Fantasy Worldbuilding: How-To

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Worldbuilding: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why

I don’t talk about worldbuilding much on here. A lot of that is because I one hundred percent don’t believe in the traditional fantasy worldbuilding approach: I don’t think you need your whole lineage of kings written out, I don’t think you need a map, and I don’t think you need to pause and describe every landmark your characters pass. I think, if you do this, you’ve essentially written a travelogue for an imaginary place. And, trust me, I don’t even like to read travelogues about places I’m going.

What you need to do, instead, is flesh out your world. That sounds simple, right? Surprise, surprise: it’s not.

The first thing you need to do, when building your fantasy world, is consider this question: what constitutes ‘flesh’?

The ‘flesh’ of your built world is a series of details that perform a double purpose. ‘Fleshy’ details–the good, meaty stuff–do more than show the world around your characters as you picture it. In addition to showing, they also explain: for instance, if there’s a statue of four soldiers made up of lapis and granite at the gates of the city in which your main character lives, your MC has been passing those statues every time he goes into/out of town his whole life. What do they mean to him? Did he meet a girlfriend at the foot of the statues once a week for a whole summer, until her father found out? Do stonemasonry students from the city university attach expertly carved penises to them every Fool’s Day? Do your MC and his father bet every time on which statue will be gifted with the largest set of bait and tackle? (I told you these details were fleshy).

(A note, about ‘fleshy’ details: the very best ones are bombastic. They are memorable. If you’re just going to drone on about Ghern heir of Kern heir of Bernie, I’m not interested. Why should I be? I’m not a history major. Mention in passing, instead, the great rule of Ghern the Incontinent, followed by that of his son Kern the Bladderblaster. And why are we hearing about them, anyway? Is this story about bathroom humor? It better be. Otherwise, I don’t want to know at all).

The building blocks of your world aren’t just static things, to be removed and changed at your convenience. Gods, statues, customs, clothing–your characters interact with these things. They have opinions about them, inclinations towards or away from them, friends who have been helped by them, friends who have been hurt by them. Women disappointed in love might traditionally drown themselves in a river outside of the village called Talia’s Tears: do you think this would make people of the village less or more likely to draw water from that river?

Recapping: your characters live with this stuff. They don’t just hate the Empire or love the Empire, believe in the gods or not believe in them. People are more complicated than that. Even a character who believes firmly in the grace of Plougtagh the Magnificent is going to have his faith tested every once in a while. And why does he believe so firmly, anyway?

Which is going into my main bit here. Cliched as it sounds, if you want to worldbuild, you need to ask these grade school questions:

Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Because your religion, your economy, and your lineage of kings don’t exist in separate vacuums. They’re shaped by one another–they build one another.

Let’s start with an idea I had the other day. I was reading some articles about freediving (which is, actually, fascinating) and came across some stuff about the Ama of Japan, women who dove as deep as thirty feet underwater with no gear whatsoever, in the early days. They were able to hold their breath for two minutes, and would often dive near-nude in below freezing water in search of pearls and food.

Badass, right?

I started to think to myself: what if I wrote a story about a freediver in a pre-mechanical era where the climate was extremely cold?

I started picturing it: a woman in a hand-stitched skin suit caulked up with some sort of pitch, probably, diving through a hole in the ice. She’d only have a small amount of time before the shock killed her, and how would she see, and who the hell is she anyway, so I had some questions, and where did I turn?

That’s right. Who, what, when, where, how, why.

I’m going to try and verbalize this process, just so you can get an idea of how to answer these questions yourself. Look at the way I do this–there are rules to the way I answer my own questions.

Who?

A young girl, obviously. Strong, agile, small, but probably with a good insulating layer of fat on her. She’d have to be trained to do this–by whom? There must be a lot of people doing it, if there’s training. It isn’t the sort of thing you just learn to do on your own, without great need.

So who are these divers? Are they some sort of archaic first responder, saving shipwreck victims? (Maybe there are fjords. Lots of wrecks around fjords). Are they diving for something valuable–a food item, or something worth a lot of money? (It would have to be expensive and/or a great delicacy. These dives obviously take up time and resources for this community). Or–maybe there’s a religious reason. Maybe their god is a grey whale, or something, and these girls leave him offerings (in which case, why THESE particular girls?).

What?

