Building Fantasy Worlds
By Daniel Arenson
Fantasy and science fiction are about other worlds. Sometimes worlds in the distant past, full of wizards and dragons. Sometimes worlds similar to our own but touched with magic. Sometimes other planets or our own planet in the future. One of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of writing speculative fiction is building your world. How can you invent a world that is unique, exciting, and feels real?
Does your world have a high premise, a unique selling point? A Song of Ice and Fire is about a world where seasons can last for years. Dune is about a desert planet. The Chronicles of Amber is about one true world casting infinite “shadows,” including Earth.
You can create an imaginary world simply by inventing new locations—a forest here, a mountain there. But a unique “theme” to your world will help it stand out.
My series Moth is about a planet that doesn’t spin around its axis, leaving one half in perpetual sunlight, the other in eternal night. Each side developed its own cultures, and day and night clash throughout the series. I could have created a simple world where two kingdoms battled, but actually dividing the world between day and night made Moth more memorable.
What makes your world unique?
Fantasy novelists often draw maps for their worlds. This process can help you learn more about your world. As you draw coastlines, mountains, swamps, forests, ruins, and settlements, you can let your imagination run and invent new locations and cultures as you go.
When I created the map for Moth, I used software called Campaign Cartographer. But a map can be as simple as something you draw with pen and paper.
Take a look at my map for Moth here. As you can see, I divided my world into two halves—one half in eternal sunlight, the other in endless night—fitting the theme of my world. I then added geographical features (mountains, forests, rivers) along with cities, roads, ports, and borders. As I was drawing the map, I was also inventing new cultures. Who would live in the desert? What would my islands’ civilizations look like? Drawing the map helped me invent not just the geography but also the people living here.
Fantasy and science fiction worlds often feature different cultures. Each of your fictional civilizations should be unique. What weapons do they use? Longswords, scimitars, katanas, ray-guns? What armor and clothing do they wear? What gods do they worship? What are their naming conventions? What is their history? What is their cuisine? The list of questions goes on.
When creating my fictional cultures, I often “borrow” bits and pieces from real Earth cultures. In Moth, the people of Ilar wield katanas, wear samurai armor, and build pagodas, all borrowed from Japan. Meanwhile, the people of Orida sail longships and live in mead halls, giving them a Nordic feel. The ruins of Til Natay, deep in a jungle, are inspired by the ruins of Ta Prohm in Cambodia.
While my fictional kingdoms aren’t copies of any real civilizations, they do include elements from cultures in our own world—weapons, ship designs, architecture, and so on. For your own worlds, you can seek inspiration from Earth or simply create your nations whole cloth.
You can also let your civilization’s environment influence its culture. On the dark side of Moth, there is no flora. That affects the cuisine of the people living there. I show them eating a variety of mushrooms, salted bat wings, deep water fish, and other foods that don’t require sunlight. Fire is precious on Moth’s dark side, with public fireplaces being elaborate and holy places of congregation. My “night folk” even wear the luminous lures of angler fish as jewelry, trapping the light in glass beads. Different environments—desert, mountain, sky, planets with vastly different geographical features than Earth—will similarly affect your world’s cultures.
Many fantasy novelists simply create copies of medieval England. For your world, you have a chance to create more varied cultures, seeking inspiration in all of Earth’s continents and your own imagination.
Your world will be rich with history. Ancient civilizations, ruined empires, and myths will form part of your world. You’re not only creating a moment in time; you’re creating cultures with legends, traditions, and complex histories. When you build your world, don’t forget to create its history, too.
Your world doesn’t have to be utopian, even pleasant. But it should still be a place readers want to visit.
A big part of speculative fiction is the escapism. Readers want to explore forests of magic, enter mighty castles, fly on dragons, and sail on ships to exotic lands. Much of your world can be violent, ugly, and scary, but it should still include some elements to draw in your readers: excitement, wonder, mystery.
When we read The Lord of the Rings, we feel like we’re in Middle Earth. Some locations are pleasant, such as the Shire. Others are frightening, such as Shelob’s lair. All offer the reader a new experience, an escape from mundane life.
Create a world full of wonder, rich with sights, sounds, and smells, from mountaintop ruins to underground labyrinths. It doesn’t have to be a place readers would like to live in—who’d want to live in Westeros or District 12?—but it should be a place readers want to explore.
This is the fun part. For inspiration during your world-building, find music, artwork, and photographs that capture your world.
When building the world of Moth, I worked with musician Ekaterina to create Moth music and with artist Peter Ortiz to create Moth artwork. Being able to hear and see Moth inspired me to keep developing my world and writing my story.
You don’t need to create custom music and artwork for inspiration. You can also find music online that suits your world. Movie soundtracks work particularly well. You can download images of locations that look like your world—ancient ruins, misty forests, castles, and so on. You can even use photos of actors who look like your characters. You don’t have to share these with readers, but they can inspire you as you’re creating and describing your universe.
WRITING THE STORY
You don’t need to have all the above in place when you start writing. It’s enough to have the bare bones of your world—an overall premise, a few locations, maybe a rough map—to start writing your first few chapters. As you go along, writing your novel or series of novels, you will expand your world, filling blank spaces on the map, adding myths and legends, exploring the cultures, and enriching your world.
I hope this gave you some motivation to get started. I can’t wait to see what imaginary worlds you create!