A Three Tiered World

By Hope Schmidt 

I’ve created three fantasy worlds in the past four years. Designing worlds, writing legends, holding the first printed copy of your book…it carries a thrill of creation. Of bringing to light something which didn’t exist before.

For those on one end of the spectrum, creating worlds is exciting and it can be tempting to avoid actually writing the story while forming layer upon layer of details worthy of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. On the other end of the spectrum are those who want to get the world building over as quickly as possible so they can move onto the story. In either case, it’s important to have enough development in your world so the story rings true and yet not get so bogged down or glide so high that you don’t ever move on with the story by which this world will be known. 3tieredworldpinterest

It may be easiest to view your world like a three-tiered structure and, while I’m focusing on fantasy worlds here, this same template could work if you are writing about our own world in the far future.

 

3 Tiers to every story world

 

1. The Foundational Tier

The first, or bottom level is the Foundational Tier of your world. This is your geography. The lay of the land. Whether you have one nation or several, there are the same basic formations such as rivers, forests, mountains, cities and roads. National lines need to be drawn and the nations themselves named (there’s no need to worry about national flags and cultures yet…that will come in a bit).

Also part of this first layer are fun details, like how many suns and moons your nation has. And then there are other aspects which you may or may not decide to develop depending on whether you need them or not…details such as what stars travelers use to guide them, nighttime constellations, weather patterns, unique storms, and length and type of seasons.

2. The Spiritual Tier

After the Foundational Tier is complete, I like to jump to the third Upper level. Because of how it intertwines with and effects the central layer, I like to develop what I’m calling the Spiritual Tier before or alongside the middle level.

When I first started writing, I tried to ignore this level. Creating a ‘God’ and religion of my own for a fantasy world seemed, well a bit sacrilegious. And yet, Christianity affects my whole life: what I do, why I do what I do—my outlook on life. And since I want to write godly and inspiring fiction, I couldn’t just ignore the whole reason that a character should, and would, act in a God-fearing manner.

Eventually, after much thought and reading of other Christian fantasy, I began to create allegorical religions for my different worlds. Though quite different in specific events, they all contain the same basic elements of a great, all-powerful King, a perfect world, an evil servant, the entrance of evil into the world, the sacrifice of the Prince’s life for His people, and Him rising again: a retelling of the salvation story which is founded in Scripture. This same story also gives the foundation for evil and sets the stage for those who walk in the light and those who follow the darkness. This has worked very well for me and enables me to bring Christian values and lessons into an allegorical or fantasy story.

Another element of this Spiritual Tier is power and magic. Do any characters have abilities that exceed what we’d call ‘natural’? These could be racial traits, such as one people group having the ability to read minds or sense the presence of others. They could also be gifts from the Great King, with opposing ‘gifts’ being given by the ‘Prince of Darkness’ to others. I, personally, tend to use one or the other of these options, but there’s also what is commonly called ‘magic’.

“In some fantasy worlds, what could be considered magic is more of a way the world works than anything else.”

Other times there’s light and dark magic, enchanters, witches, etc. Since here in our world, magic is from Satan and is always evil, I’m more leery of the approach to fantasy magic that sounds too much like the real thing. I also don’t care for the idea of an ‘amoral’ magic that can be both light and dark (note that this idea is different from ‘magic’ being some sort of unexplained science that is natural to your world). I’m not saying these things can’t work in a fantasy setting, or that you should never use them…I’m simply not as comfortable with them as with other options.

So, after creating and setting the guidelines for the spiritual/power level of your world, you are ready to move on to the thickest and most complicated level…the central Cultural Tier.

3. The Cultural Tier

First off, there are national cultures. These may or may not be very important, depending on whether your story takes place in one country or your characters come from several.

To start with, especially if you do have a number of different countries, you might want to consider basing each country off a modern or ancient culture. For example, in one of my worlds I have a nation based off medieval Anglo-Saxons, while a neighboring country is a Roman/German mix and yet another has a more Spanish/French feel. While everything in these nations are not based off of the real nations, it does give me a foundation for choosing names for people in each country as well as an overall feel for the country’s character.

