I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.
The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.
When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):
- Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
- Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
- Climate—what’s the weather like?
- Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
- Politics—how does your society run?
- A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
- Economics—what do people do for a living?
- Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
- Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
- There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
- Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
- It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
- Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
- Are they “burning the witches”?
- Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
- This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
- History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
- A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.
I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.
Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!
Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?