Monday, April 13

What a Wonderful World: World Building

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

And in the beginning, the Author created the world...

Since I write fantasy, creating a rich and believable world is half the fun (and most of the work). I find it hard to create something out of the blue, so I like to base my worlds on real places. That way, I have a solid foundation to world build upon. I doubt anyone would recognize the places I pick, but they give structure and credibility to the world I put my stories into. (At least, I hope they do!)

For The Shifter, I knew I wanted to do a Venice-inspired city on a lake. I wanted it to be a huge lake, so I Googled "world's biggest lakes." I got several options and started looking at each one.

Lake Superior. Interesting possibilities, but it was pretty deep and cold. It occurred to me that anyone building a city on a lake would probably need it to be shallow.

Lake Tanganyika: Too long and skinny. I wanted my city to have a sense of isolation that only a vast expanse of water can create.

Lake Victoria: Round, shallow, interesting geographic location...hmm...this seemed perfect.

Once I picked my lake, I started researching the climate of the region. Why did the climate matter to me? Because cultures develop based on their environment. The Inuit have over 100 different words for snow, but I'm betting Jamaicans never found a need for very many. My culture would need to reflect the environment.

Lake Victoria covers part of the Uganda region of Africa, and I liked the idea of doing a world in a hot climate. (I grew up in South Florida, so I know how the tropics feels). The climate would determine agriculture, which would determine what people ate. (no mutton in this society) Fashion would reflect the temperatures, which could also influence social mores. Natural resources would determine building materials. Livestock would determine both food and fabric. For example, a culture might grow cotton, but not raise sheep, so they'd be no wool. A small detail, but it would matter when you described what your characters were wearing. And someone living in the tropics wouldn't need wool, but they would need lighter fabrics to keep them cool.

I took all these details and thought about how they would work in my lake-side city. Fishing would obviously be important, so that became a large industry. In a small city riddled with canals, vehicles would takes up a lot of space, so most people would walk. Boats would likely be used to carry those with money from one side of the isle to the other.

I also found some fun real life details I could incorporate. Like how water hyacinths are a problem around Lake Victoria, because they grow so fast and get caught in boat propellers. This translated easily into a problem my world could have, with plants clogging the canals and having to be yanked out by hand. Sounded like a risky job to me, so why not make it even riskier by adding crocodiles to the mix (an animal native to the region). A city with a lot of poor folks desperate for a job would risk being eaten to pull a few plants now and then.

Once I had a basic world foundation, it was time to think about the technology. I wanted my people to be advanced enough to have certain things (like clocks and glass), but still maintain a fantasy feel (which can't have too much science or it starts to feel like science fiction). I picked 16th century Italy, giving the world a Renaissance undertone. Education was available, books existed, commerce was more developed. I cross-referenced this with the natural resources my African lake climate would have, so I could see what technologies would have developed and which wouldn't have. (If there's no access to gold, then you don't have goldsmithing or gold jewelry)

Then it was on to style. (This is where the artist in me came into play) What would the art look like? How would these people decorate? Again, I went back to my base influences. The African lake and the Italian city. I decided to mix the two and go for a Byzantine feel. Arches, tiles, mosaics, beads, bright colors and patterns. Textures.

And every culture has a religion (if not several). I decided to give my world a spiritual side, but not one that required the deities to actively participate in the lives of the people. Something that guided morality and faith, but didn't dominate it. Saints popped into my mind (couldn't even tell you what inspired that) and since the story involved sisters, I wanted to make all the Saints female, and sisters. Alliteration naturally took me to the Seven Sisters, and that worked into the seven deadly sins. My Saints became the opposite, and represented the seven virtues.

Slowly, my world took shape. Most of the stuff I was creating was just background at this point, but the goal was to develop a solid world that worked both socially, economically, spiritually, and environmentally. Knowing how the world worked made it easier to figure out how my protagonist might fit into it. It also gave me a base to draw from for my descriptive details. A lot of it I didn't even use, but it's there and it'll probably show up in the next two books.

Next time you're creating a world of your own, try building from the ground up. Instead of thinking how the problems you want your characters to have fit in a world, think about a world in which those problems would naturally exist.


  1. I love hearing how other authors created their worlds, it's so fascinating.
    Thanks for sharing your process!

  2. Wow, very insightful. I've learnt a great deal from this!

  3. Great post, thank you, thank you! And the last bit of advice is really great, I never thought of it like that. I also read your interview on the tallandshort blog and you said you're doing urban fantasy right now, how have you found it different, besides the obvious of, you don't have to create the physical world from the ground up. I'm most curious about how you integrate the rules of your "fantasy" world, with that of the real world. If you have time, that is :)

  4. Wow, this is so intricate! Very cool. It shows that you can stick to that tenet "write what you know" even in fantasy writing.

  5. Exactly :) Or "write what you can figure out."

    Shorty, good idea. You're making it easy for me to come up with posts this week. Thanks!

  6. Thanks Janice! Awesome post!!

    I've been reading about your book from Kristin's site and have to say I can't wait to read your book.

  7. Wow, how'd I miss this one back in April! Really interesting stuff.

  8. great great stuff.. I'm a new follower and just looking around. your have so much helpful information. thank you!