It doesn’t matter if you’re writing High Fantasy or Low Fantasy, there is always an element of world building that comes with writing any kind of fantasy fiction. World building for high fantasy is ground up kind of work, taking influence from what exists, but making it something original and all your own. On the other hand, world building for low fantasy takes a more subtle hand. It includes the weaving of fantastical elements into the world as we know it, making believability a far more precarious balancing act.
Let’s start with Low Fantasy.
This ranges anywhere from Historical Fantasy to Contemporary Fantasy. That is to say, you story takes place somewhere on planet Earth. Your first decision should be When and Where. Do you want to write a story set during the Spanish Inquisition, or perhaps the Witch Hunt of the 1600’s? Or, is it set in the here and now, just around the corner?
If you go the historical route, set your story in or around a place that was vital during the time period. That way you have a lot going on around your story that could create conflict and action. If you’re using a time period where the witch trials would adversely affect your protagonist, set it in a town that’s highly afraid of witches and watch the conflict build itself. Use the time period you’ve chosen to help build your story. History is rich with all sorts of rich plot devices and little known facts that would make your world so much more real.
While you’re doing your research, don’t let it consume your life. Research can really pull you in and later you’ll be wondering why it’s a year later. No, really. Be efficient about your research so that you can quickly get back to your writing.
When working in a modern setting there is still a bit of research involved. You have to learn about the part of the world that you’re planting your story in. Is it familiar to you, or is it someplace you’ve never been? In all of these cases, the internet is your best friend. You can use google maps street view to have a better idea of how things look from the road to better describe a setting you’ve never seen. The internet is amazing at allowing you to visit places from your rolling chair.
In my own story, I decided to create my own town. Even so, it’s largely based off the towns I grew up in. They were small and thrived off tourism. The catch was, I left my own state and chose another that I’d never been to. The challenge there was to learn about the fauna that the wolves would come across.
Now that you have a handle on your setting, what kind of magic do you want to inject into the real world? Is it known to the universe sparking all sorts of racial issues, or is it a carefully guarded secret that could destroy everyone if it got out? While I opted for something that is somewhat under wraps in my world, there are others that have their magical communities open, causing a whole lot of kick back politically and socially. Humans in stories have had reactions from enamored, to terrified, to repulsed.
It’s up to you.
Next, once you decide either way, there’s more building to happen. How does your magical community hide? Or, how does the world see them if they’re out? Play off our current political and social affairs if you want.
It’s a great way to really add impact and relevancy to your story.
On to High Fantasy
This is much more difficult and freeing all at the same time. When creating high fantasy worlds, you are essentially working from the ground up. There is nothing and you are challenging yourself to create from nothing.
The best thing you could do is, once again, do your research. History is great launch pad for when creating an imaginary world. Many fantasy stories we are familiar with pull from Medieval England and the like. If that is what inspires you, then cool, but lately we have been seeing an influx of stories inspired by other places and moments in history. Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse has taken from Amsterdam in the 1800’s, drawing upon the sanctity of commerce in that era and the architecture and layout of the city to create Ketterdam. Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes feels very much like a fantasy take on Roman conquest and it’s refreshing as well as a great reflection on society and history.
That kind of reflection is great for YA fantasy, encouraging readers to see themes and build morals needed in modern society.
When building from the ground up, it is good to start with a map. My hubby likes to create stains on paper using tea or unsweetened coffee. The organic shapes of these stains mimic the organic shapes of continents and countries. Have fun with it, just don’t create too much of a mess. If that isn’t your thing, there are always programs online, such as Hexographer, that can help you create a map. Research how climate and terrain interact. There should be variety amongst your countries and continents, but it should also make sense.
From continents, you can divide it into countries. Do as you see fit. Is the whole continent under the control of one man, king or emperor, or is it ruled by a republic? Is it filled with warring countries? Do some of these countries have trade, or at least speaking terms? Basically, what is going on in your world? This is really broad and can be time-consuming. Don’t be afraid to take inspiration from the world as it is or was. That can really help ground a reader with believability because they can recognize it.
Go ahead and drop your protagonist in their country of origin. They don’t have to stay there, but there’s a life as it once was waiting to be known. What was it like for them to grow up there? Was that the norm, or was it extraordinary? Are there many races? How do they differ? How do they interact?
Build outward if you have to. Decide on governments, races, kinds of trade, popular fashion, and social interactions and politics. That’s a lot. I know. Make a bullet list and fill them in as ideas come to you, if that’s what you have to do. Put it somewhere reachable, because you and I both know that you’ll have the best idea in the shower or when trying to fall asleep. Those ideas may not all work, but if you have them down, you have the room to decide on what does and doesn’t work later.
Now, go deeper. What level of science has your world reached? Does it rely on swords and bows to fight one another? Has chemistry been discovered to create gunpowder or explosives? Science doesn’t just apply to warfare. It applies to medicine practices, determining how easily a character might die from disease or infection. It applies to travel, allowing characters to use star based navigation or ride in airships. Once you’ve decided the level of science applicable to your world, decide who controls it. Is it readily available? Or is it controlled by a group or person?
Now, you have the beginnings of a fantasy world. Well, you have a world. What about it is fantastical, though? Now, I want you to start weaving your preferred level of magic into the world. This could be as faint as the Song of Fire and Ice series or it could be as up in your face as it in the Narnia series. I mean, it has talking animals. Which leads to the part of fantasy world building I enjoy the most: what kind of animals are there? This can be as plain as what we see around us everyday or it can be drawn from mythology or it can be completely new and made up by you.
(Can you tell I like… mytho-zoology. Is that even a word? It feels more like a post series coming up. Am I right?)
Is any of this helping you? Has it sparked any ideas?
Go ahead and make a list if you have to. Do it in an easily edited word document. Paper can get messy, but can also promote creativity. Just be prepared to transcribe that mess later. Start with the basics: Who, What, When, Where. You don’t have to start in that order, but by answering all of these questions you can easily build your world. What kinds of people live here? What happens between them? When is this story set? What kind of world do I want to create?
Go ahead and further break it down between each question with the ideas I suggested above. You’ll have a fully fledged world in no time.