Fantasy and sci-fi worlds come in all different shapes and sizes. This is an article to try and help you design yours.
The first thing to remember is about complexity of the world. I’m not going to go into too much detail because ‘Writing Short Stories’ and ‘Writing Longer Tales’ articles will probably cover this.
Obviously, if the world comes entirely from your own imagination you will need to pay close attention to detail, but if it’s partly based on history, you can probably rely on your reader to fill in any gaps you might leave. Often a fantasy story is set in an alternative, fantasy world, which is fine if you’re writing a novel, but if you’re only writing a short story, you don’t want to start detailing the family tree of the entire royal family. (I use this as an example because I’ve done it myself. I was writing a story about a maid in the royal palace, I’d reached about 500 words and I started talking about the royal family. 700 boring words later I realised nobody wanted to hear this and deleted the lot.) Of course, an author doesn’t tell the reader everything he or she knows, so you could have your entire world designed in your head and only use snippets for your story. This is just something to remember- this article will help you with your world, but keep it to however much your reader needs to/wants to know.
I’m going to start with the basics. An ideal fantasy/sci-fi world is a blend of the real and the abnormal. This is important to keep in mind.
What does your world look like? Is it round? Is it flat? It could be a square- after all, this is fantasy. Do the people in the world know that it’s flat/square/round? Have they discovered it all? Remember that we had only discovered and accurately mapped the entire world (the continents being the right sizes and in proportion, no islands of a size worth bothering about missing and so on) by the end of the nineteenth century.
Continents are always interesting. If your characters know what the continents look like, do they obey science and continental drift? What about towns and cities? Where are they? Requirements for a city might be a river, fertile land and temperate weather. I think it’s about time for me to recommend an article on Medieval Demography, which actually covers a lot more. It can be found at . I don’t know who wrote it, but I am eternally grateful to you, whoever you are. This also makes me eternally grateful to the writer of ‘Writing Longer Tales’, which is where I found the hyperlink in the first place. J While I’m on the topic of useful websites, try http://www.seventhsanctum.com/www/index.html these are fifty-six articles on Creating Worlds.
One thing to remember is stick to what you know. You’re inventing this world of the top of your head, yes, but don’t attempt to describe something you’ve never seen the like of. I live in rainy Britain, and I tried to write a story with a Japanese sort of feel. I failed so dismally I felt quite pleased with how awfully the story had turned out. I didn’t know that I could write so plainly badly!
How to introduce elements of the world you’ve created
When a reader begins a book, they automatically assume that it’s set on Earth, in the present day. They will need persuading that they are in fact in an alternative universe. There’s nothing worse than reading a book, getting to about halfway through, when someone suddenly mentions King such-and-such, or the way they’re going to have trouble navigating the spaceships around all the different moons.
Try introducing it early on. At the example at the end of this article, Singing is introduced at about the thirtieth word. This depends on the length of your story, but it’s a good idea to at least drop hints about the time and place. Having your character read a newspaper with the date on, for example. Anything like that would be fine. I don’t intend to go into detail on this, but your reader needs to know where they are. So, introduce your world. As I said before, keep it to what your reader needs to know, but make sure your reader knows what they need to know and only what they need to know. I once did a fantastic description of a city that I never intended my characters to visit. Actually, in the end I was so proud of this city I couldn’t bear not to use it, so my characters changed direction and went to the city instead.
Are they even people? This is more to do with characters than worlds, so I won’t say much, but who and what they are also affects your world. Do they live in harmony with the land, or are they very industrious? Or are they both? Is your world polluted because of them? Or are they trying to change that? This is the real/unreal thing again- imagine you have some giant, strange-gas-breathing insects. Now, most people will be able to picture something under ‘insect’, and if you give the names of a few gases that could produce the particular compound they breath in (check with a scientist on this one- you want to make sure you don’t end up with an explosion, or those gases couldn’t possibly form a compound), then your reader will be able to imagine what you’re on about. Don’t use giant gas-breathing insects though- they’re about the most unoriginal aliens after the little green men.
Magic is for fantasy what technology is for sci-fi- basically they make possible in your story what isn’t possible in real life. This is where you can be really imaginative, unless you want your world to be realistic. This, of course, also depends upon your idea of magic. Technology is easier. Presumably it’s going to be some future technology, and who knows what that might be? It might be a good idea to do some scientific research to see what might be possible, although this does depend who you’re writing for. If it’s adults, it’s best to be reasonably accurate. Children however, are unlikely to be able to tell if your science is accurate and may even prefer it if it isn’t.
Magic can be anything. I would avoid magic wands like the plague- just a bit of advice. Magic as an elemental force can be useful in creating worlds, though. Why hasn’t the volcano exploded? Magic is keeping it under control. Any small mistakes you might have made- you know that the island isn’t there, oh, sugar, why isn’t the island there? Oh, it was magic. It took it away. Magic is wonderful for filling plot holes, just don’t overuse it. Technology can work in a similar way, but it’s a general assumption that technology would only be made to benefit. So if it’s of no benefit to anyone that the island is continually moving, there would need to be a reason for it. A computer virus will always do. How come the island’s still moving? Oh, well, it was an experiment, and they tried to stop it and the virus shut down their control. Well. It might work…
Language is an important factor. A kingdom will probably have several different languages, or if not, at least a variety of dialects of the same language. Since Tolkien, there’s been pressure on fantasy writers to make up your own, unique language. Obviously the odd word here or there is easy to invent, but you need to have quite a good grasp of language structure and how it could be altered before attempting to write your own language. It’s useful to speak two or more languages doing this, because that way you can blend words from those languages. Include a translation, especially if you’re doing this on Elfwood, but also because, as a reader, if there are a lot of words constantly used in a story, I find myself forgetting what they mean. A translation might have been provided the first time they said it, but later on it isn’t, so a quick word list at the end is always very helpful. If you provide a translation, the reader knows that you are reusing words and terms, like you would in a real language, so that they get the impression that there’s some structure to it.
