What do you look at when you are fantasy world building? Where do you start? A map? I read a lot of epic fantasy, and that’s what I think I am seeing. Writers will take medieval humans, a hidden vale of elves, a mine full of dwarves, and plop them on a map—job’s done, right?
Not quite. They’ll put the stronghold of the antagonist somewhere remote and barren. There’s got to be a race of bad things too. Let’s tuck those somewhere.
Now let’s write some history. Five hundred years ago, Lord Suchansuch carved out an empire and drove off the evil Bugnuggins. Since then, the Rangers of Thwip have patrolled the borderlands.
At this point the fantasy author is ready tip the domino that creates an inciting incident. This seems to be the case for many epic fantasy stories—it also creates a world and story full of tropes, clichés, and worn out ideas.
The savvy author may spice this up with an inventive magic system, or the inclusion of technological elements like gunpowder or flying machines. Perhaps they’ll throw in a convoluted political system of antagonistic ruling families.
Now we’re getting nowhere. Are we going about things the wrong way? Even the spice is looking overused and retreaded. Where have we missed something? What have we missed? How do we keep our world from circling the drain of ‘been there, done that’?
So what’s my problem? This is the way of a huge percent of fantasy worlds—why am I putting on the brakes?
I think it goes back to where we started. We love the setting of an epic fantasy. We love maps with castles dotting the landscape, dark forests, jagged mountains, and swamps of no hope. It’s the Disneyland of fantasy where the heroes and heroines can rise from a downtrodden farmhand to fulfill the destiny of the chosen one.
Let’s not throw that out. It’s what keeps us coming back, but we have to change things up.
That’s where I am going here. I have some suggestions to change things up.
Instead of starting with the map, we need to deconstruct things. We have to think about why the world looks the way it does. When we start breaking that down, it lets up build up a world that still has all the bells and whistles we want, but it’s going to have unique depth which will allow us to take ownership of all the elements and make them uniquely our own. When you make a trope your own, it ceases being a trope.
Let’s tackle one aspect of world building that is typically glossed over, competition with other intelligent species. This aspect is as large as you want to make it, and it could affect nearly every feature of a fantasy world. We have lots of human history to build upon, but that’s only good for the humans of our landscape. We know their nature. We can understand what brings them together into extended families, villages, towns, and cities. They are going to gather for protection against wolves and bears. They are going to make castles and forts to defend their lands from rival countries.
Now for something to put in your juicer and squeeze. This is how humans formed into social structures for strength against natural creatures and their rivals. In the real world it was just us against beast, nature, and more of us. In the fantasy world, however, humans are not alone. They did not form their social structures in isolation.
Does your world have a rival intelligent race of non-humans? Are they naturally stronger than humans, more warlike? Do they eat humans? Does the world have supernatural creatures who prey upon humans? How do your medieval era humans cope with such issues? How did they survive prehistory?
On Earth, there was a rival species—Neanderthals. They went extinct, killed off by Cro-Magnon, our ancestors. Neanderthals had 95% of our DNA, but they were seen as competitors and rivals. Humans are a nasty bunch to tangle with.
Yet how would we have survived against the predations of ogres, trolls, vampires, werewolves, or even dragons? What would have kept humans from washing over elves, or dwarves, and snuffing them out? I am just plugging in fantasy trope races here—you can substitute any non-human intelligent species. They are all going to fight for their own survival and success in different ways. Remember, we’re not talking about different races of humans here, we are talking different species entirely. Their own solutions should be quite unhuman.
The answers are up to you—this is where the fantasy begins. Possibilities are quite endless, and it’s the thinking of how those possibilities could play out that builds worlds. One thing not to do is assume that the landscape itself kept these rival species separated. That would be a mistake, and too easy of a way out. Humankind spread to every corner of the globe, we didn’t stop at inhospitable wilderness, desert, high mountains, or even wide seas. And we did this spreading early on in our rise to civilization.
Your answers will have a direct effect on those castles dotting your landscape—were they built to withstand giants and dragons hungry for a human morsel? How did that change them? How close will people build a village to the haunted forest when it’s not just superstition that keeps them afraid of the place, but the man-eating trolls who live within? How far will the trolls travel beyond their forest for a meal? How would mankind mount a defense to protect their farmers and cattle against a foe much smarter and stronger than wolves?
Don’t just say magic here… If you do, why don’t the trolls have magic too? If men have magic to stop the trolls, what prevents men from exterminating the trolls? Our ancestors had better spears and clubs than the Neanderthals—we wiped them out—and not because they ate our babies, they were just in land we wanted. How much more desperately and violently would we have fought against an intelligent species that saw us as food?
Maybe extinction is something you want to go with. Ancient ruins of extinct races can hold a wealth of story.
I call this aspect of world building ‘world roleplaying’—every single viable solution you come up with is going to make your world unique and deep with lore.
Perhaps humans become a slave race to a more powerful species. Deities aren’t just worshipped, they are running a protection racket for their worshippers. Demons are summoned as guardians for cattle ranches. Castles aren’t made of stone, but magical force fields. Borders are defended by wards which rivals are constantly trying to break through.
The list is endless, and as each solution survives the test of time and alters to withstand changing threats, things become more and more uniquely your own. How will your hero travel this landscape? How do these factors affect your map? What about trade between species? Who have become allies with humans? How has this affected human culture and the family unit?
These things should all affect the story you want to tell.
More questions—and again, each time you come up with an answer, you are making your world more unique, claiming tropes as your own, and doing away with clichés. You are also making a world which could have a story all its own. Embrace your world as another character in your story. This is a world with a story that I want to read!
How would these exercises apply to an urban fantasy? Can you even see a modern day New York where a fantasy element lives? What hoops does one have to jump through to keep the world as we know it, yet populated with wizards and ogres on the fringes?
You don’t need to be a Cultural Anthropologist, or a Social Scientist, or a History Professor—I’m certainly not. But it does help to be able to honestly roleplay. Also helpful is a friend to bounce things off of and play devil’s advocate. I built dozens of worlds around a gaming table, and I loved to throw in these twists to what people were expecting—I could do so because I fueled myself with the answers to every ‘what if’ I could come up with. Don’t be satisfied with things being the way they are because they just are the way they are.
The next time you read a fantasy, watch for these issues. Even some of your favorite authors may not have seen the issues you can see if you sit and think about it for a while. Don’t grade too hard. It’s fair for an author to put the things they don’t want “messing things up” behind a very high wall, just watch out for the ones who have no wall, yet expect everything to just be life as usual.
Whether you are writing, or reading, I hope this helps you embrace the fantastic world.