The hubby and I recently returned from a (long overdue) vacation in Paris. Aside from being totally awesome, our trip to the Louvre Museum was also interesting from a writing perspective, especially for this fantasy world-building gal. Seeing artifacts from cultures thousands of years old is inspiring.
You'd think staring at one old pot after another would get old, but it was fascinating. One region used red clay, another white. One painted on the outside of the bowl, another on the inside. Some vases were tall and thin, others were wide and flat. Some even used animal shapes, like a chicken pitcher.
Me being me couldn't help but see a correlation to how to build a fantasy world.
What all of these artifacts had in common was that they were all crafted from what the cultures had nearby. Different soils, clays, flowers and minerals to make pigments, all of these things were specific and even unique to the region. That gave their art and artifacts their own flavor.
Things to Consider When Building Your World
Color can have a practical, aesthetic, or spiritual reason. Just like purple was used for royalty due to the rarity of the dye, another color might be scarce in your world and have particular uses and meanings behind those uses. For example, in my current WIP, color denotes status and is used as a identifier.
- What does color mean to your characters?
- Is there a forbidden color?
- Are some colors harder to come by?
- Does color affect or influence any social customs?
- Is there a theme with your colors?
(More on themes and world building here)
Different colored stones occur in different regions, or wood from the trees, or even metals mined from the ground. Coastal dwellers might use mud bricks but those who live in heavy forest areas build with wood. A desert culture probably isn't building with wood and stone, and anyone who does is likely to be wealthy or powerful enough to import them in. What materials the population has on hand goes a long way to how they create their cities and the things in those cities.
- What building materials are nearby?
- What's imported? Exported?
- What are common household items made from?
- What are luxury items made from?
- What are considered luxury items?
(More on setting and world building here)
Views on Art
Different cultures have different views on what art is. Some consider any images of the human form to be taboo, why others build statues in a great leader's likeness. How your people create and view art says a lot about their culture and beliefs.
- What is the purpose of art in this culture?
- Who are the artists?
- What status do they hold?
- How prevalent is art?
- What's taboo? Common? Avant garde?
- What form does art take? (statues, painting, beads, jewelry?)
- What art is valuable vs low-class "peoples art?"
(More on world building and details here)
Just like art, how a culture decorates shows their personality. Clean lines and uncluttered gardens speak of a different kind of person than a wild garden with soft, curving paths. The character who wears all black is different from the one who dresses in bright patterns and colors. Furniture meant to stimulate the senses says things functional furniture does not.
- How do your characters decorate?
- What is decoration limited to?
- What is considered good taste?
- What is considered tacky?
- What is the differences between high class and low class decorations?
- What are the differences between gender styles?
- How prevalent is the decoration?
(More on building a fictional town here)
Details can carry a lot of weight and subconsciously clue the reader in on the subtleties of your world. They can explain elements of your world without you ever having to stop and infodump, which allows you to flesh out a world that feels rich and immersive, and still gives the reader everything they need to understand it.
Next time you're building a world--even if it's not fantasy--think about the things your characters find beautiful and how they make and show that beauty.