It does depend how much you use your invented language. As little as possible is always good advice, unless you’re very confident about it. The odd word, especially when a character isn’t supposed to know what it means, can just be left, but if you intend to write half the story…well, all I can say is that I wish you luck.
What sort of rulers does your world have? Are they democratic? Is there a monarch? Or do priests, or warlords rule countries? This is something that’s either very important to your story (rightful king returning to power/ evil lord overthrown) or barely worth a mention (oh yeah, there’s a king- what does he matter, I want to slay this dragon!) Obviously this also depends on the time period and so on.
I’d like to suggest a few governments that I don’t think have been useful in fantasy or sci-fi before.
- Myriarchy- Government by 10,000 people
- Angelocracy- Government by angels
- Diabolarchy- Government by devils
- Neocracy- Government by amateurs
- Paedarchy- Government by a child or children
Of course, one of the most important things about a world is its history. Has it developed the same way our world has? Is it just our world in the future? I’ll quote Red Dwarf here- the Cat civilization invented- erm, I think it was a trouser press- as the pivotal invention of their civilization, like ours was the wheel. Now, obviously this is humour, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind, although makes sure you know how they evolved differently, rather than just saying ‘differently.’
How old is the world? Is your story set right at the beginning of time? Or right at the end of it? Keeping your story consistent with real history can be a good idea, simply so you don’t confuse your reader. If you are in castles, assume cannon haven’t been invented yet- it is unbelievable how many books slip up on that one. Castles are no use if cannon can destroy them! If in your far-distant future, you have instantaneous transportation to anywhere you might possibly want to go, border guards are pointless. I’m not sure that’s really to do with history, but whatever, it’s an important point to remember.
If your sci-fi world is just our world in the future, be careful! A for Andromeda by Fred Hoyle is about a message from space with instructions on how to create a life form. This is set in the 1950’s. Obviously it’s funny for us now, but…well. What I’m trying to say is do you best to predict the future as accurately as you can, and depending on how advance you want society to be, choose your point in time carefully!
If you want your world to be realistic, your people will probably have a religion of some sort. Now, you can more or less create this from your imagination by asking yourself a number of questions about it- monotheism or polytheism? Tolerant or intolerant of other religions? What are their churches like? Are most people religions?- and so on. This is something to be very careful on though- if your religion is too similar to another world religion, you could very easily offend vast numbers of people- not a good idea.
That said, religion does add a lot of realism to your story, and can be useful if you don’t allow it to dominate. Well. The choice is up to you.
My sample world
Well, I’ve been blabbering on about how you could create a world- remember, mix reality and invention- but I haven’t given any examples. So, here’s a description of a world I’m using for a story at the moment.
Arlon: It’s a feudal society. It’s set in a medieval sort of time period, in about the 1200’s. (Yes, very unoriginal, I know, but it makes everything so much easier!) There is magic in the country of Arlon, called Singing. There is Dark Singing and Land Singing. Dark Singing is very powerful and evil and there is the possibility to do almost anything using it. A Dark Singer is born with the ability to hum, sing or even just tap out a rhythm and put into it a spell. Land Singing is good magic, but Land Singing is far more limited than Dark Singing. Land Singing can be healing magic, or love spells, or weather magic.
Arlon is a small kingdom, which is basically confined to one large valley, surrounded by the highest mountains in the world. Barely anybody who lives in Arlon has ever been out of it- and barely anyone who lives outside Arlon has ever gone in. The mountains are easy to cross for about two weeks in the summer, but to travel over them takes three weeks, so barely anybody tries it. If you don’t set off within those two weeks- well, more than half the people who attempt it don’t make it. The outside world isn’t even mentioned within Arlon, because it’s so distant. Arlon is made up of small villages, with only one largish town, which is the capital city. No village is more than a kilometre from another villages.
Anyway, I hope this article has been helpful!
FARP Article Guestbook
|1 Nov 2011|| Anon.|
Really nice article, though I cannot agree with the sentence in which you say that the presence of cannons should exclude the use of castles. In Europe castles were still in use at the beginning of the 19th century, for example the bastille was a castle modified to be used as a jail when was conquered during the french revolution on 14th july 1789. Cannons have been used certainly during the 13th century. Obviously there’s need to balance the efficiency, weight and ability of maneveur of the weapon with its power and with the type and size of the castles.
|5 Jan 2012|| ספא בתל אביב|
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|11 May 2012|| Anon.|
|14 Aug 2012|| Anon.|
Arthur C Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be virtually indistinguishable from magic. Just because we understand how a particular device functions, it doesn’t mean that everyone will. Hence, a really good plot device can be the interaction of differing tech levels between one set of characters and another.
|17 Sep 2012|| Anon.|
In his novel Imperial Earth (I think that was the one), Arthur C Clarke mentioned in passing that Earth picked its governorsl at random from a list of eligible persons (and "gave them time off for good behaviour"
|9 Jan 2013|| Lewis Baird|
Brilliant article, I like your originality demonstrated with Arlon.
|30 Apr 2013|| Jade Louise Danson|
Where can the article Medival Demography be found?
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