The World is Not Enough: Worldbuilding in preparation for Nanowrimo

Alan Lee's rendition of Tolkien's land.

Everyone talks about the importance of ‘making your world believable.’ It’s a big issue in fantasy fiction, especially in the genre of high fantasy in which so much can be ripped off from other people. But while I have read a lot of posts saying, ‘be sure to make your world believable!’ I haven’t seen so many that say, ‘This is how you make your world believable.’

An example: a few years ago I was attending the fantastic Eastercon in London. Eastercon is a huge science fiction and fantasy convention which features famous novelists (George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and China Mieville have all been guests of honour there), and consists of panels, workshops, endless games, book signings and all the things you’d expect at the con of your dreams. When I last attended, there was a late night panel on exactly this topic – how to make a believable fantasy world. So I went to check it out.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. The panel consisted of four or five authors who, in reality, spoke about very little. One guy who wrote historical fantasy said, ‘make sure that your history is accurate.’ Gee, really? Another self-published woman spent most of the hour complaining that tween fans  didn’t think her vampires sparkled enough. Which is definitely a topic worth talking about, but a little off-subject. At the end of the hour, I didn’t have any new tips. The general consensus of the panel was, ‘historical writers, make sure your world is accurate. Everyone else…make it multidimensional.’ Okay, but again, how?

Since I’ll be working in a high fantasy setting for Nanowrimo, I want to make sure two things happen: firstly, that my fantasy world should not be a lesser copy of Tolkien, Martin or others. Secondly, my work should seem believable.

Here is a list of things I plan to keep in mind when creating my fantasy world:

  1. How does the government work? Who’s helping the king run things? Is there even a king? Or maybe a queen? Government gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, so this is important to think about.
  2. How does the class system work? What do the lower classes think of the higher, and the higher of the lower? Who’s in which class? This is particularly important for me since my main characters will face this issue often.
  3. What is considered normal? Customs differ from region to region in our world, so it goes without saying that they should be totally different in another.
  4. How does the economy work? This is one of those things with which you could go into great detail, or little. I’m no big economist and I don’t think that a lot of high fantasy writers. Putting in a banking or monetary system will make a world seem just a little more convincing.
  5. How does technology interact with the world? With the rise of steampunk this is becoming an increasingly important question.
  6. How do the other creatures of the world come into play? We’re all used to elves and dwarves and orc-like things. If we want them to stand out from the crowd, we’ll have to develop them.
  7. What do the cities look like? We can take inspiration from London, Dubai, Beijing, ancient Rome, Paris underground, the steppes of Mongolia – or all of them. City planning can give a unique feel to something.
  8. How’s the environment doing? Fun fact: the ancient Romans are still at the top of the chart in terms of polluters. Aside from that, what is the environment actually like? How is it different from the environment of all those other books?
  9. What are the fashions? Laugh if you want, but fashion dictates the look of a lot of things. Not just fashionable clothing, but fashionable architecture, fashionable music, fashionable art, and so on.

Naturally, one of the hardest parts is weaving this into a narrative without just setting it all down as an info dump.

This list is a bit slapdash, full of things I pulled off the top of my head. There are, of course, a lot more things to talk about. The list could go on and on, but I feel that this post should not. If you have something you think should be on the list, put it down in the comments. I’ll be thanking you profusely throughout November. Maybe we can get a nice set of questions together that help build that elusive, well-rounded, completely knockoff-free world that we’re all looking for.

22 thoughts on “The World is Not Enough: Worldbuilding in preparation for Nanowrimo

  1. Aric Catron says:

    Some things I would add to this list:

    – Characters: defining unusual affectations for characters that are obviously specific to your world really helps to make it believable. Speech patterns, accents, etc.

    For example, in the world I am writing in write now there are essentially 3 regular classes: The Merchant/Noble Class, the Commoners, and then the Very Poor. The Very Poor and Commoners are often not that far apart in lifestyle but the very poor tend to all have clipped speech and accents that leave the indication that they are illiterate or uneducated.

    The commoners not so much but I have been very careful the make sure that there are certain phrases, words, ideas, that the commoners are not familiar with so when it is heard referenced by the Noble/Merchant they get confused and get looked down upon for not understanding it. This has also given me a mechanism for allowing unique words or ideas to be explained to the reader by having a Noble explain it to a commoner.

    – Smells: smells are very important for people in constructing worlds in their mind. I could spend days describing what Iraq looked like when I was stationed there and people will inevitably think of a simple desert with adobe buildings. But when I include the constant smell that was a mix of burning diesel, garbage, and open sewers/port-a-johns they get a very distinct image in their mind.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thanks for the comment. I definitely agree on both counts, and smells are a great way to add extra dimension. The way characters talk is good to talk about as well, though it’s important not to overdo it. A few books have been totally ruined for me by the author’s invented colloquialisms.

      • Aric Catron says:

        No doubt. If you find yourself working through the dialog in your mind when reading it then you have gone too far. I find that simple affectations or accents (such as dropping the ‘g’ off of ‘ing’ words; turning ‘you’ into ‘ya’, etc) are far more effective at creating clearly defined cultural boundaries in word.

      • forgingshadows says:

        Yeah, I often prefer slight word changes to new phrases or words. I’ll be paying special attention to this now in November, so thank you for mentioning it. It’s probably something I’d have passed over otherwise.

  2. billgncs says:

    my thought was how does “magic” work? What aspects of magic are your own and not just a copy of an original.