And then comes the fun part. National flags. National symbols. Seals for the kings. The authority and judgment structure. Gathering of taxes. The size and mentality of the army… Alright, so some parts might be more enjoyable than others. And some things which aren’t important to the story can be skimmed over. And don’t get too carried away by the formalities of the nation.

“Each nation is made up of people, and it’s through their eyes readers will view the culture.”

While developing the culture of your world or your nations, there are a few broad questions that can help give you a feel for the society. Some answers may remain the same throughout the world while others might be specific to each nation. What is the basic moral and belief system? (even though you’ve already outlined or developed the upper tier, you still must decide how many people believe in the King, to what extent do they follow Him and His laws, ect.). What’s the authority structure, both in homes and in nations? What is the role of the man and the woman? Is it a farming culture, a nomadic group, or an urban society?

It might also help to write a list of six (as a random, non-specific number) words or phrases that describe your country. For my Germanic land I mentioned above, I’d write: Courageous, hard, mercenaries, wolf-riders, oppression, firm leadership. For the Spanish/French nation, the words are a bit different: Orchards, music, bright colors, careless, lush lands, warmth.

While creating a world or nation, it can also be helpful to find a question and answer template. Many of these can be found online and, below, I’ve shared the template I’ve created and use when developing my own nations.

  • National colors
  • National accent (as their speaking sounds to the people of neighboring countries)
  • Population (and, sometimes, the ratio between men, women, and children)
  • National flag
  • National symbol
  • National salute
  • Music
  • Location (general geography)
  • Authority structure (national and family)
  • Finances (yes, this includes taxes)
  • Legal system (laws and judgments)
  • What the people are known for
  • Real country model (optional, as mentioned above)
  • Sayings (another category I sometimes don’t answer. This is for common sayings the people of the nation use and sayings/stereotypes that others speak of them)
  • How people generally look
  • How people generally dress
  • How people generally act (in manners, speech, and values)
  • Main occupations
  • Insults (this can be fun…it can also show where people of these various countries are sensitive and to what degree)
  • The woman (treatment and role)
  • Size of national army
  • Rule in the army (including divisions into regiments and such)
  • Armor of the army
  • Normal army tactics

There are, of course, smaller details which can be equally important, such as national foods, size and structure of cities, layout of roads, style of buildings…the list could go on and on.

As you can see, there’s almost a limitless depth you can dive when developing a country. There are so many details…and then you can progress to finding pictures for a storyboard, writing legends, forming superstitions, and in general discovering several story ideas while simply creating your world.

But in the end, you must decide what you really need to know, bring the development of the country to a conclusion, and start writing the story for which it belongs. After all, it’s through your book that readers will finally see another world…one which never existed before.

 

Profile photo of Hope Ann
Hope Ann is a speculative fiction writer who lives on a small farm in northern Indiana. She has self-published three Legend of Light novellas and is the Kingdom Pen Writing Team Captain. Reading since the age of five, and introducing herself to writing at age eight, she never had a question that the author’s life was the life for her. Her goal is to write thrilling Christian fantasy and futuristic fiction — stories she longed for while growing up. After graduating from homeschool, Hope now teaches writing to several of her eight younger siblings. She loves climbing trees, archery, photography, Lord of the Rings, chocolate, and collecting shiny things she claims are useful for story inspiration. You can find out more about her at: http://writinginthelightpublishing.com/
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Comments

  1. Yes! Thank you, Hope! I love world building, and I sometimes like world building more than actually writing the story……. This has given me a great place to start on a particular story that hasn’t gotten much in the way of world building, and will definitely need more of it than the others.
    I liked your view and ideas on the religious structure, I hadn’t thought about it much. It is interesting fact that, as far as I know, only Christian authors delve into this in much depth. There are religious views in secular fantasy books, but they are definitely not as in depth. (usually just a means of psuedoswearing)
    Thanks again!

