this is a topic that is dear to my heart. So…How important is worldbuilding to a fantasy world? I’d say it’s pretty much invaluable. In fact how good your story will turn out can be measured by how well your world is built.
The better your world is fleshed out, the more you know about it’s history, locations and inhabitants, the easier it would be to bring them all together in a story and have it all flow seamlessly. All the work you put into worldbuilding pays off later on. At the very least, it will stop you from getting stuck halfway through the story as you make up place names.
J R R Tolkien, who inspired most of modern fantasy, spent decades building his world. He wasn’t racing against a dead line, he wasn’t in a hurry to finish his novel. In fact his stories came about as a result of his worldbuilding, his world wasn’t born as a result of his stories. Not just him, most of the writers of our beloved fantasy series put a lot of effort into world building. George R R Martin who is so popular these days has built an incredible world that has so much detail. The sheer number of characters and locations he takes the reader through shows us just how well designed his world is. The short term history of his world and the personal histories of his characters are something he excels in. And he even manages to do it without encouraging his readers to try and pull their hair out as they attempt to keep track of them (Unlike the characters of Wheel of Time). Speaking of Wheel of Time, even Robert Jordan made an amazing world, the only thing he can be blamed for is introducing an army of minor characters who do nothing significant to the story and the kinds of names he gave them.
If you want an example as to how not to build a world, look no further than Terry Goodkind and his Sword of Truth series. That world is just barely fleshed out. It has a single map that gives a board overview of the world and mentions a few place names, but that is all. And worse, Goodkind likes to fill the huge blank spaces of his map with entire countries, tribes and peoples who just suddenly materialize, usually halfway through a book. Please don’t do this.
In board strokes, worldbuilding for fantasy novel purposes can be divided into four areas.
The geography, aka the map
This is one aspect of world-building everyone has got right. Almost every fantasy book as a map, and most of these maps are well detailed and well drawn (Except for Terry Goodkinds). Even the most terrible fantasy novel has a good map (Even the Four Lands of Shannara have a good map). Granted most fantasy worlds have the obligatory mountain range or desert cutting off the ‘known lands’ aka the amount of world the writer has built from the rest of the land. And most of them are surprisingly small, roughly the size of continental America. Also there are far too many one continent worlds. But hey, it’s your world, you build it how you want.
The point though, is that a well drawn map is essential for world-building.
The names, aka the language
This is the part of worldbuilding that most writers are really really bad at.
This is also the area Tolkien excelled at. In fact Tolkien started out by building the languages for his world. Once he had them he made the races to speak them. Then came the places for them to live. This kind of world-building is bottom up and hard to do. One other world where this was done is the world of Tékumel built by M. A. R. Barker. It doesn’t have the accompanying books but it is a fantastically built world that has entire constructed languages. Once you have a constructed language (yes, thats the name) place names and character names are much easier.
Granted most writers of fantasy are not linguists. Nor do they want to go into this level of detail. But while they might not want to spend time making up an entire language, they can at least refrain from making their place and character names utterly ridiculous. Stopping the abuse of the poor apostrophe sign is a good start (Rand al’thor was ok, Tel’aran’rhiod and el’Nynaeve ti al’Meara Mandragoran was not). Also please stop naming places in your world “The forest of doom”, “The mountain of death” etc. While you might be able to pass them off as local place names or nick names (There is a Devils Rock in the real world) a major feature of the geography everyone knows and is a household name and is on official maps? Please no. Another thing to remember when naming things is to be consistent. If you are naming people and places in a single kingdom, make them sound consistent. Don’t just make up funny sounds and paste them on your map. You can always use a real world language as a guide line, or better yet, you can use an ancient language from the real world as a guideline.
It should also be noted that writers today have resources that Tolkien never had. Computer power and the vast resources of the Internet being the two most important. There is a whole host of articles, research and software about languages. Quite a few of them geared specifically towards building fantasy worlds. So you can make good use of them building your world.
The history, aka the background
This is an area writers do look at, but sadly it doesn’t get as much attention as the good old fantasy map. The histories of fantasy worlds seem to comprise entirely of great cataclysms that changed the shape of the world, dark lords who rose and were vanquished, great empires that ruled everything (and are remarkably similar to Ancient Rome) but are now a distant memory and not much else. This event usually marks the “End of an age” and everything beyond that point is conveniently lost. It seems to serve the same purpose as the “Impassable geographical feature” in the fantasy world map.
