Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Guest Post: Tips to building a unique fantasy world

Today's guest post was written by Aaron Bradford Starr.
Be sure to check him out on his Blog or Twitter

I was asked by my old friend Eli (whom the grim populace of Cavendish Island, where I met her, would always call Penny, to her chagrin) if I would take a stab at writing something of a treatise on the subject of creating fantasy worlds in literature, or something of that nature. As I owe my life to her after our misadventures off the coast of South Abercrombie, I agreed.

Now, as it so happens, I once taught a multi-week seminar on the subject of creating imaginary worlds to the Cavendish elders. Afterward, these wizened natives would wile away their evenings, elaborating on their fanciful creations, and have since self-published a series of short story anthologies which have, of late, set the literary world of their small archipelago afire.

The process I related to them was, more or less, this:

Step One: Start with a map.
It is axiomatic that a world needs positions of various places for things to happen, and these are most easily kept straight with a map. This need not actually appear in any of your stories, but may well prove useful from the outset. For those not adept at drawing accurate coastlines or geographical features, I’d recommend consulting a local cartographer, who will have little to do now that the entire actual world has been mapped out (and will thus work for cheap). Draw just the geographic features, and make some copies of this.

Step Two: Begin crafting a historical chronicle

Use the copies to represent different points on the historical timeline, noting the changes of cities, borders, and such from one point in time to another. For instance, every page (and thus every new map copy) could represent another 100 years of history, or the dates could vary, depending on how your imagined history goes). Start detailing each epoch as it begins, is at it’s height, and during its decline. Do this for the major players in your story, like the kingdoms or cultures the characters will visit or interact with. You can always fill in te more minor players later.

Remember that you could be mapping a region as small as a few cities (or even one detailed city), or an entire world. It’s up to you, and the scale of your project.

Who is remembered as the founder of the place or institution? Why did they do it?
How did the nations gain their power as they rose? Conquest? Ingenuity? Trade?
At its peak, how was the nation or institution seen by others? Were there wars? Why?
What initiated the decline? Is there any way it could still recover?
What was the final straw that made the place vanish into history? What was its legacy?

This is the part that takes the longest, but it gets faster as each place begins to accumulate a past, and thus historical perspective and inertia. Also, now is probably a good time to think about the calendar, but my advice is to think the thought “screw that” and ignore this issue. Translating measurements of time will be more than your readers will tolerate, most likely. Still, though having months like March or August worked for Tolkien, it’s unlikely to work again.

Step Three: Add the Fantasy
Perhaps you've already begun this process in step two. But, if not, here’s a place to think about the elements of your story that make it fantasy. Is there magic? Who uses it? What social institutions does this imply? How do they use the power they collect?

A little magic goes a very long way, especially over deep time. I’m not one to write your books for you, but remember that most of history is usually made by mundane people for mundane reasons. But if there’s a fantasy element anywhere in the past, history likely turned on it at one point or another. The goal is to preserve a recognizable society, and magic, frankly, undercuts huge swathes of the medieval culture that most fantasy worlds hearken back to. Even a single user of magic could have the power to disrupt the flow of events.

Some things to think about, when adding magic into your world’s past:
How do individual rulers relate to magic, and the use of it? Can any of them practice it?
How does magic effect the military capabilities of the nations? The espionage?
Can any magical effects outlast the nations or societies that created them? What havoc can this wreak, perhaps centuries later? Who would be held responsible for any misfortune?

Step Four: Languages
There are long lines of out-of-work linguists, here in Cleveland, and one can see them, chattering away in otherwise dead languages as they wait in bread lines, and the like. Anyway, fantasy writers are usually keen on fictional languages, but, alas, are most often not linguists themselves, and thus create incoherent phonetic stews when languages are needed. There seem to be a preponderance of X, Z, Y and apostrophes in most fantasy languages, and I’d recommend against adding any more than are really necessary to the canon of fantasy speech.

Language influences not just the names of places, but of people, and basic linguistic design, (such as choosing a phoneme set) will really go far in making the languages sound genuine. Simply select which consonants and vowels the language contains, and a few simple rules for using them. Remember, English has a lot more vowel sounds than it has vowels. You might want to disallow some of these sounds, and restrict others.

Are there sounds English does not contain? Careful with these, as there’s no elegant way to represent them.
Are there some sounds English has, but this other language does not?
How many syllables do most words have? Most names?
How are family names and individual names handled?
How are plurals handled?

As nations fade and decline, what linguistic artifacts do they leave behind for those who take their place? Perhaps you can alter the language for this new upstart culture a century after the initial nation falls. And, if you really want to dig in the spurs, you can alter teh rules of your language along with the flow of time.

But, for all its allure and depth, a little fictional language goes a very, very long way. Keep the urge to show off your creation well in check!

Step Five: Commerce

For each nation, in each time, decide what they are rich in, and what they are lacking. These can be natural resources, or cultural ones. Technology or magical implements. Formal education, military training or hardware, or artistic work can all be resources that another nation might want.

Do they trade for it? Invade and occupy? And remember, trade is not just with your neighbors, but also with the next nation over, and the one beyond that. What trade routes develop? Are they all land routes, or do the sea lanes play a role?

What cities or other settlements spring up along these routes, to support the traders?
How is order maintained? How is safety looked after?
Every nation has its own currency, and it might be interesting to lightly detail these, at least by name and value (in your native currency, so you can decide prices in your writing, if that’s your sort of thing).
Are any nations paying tribute to other nations? This is a common practice, historically, and caused lots of headaches, which is a good place for fiction to start.

And there you have it, a simplified routine for creating fantasy worlds with historical depth. This is the mark of high fantasy, this web if historical perspective. Use as much or as little of this as is helpful. At every step, you’ll bring your personal touch to the newly forming world, guaranteeing something new. It’s nearly impossible to be derivative, when you’re going through age after age of history, meshing the action of nations together. And this even without the unique fantastical elements your imagination will bring to bear.

The tensions and conflicts between kingdoms, nations, and empires will add a richness to your world. So go ahead and leave plenty of unresolved conflict in your world’s “present”. This approach will also allow you to write in different ages of your creation.

A word of caution, though: use the details you generate here sparingly in your actual writing, and resist the temptation to fire-hose historical detail at your readers. This exercise will help you create the definitive record of your world’s past, but you should think of this as a secret you keep to yourself. Use the histories you've developed to inform your characters, the way a good setting is supposed to. It will influence the way every character thinks and reacts, and, through them, tone and inform the entire story. But it is the characters that must carry the story. Never let the setting’s past stand in for good character or tight plot.

And there you have it. Should you ever visit the snow-covered mountains of Cleveland, bring your maps, so I can marvel at how clever my own advice has been!


Robert Courtland said...

Excellent post, Aaron. I love the part about starting with a map. I do that each time I start a new world. Often that first map is rough and crude, but I went all out with my second world. I started with the entire globe and then narrowed it down to one region. I have a map on my wall that is taped together from 9 11x17 sheets. I love maps, one of the most fun things about fantasy worlds.

Mia Kim said...

Came across this while I was scavenging through this blog. And just when I needed it! Thanks, Aaron :)