  2. I LOVED THIS ARTICLE! I don’t think I learned anything I hadn’t already battled out myself, but oh my goodness there is someone else out there crazy enough to care about the different architectural styles of different cultures! And the seals… and the flags… and the coats of arms… and the legends…. and the religions… and the foods… and the values… and how women are treated differently in different cultures (which by the way has been a springboard for a LOT of sneaky commentary on the dangers of feminism in my world, Evallonde)… and how the different peoples look… I even go so far as to map out trade routes and different currents in the ocean, and have made a mental schedule for when the different trading transports should set out and arrive in each different country. And I’ve also had a ton of fun taking each city (yes, each individual city, no matter if I’m going to be using them majorly or not) and outlining a basic structure by which it works. Is it ruled by a governor? A council? A board of magistrates? What is the life of the city? Is it on the coast? Then it will probably be a trading city. Is it in the mountains? Then a lot of its livelihood will come from mines and quarries, or even lumber if the mountains are very evergreen-y. Is it on the edge of a desert? Then it will probably make its fortune by selling provisions (cattle, wagons, water, camels, etc.) to any travelers who are insane enough to cross the desert. I love it! Every single bit of it!
    And Hope, it sounds like you would have some really interesting points to give about magic. Since I’ve already had this discussion about a gazillion times with different people over the last few months, will you be a darling and go to the forum and look up the topic ‘no such thing as magic’? It’s in the ‘fantasy’ category. I started it. If you have anything to add to that, I’d be anxious to hear it.
    And I know what you mean about finding it almost sacrilegious to ‘create’ your own religion. I struggled with that for awhile too, but I think it would only be sacrilegious to do that if your religion had some element in it that went against the teachings of Christianity. That is the definition of heresy. So as long as you don’t do that, I think it’s great to have ‘your own religion’. It doesn’t even have to be plainly allegorical— often it’s difficult to do that and still focus primarily on the story. If the story isn’t an allegory, too much about the religious beliefs of the characters will slow it down. The religion is there, assuming you are not doing allegory, to make the world deeper and more believable. So there doesn’t necessarily have to be a very plain allegorical significance about the religion. There doesn’t even have to be a Christ figure. Take Middle-Earth. Middle-Earth’s religion is obviously structured after Christianity, and yet there is no Christ figure. Only God— Eru Illuvatar. Yet the religion is beautiful and wonderfully Christian. It in no way detracts from Christianity, or debases it by copying it. Instead it takes something we know (maybe only too well to see it clearly any more) and presents it in a wonderfully new light.
    Anyway… that’s my two cents.

  3. Kori Johnson says:

    Funny you put this out the day after I started sorting out the different races in my world and deciding what they’re like. But I have one problem. A fairly good understanding of races in my world is sort of important to the story, but I don’t want to have to make people read through a boring conversation between the characters to explain the different races and how they came to be and what they are like. I was contemplating a small guide to the races of my world and a tiny bit of their history. Do you think that would be a good idea or not?

    • Hmm, well, I suppose it depends on how much the reader needs to know. The problem with a guide is that quite a few readers might skip it because they want to get onto the ‘real’ story. 😉 It depends on how many races you have and how quickly they are introduced too. One author I read had a short section before each chapter which were parts of various scroll or legends of his world. Since they were pretty short I’d read them, and they gave interesting bits of legends, history of races, etc. which were applicable to the coming chapter. I’ve done something like this after each part divider in The Shield and Spear.

    • Also Kori, keep in mind that if you world build, and you as the author are saturated in your own world, it WILL shine through, however unconsciously. And that’s a good thing. No matter if the particular legends you are concerned with have anything to do with the actual story— you know the legend, and you will remember it, and little inexplicable things here and there will refer to it. And even if the reader doesn’t know the legend, they pick up from that that there are legends to this world, so they get the feeling of depth without having to read a long story that has nothing to do with the actual story.
      Legends like that tend to find their place in dialogue especially. A character familiar with the legend will offhandedly mention it, and maybe it doesn’t get pursued, but the reader knows from that offhanded mention that it IS there.
      So just because your reader doesn’t know everything about the world doesn’t mean you didn’t do a fantastic job with worldbuilding.

  4. Thanks so much! This is so helpful. 🙂

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