This is not the way to go. While breaking the history of the world into manageable chunks is a good thing, that world changing event should not be the sole thing in your time line. The second world war was terrifying, but the world moved on after it was over, and it really didn’t take much time for us to start new wars in Korea and Vietnam. Humans have a remarkable ability to recover from disasters, and forget about their lessons immediately afterwards. When the wise old wizard gives his history lesson to the hero he should at least mention the bare basics of the history since the “Great world changing event”. And for the love of fudge, make a calender.
George R R Martin did a great job with his time-line. He didn’t go for a two thousand year history, he just focused on the last three hundred years and went into detail with that. The other eight thousand years are mentioned in much boarder detail. Tolkien did the history of his world in excruciating detail. He built the calenders, he wrote the creation myth, he detailed the mythological age and he made a very detailed time-line for the second and third ages. And by detailed he named every king of Numenor, Gondor and Rohan, he gave dates for every major battle and invasion, he carefully built up the history of every nation. That is a lot of work. You have to admire this kind of dedication.
And again the more detailed and fleshed out your history is, the easier your story writing will be. For example, King Bob of the Hamburger Empire invades the French Fry kingdom? Why does he do this? Perhaps he has a claim to the throne because his grandfathers sister married into the royal family of French Fry kingdom a hundred years war style. This gives king bob a valid motive. A detailed history helps give your characters and kingdoms motivation and background. It also helps show how nations formed and how different peoples ended up living where they do. All of this makes your story flow seamlessly.
The religion and mythology
Religion is an area that most writers neglect woefully.
The majority of fantasy worlds have a single mythology that everyone accepts. The majority of fantasy world has a handful of gods that everyone worships. Or each race has a single god they worship.
Most every people and nations in our world has it’s separate mythology and creation myth. In the same way there has been numerous religions throughout our history. Some lost and all but forgotten, and some still followed. A fantasy world that shares many features with our world would be the same. Even in a world where the gods are real and give tangible signs of their existence there would be dissidents and alternate philosophies. People unhappy with the gods might make up an imaginary non-existent god to worship. The idea that a single mythology and pantheon dominates the world is hard to swallow.
Also remember that religion is a topic very dear to peoples hearts. People are still murdering each other over differences in religion. In the past religion has inspired crusades, jihads, conquistadors galore. For a lot of people it is the focal point of their lives. It was only in the recent 20th and 21st centuries that people have changed. Before that the need to avoid hell, demons and evil spirits shaped a large part of a persons life decisions. Kings would go to war or withdraw from battle on the words of a soothsayer. A man would decide the marriage of his children or inheritance on the word of a priest. And lets not forget, people were set on fire on the word of a priest. The life of many an ancient human was entirely dominated by religion.
If you are building a medieval or ancient fantasy world, please don’t have your characters take a modern view of religion. They should take demonic possession and rumors of witchcraft seriously instead of giving a 21st century reaction.
Religion is important, it’s what a character believes. It defines how he will react under most circumstances.
Many writers flat out ignore religion or gloss over it. This is hard to belive. Are people not the least curious? The basis of religion involves a belief in what would happen after death, life after death. Even people dwelling in a fantasy world should have considered this and built up a system of beliefs around it.
Tolkien once again doesn’t do things by half measure. His mythology is very very detailed and each race has it’s afterlife mapped out. He has the religion and belief of different people planned (The Harad worshiped Sauron as a god, the Gondor believe in the valar though they might not actually worship them). Even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, they are a part of his world. George R R Martin is another writer who did a great job with religion in his world. Priests and peoples religious belief plays a huge part in deciding the characters actions. Also the belief systems of his world are diverse and detailed, with a whole bevy of real and non-existent gods. The Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin is another series that portrayed superstitions and beliefs of a primitive society perfectly.
Then we have Robert Jordan and his Wheel of time series. Where an entire world that is stuck in a medieval society that has it’s belief system defined by a single prophecy and world changing cataclysm and which hasn’t changed at all in three thousand years. Robert, you put far too much faith in humanity. But that is better than the Four lands of Shannara, that has no mention of any belief system what so ever.
The end point of this is that religion is important, especially if you are making a low tech world. Don’t ignore it when you are writing.
There are many more parts to world-building, but there is no step by step method to build a world. Following the above points will keep you from building a terrible world. I keep harping about this topic because worldbuilding is important. I believe it is one of the three most important steps in writing fantasy, right alongside the characters and plot.