Are you tired of this dismal, mundane world? Are you sick of all the limitations in this universe, like gravity and social security tax? Don’t you just wish there was a place where some rules didn’t apply at all, or where crazy things like magic can put a damper on some of those party-poopers? Then let me introduce you to an old friend of mine, the Fantasy genre. This kind of literature is infamous for its geeky, absorbing reputation, but really what I advertise to you is a chance to build your own world and escape into the boundless plane of imagination.
Now as awesome and limitless as world-building can be, when you’re a fantasy writer, there’s a right way and wrong way to do it. To be more technical, it should be said that there are effective and ineffective ways of building a whole universe from scratch. Your tools will include plot, narration, illustration, and dialogue. Your world is a setting, which is in literary terms the place or time that a story occurs. The story itself, which uses these tools, serves as the capsule for your environment, a place where the action happens and the world is made clearly separate from the real world (or perhaps other authors' worlds!). The capsule's something you NEVER want to break, or else you'll go insane discerning reality from fiction and all that messy psychological junk.
The first tool is plot. The plot of the story, which remember is the device holding your world, by definition is the sequence of events in a story pieced together into a unified work. Thus what I mean is that anything or everything that happens in your story must convey the functions and rules of your world. For example, let's say in this new world of yours, you want there to be a war, either a massive bloodbath or some border tensions. Using plot as your tool, this is how you ought to use plot to weave your world together:
Great troops of horse cavalry and unicorn cavalry followed the infantrymen. Krasta curled her lip to see unicorns made as ugly as horses. And then she curled her lip again, for a squadron of behemoths followed the unicorns (Turtledove 19).
The example above is from the book Into the Darkness by Harry Turtledove. An action is taking place in the passage, which could be considered an event, considering multiple events woven together coherently create a plot. Through describing this action, this author has built several elements into his world of Derlarvai: (1) a war or preparation for a war, (2) horses, which denotes that there is a commonality to this world, making it close to ours, (3) that unicorns exist, (4) that behemoths exist, which are a personal creation of the author himself (5) these creatures are all used for military power, and (6) to many sentient beings (characters) in this universe, these creatures have been made or are repulsive in a way.
Narration is the simplest tool in world-building, so much so that the minute you see the following example, you'll realize that you've used narration many times in the past. That is because narration is just plainly describing the facts, or presenting visual details, both of which are through the narrator's voice. The following passage is from The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis:
He was standing by the edge of a small pool – not more than ten feet from side to side – in a wood. The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green light that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest word you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing... There were dozens of other [pools] – a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. (Lewis 31-32).
Now you could argue that the narration and plot devices I've shown are practically the same thing. Consider, however, that an action could be described using dialogue instead, the same way playwrights would have characters say what they see when no props are available. But now why would we used dialogue to build a world? By far you will find that dialogue is the most prevalent tool for world-building among fantasy and science-fiction authors. Dialogue is the name for conversation between characters. Here is another passage from Into the Darkness where dialogue is being used to construct a world:
"I'm not glum about staying at peace," Fernao said. "I'm glum about the rest of the world going back to war. All the kingdoms of eastern Derlavai suffered as much as we did."
"And Unkerlant," Rogelio put in. "Don't forget Unkerlant."
"Unkerlant is a kingdom of eastern Derlavai... in a manner of speaking," Fernao said with a thin smile. The smile soon slipped. "Thanks to the Twinkings War, they hurt themselves worse than Algarve ever managed, and Algarve hurt them plenty." (Turtledove 31)
The quotation above was meant to inform the readers on the political situation of the author's world. Dialogue, on a side note, is especially useful for developing the politics of your world because people in our world tend to debate about politics and history. Characters can do the same, and through such debate also teach the reader about your world.
Here is another passage from A Spell for Chameleon, where the author again builds the history of his world Xanth through dialogue between two characters:
"... In the past century Xanth has been entirely free from invasion--but other threats have developed."
"Like the fireflies and the wiggles and Bad Magician Trent," Bink agreed.
"Trent was not a bad Magician," Cherie corrected him. "He was an Evil magician. There's a distinction--a crucial one."
"Um, yes. He was a good Evil Magician. Lucky they got rid of him before he took over Xanth."
"Certainly. But suppose another Evil Magician appears? Or the wiggles manifest again? Who will save Xanth this time?"
“I don't know,” Bink admitted (Anthony 37).
In this case, one character is informing another character, probably the next clearest and simplest tool used in world-building other than straight-up narration. Informative dialogue works smoothly because it functions in an exact manner as blander narration, except that the informing is focused inward between two characters and creating action at the same time. As a world-builder, you should know what would make dialogue preferable over narration in many ways. Dialogue adds life and brings opportunities to display traits of your characters who populate your world. However, don't grow dependent on the use of dialogue as a world-building tool. People don't commonly spit out all the common knowledge about their world despite the fact that the other character probably knows about it. Your readers will see through your scheme and realize it's just a corny technique of drilling information in their heads. As for much of the world-building dialogue in Into the Darkness, I find it rather unrealistic for commonfolk characters to be so well-rounded and knowledgeable of Derlarvai's history and politics. When choosing instances to share more about your world, choose reasonable characters to work through.
The reflections of a character can also be used to world-build. Bink of A Spell for Chameleon is an extremely inquisitive character. He looks at the strange world of Xanth the same way the reader will be looking at it, with a fresh pair of eyes. Bink questions his surroundings constantly and comes to his own conclusions. Your characters can do the same thing to inform the reader.
Lastly may perhaps be easier than narration, but more limited. Many fantasy writers choose to place a map of their world or a genealogy chart at the beginning of the book, and I suggest that you use this only to reinforce the other tools you use for world-building. Several examples follow, as always:
*Derlavai from Into the Darkness
On a final note, most of your world building should take place in the beginning, but here’s an idea: give your audience a reason to keep reading by adding a touch of mystery. Maybe something goes on in the world that you can logically answer, and yet maybe it’s possible to either leave it explained or make the characters aware that there doesn’t seem to be an answer for the particular function--not yet, that is. In the world of Xanth, for example, Piers Anthony keeps us in the dark about Mundania, except implying that it is a nonmagical land. This obscurity creates curiosity to keep your readers, well--reading--and to dive in deeper and deeper into your world. Also, please spare the reader for at least the first thirty pages; don't fire random jargon and information at them as if they know what you're talking about. That will not attract a market at all. Just look at the terrible work of King's Blood Four. People are stupid. That is something you must assume in world-building.
You might be interested in world-building to improve the reputation of this rather obscure genre of literature. It really is fun once you’ve got a great idea off the ground! World-building will bring to light many of the elements of fantasy that people are tired of, as well as the elements readers and authors crave to escape into. Forge yourself a land of impossibilities made commonly possible, an epic place that will draw out the greatest depths of inspiration for all the world to see.
Anthony, Piers. The Quest for Magic. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.
Lewis, C. S., and Pauline Baynes. The Magician's Nephew. New York: HarperTrophy, 2000. Print.
Turtledove, Harry. Into the Darkness. New York: Tor, 2000. Print.