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.
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
- 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.