  3. forgingshadows says:

    Absolutely. Magic systems are tricky: they should act according to some rules and be easy to understand without needing a manual. I think I considered magic when I was cogitating on writing this post, but I forgot to put it in. So, a definite thank you for pointing it out.

  4. Dan Bahr says:

    I like your points in setting up the world for your story. I am going to be doing fantasy as well so your points in setting the scene for your environment are helpful and I will be thinking a little bit more about world building.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you found it useful. If you think of something that should be on the list, put it on up here.

  5. I’ve always found world building so daunting, but when I finally had a vision I was passionate about, I was giddy to work at the intricacies like those listed above! Although it can be tedious work that never sees the majority of page or prose, it’s still fun for the lore. Strong lore makes strong backgrounds, and conveys that the writer really knows what they’re writing about. Especially important in fantasy, no?

    Also, good luck with NaNo~

    • forgingshadows says:

      Absolutely. And even if the majority of it doesn’t end up in the story, it helps create the feel of the world so that people will think of it as different from the fantasy lands that have become famous.

      Thanks for the well-wishes on Nano, and thanks for stopping by.

  6. Eric Storch says:

    One thing to keep in mind is to NOT info dump. Whether you’ve planned it out or not, everything is going to be clear in your head. Just write what you see in your mind’s eye and trust that your readers will follow along – chances are they will. Which leads into that whole “make your world believable” thing. Simply put, your world has to be like our earth in many ways. If there is something so different, so unique from the “real world” then an explanation may be in order. Or, you could just throw the weirdness at your reader and hope they get it. For example, “Jared approached the door and it irised, allowing him access to the Royal Archives.” Do you have to go into a lengthy explanation about the design of the door? No, but cross your fingers and hope the reader comes along with you.

    Probably not much help, I know. I learned to world build by designing RPG settings where the world grew organically from a small village or town into kingdoms and nations. Each play session added something to the world and I tend to write the same way.

    • forgingshadows says:

      So true! Info dumping is a lethal thing. And I think that’s part of what makes designing a world hard – you work and work to make something real, but have to be sparing and even miserly with what shows up for readers.

      But that’s a great idea – to introduce one or two new things every time the characters go to a new place. It keeps the pacing in line. Totally stealing your method. Thanks!

  7. This is a great post. Just last spring I took a Fantasy Writing course at my university, and this was one of the first things we talked about after discussed what exactly is fantasy/sci-fi. Really, this fantasy world while different, must work the same way are ours: with RULES. Like you said, how the government, economy, nature works . . . etc . . . is important. I think a lot of people miss this point. Perhaps that’s another reason why the HP series was so believable. Because there was a specific way it worked, different from ours, but with the same concept of rules.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thanks very much for the comment! Any bits of wisdom from the class we should know about? I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants here.

  8. Hm . . . well there was just a whole lot we covered. Our textbook was by Orson Scott Card, the author of “Ender’s Game.” It’s called “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.” I mean, just like any genre, there’s a lot of things that go into creating a fantasy or sci-fi world. One way, as a writer, to keep track of what happens in your world or how it works is to create a World Profile, listing all the details. I mean, it’s good to do that for any story one writes. Hm . . . I’ll have to look back at my notes.

  9. One of my favorite things to come up with for a high fantasy world is the mythology. This is often associated with religion, but sometimes not; sometimes it even takes religion’s place if the latter isn’t something you feel comfortable dealing with. It’s so much fun reading the folklore and mythology from around OUR world, then creating your own. The mythology then can inform customs, norms, idioms, even fashion.

    I also strongly encourage writers to check out art history textbooks from the library, especially if you’re basing a fantasy culture off of an earthly one. (Lillian, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with me on this!) If you want to get the most bang for your buck, as it were, art historical accounts often include most everything of import about a culture: history, politics, religion, society, philosophy, style, fashion, literature, and, of course, art and architecture, because ALL of these things inform the art.

    • forgingshadows says:

      That is a really, really good thing that I did not think of at all! But you’re right. I’ve always wanted to read more art history books, especially on Renaissance symbolism, because of all the things a painting can tell us.

      Eek. This is getting daunting. But we can do it! Bring on the Nano!

      • Just a week to go! Weeew! I wish I could do NaNo this year (thesis colloquium impeding), but I’m definitely scheduling it for next.

        Here are a couple good, general sources on medieval/Renaissance iconography/symbolism, if you ever want to delve into it (so fascinating!) If you just do a general search of stuff written about Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait,” (a Northern Renaissance example) you’ll get a good introduction.

        Male, Emile. “Religious Art in France: the Late Middle Ages: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources.” Ed. by H. Bober. Trans. by M. Mathews. Princeton University Press, 1986.

        Ferguson, George. “Signs and Symbols in Christian Art.” Oxford University Press, 1961.

      • forgingshadows says:

        Super awesome! I’ll definitely be taking a look at these books, but not until I’m done with my own thesis! Good luck in the coming months.

  10. Now this is a handy list for me to come back to. NaNo is just around the corner, and I can guarantee that I don’t know all of this. I also would find that it would get in my way or the first draft – for me, the first draft is about the story, and I’ll mess up most of the details, but that’s fine. A rough hew is a good start.

    Remind me to come back to this when I am post-hoc world building ^_^

    • forgingshadows says:

      Can I just remind you now? Post Nanowrimo I doubt I’ll be sentient. But glad you like it! Of course this can’t just be hammered out along with all those words in a month, but I find it’s good to start thinking about some of these things in abstract terms at least, so that the revision work seems slightly less overwhelming.

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