Let’s talk about this suit. This is a premechanical society, so it’s not a fancy manmade fabric. The best thing I can come up with is skin–leather of some sort. Now, they’re in the far north, so where does this skin come from? Maybe it comes from the same thing she’s diving for. I don’t know. Hell. But they’ve stitched it together somehow, so they’ve probably
pitched up the cracks, or put wax of some sort in them. How does she get into this suit, anyway? It isn’t like they have zippers. I guess she puts it on with buttons or eyehooks as fasteners, and someone else caulks that seam up.

Which means there’s more than one person involved in this dive. Well, I already knew that, she’s got to have a trainer. I’m starting to think this is an Ama-style dive for valuables more and more–it sure is taking up a lot of time. Maybe their economy is centered around whatever she finds underneath the ice.

When?

I’m picturing Vikings. Well, not exactly Vikings, but something Vikingesque–so these folks won’t have much in the way of technology yet. I’m picturing Dark Ages shit here. Honestly, I imagine this society is kind of isolated anyway, a la early Icelandic settlers in Greenland, so when doesn’t concern me too much yet. However,

Where?

Is a pretty big issue.

This isn’t civilized society, though there is some sort of society in place. I picture a cold and horrible place, a small village isolated from the rest of the country (maybe it’s a colony, or an outpost). Life’s obviously pretty hard here, which is what makes me think this girl of mine is diving for something of physical value: perhaps what she’s diving for is the only dependable food source for her people. (Which reminds me–there are all sorts of health complications possible with freediving. Do these girls usually die young? Do they do it of their own free will, even?) Maybe there’s a heat vent on the ocean floor, and the water’s warm enough to support life on the rocks just under the ice. Maybe she harvests some sort of scallop-y creature for her people to eat there.

I think it’s unlikely she’s diving for religious purposes, given this cold barren location I’m picturing. I imagine the gods don’t get that sort of sacrifice, when people are so hard up. And ships? There probably aren’t many. So it’s either food, or something they use to procure food. Though, if that’s the case, where the hell did she get the skins for the suit?

How?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe the women dive under the ice, while the men take boats out and hunt seals. Sealskin would be pretty good for that sort of thing, all the blubber and stuff. Though, god, that would mean the skin was uncured. She’d smell awful. Rancid blubber. Hell yes. I know I’m on the right track when there are smells involved.

And, as you might have noticed, all of this leads us to the most important question, the one you really want to answer.

Why?

Why, why, why would a small village exist in this location? Why would these people go to so much trouble just to get food, when they could move?

It’s not like the Icelandic settlers. Those guys thought they had a pretty good thing going, and then a mini ice age set in, and poof, time to die out or move. Why aren’t these people doing the same? They’ve obviously got a system worked out for living here. Why?

Well. If they have to stay there, they’re either exiles, or they’re trapped.

I like exiles. Maybe this is like a fantasy Siberia of sorts, where people guilty of some crime in the kingdom proper are sent to live out their days. In which case, why are they sent there? Was our girl sent there, or was she born to people already living there?

I like the idea of a long-ago banishment. Maybe these people took place in an uprising or a rebellion, a hundred years ago, and they and their descendents have been doomed to live in this awful (but probably very pretty) place for the rest of their days. But–oooooh, here we go, we like buts–maybe the new king is young and of a different kind. Maybe, though these people don’t know it yet, the political climate is ripe for their return.

And with that, we have a story. The action opens when a messenger comes from the capital city with news of the old king’s death, and the rule of the new king. It doesn’t mean much to them at the time–they’ve lived through a few kings–but the arrival of the messenger would be an event. They don’t get many events.

So they send their young girls diving, to get food for the feast. Scallopy creatures, seaweed, etc. The men are out hunting seals, hoping for a whale maybe. And when our girl dives, she finds something that might change the course of history for her people.

What does she find? I have no idea. But I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, see how that works? Not far along at all, and I already know some things about these people. I know they’re resourceful, and tough, and hardy. I know that, at some point, they were rebels. They live in a place of stunning but inhospitable wonder, and they probably love it more than they hate it, since, after a hundred years of exile, they don’t know any other life.

And I know their king, or grand vizier or whatever he winds up being, is a decent guy.

Or maybe he just has a use for them.

Either way, progress has been made. We’ve got some sensory details, some answered questions. Now, to write.

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