As a child, the stories that fascinated me the most were set in other lands. As an adult, reading passages that describe an unknown world still intrigues me. Simply throwing me into a story without a describing the setting leaves me floating in a void without stimuli, similar to floating in an isolation tank. At first this may be enjoyable experience but soon I become disoriented. I prefer the sights, sounds, smells and feel of a concrete world around me.
Basing the alternate world loosely on some existing culture or mythology transported to another time and space, does not do away with the need to flesh out the environment. That is the foundational step in world building.
In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R, Tolkien gave personalities of regions within Middle Earth– the humble, homey Shire, the menacing Misty Mountains, the eerily unnerving Dead Marshes and delicately balanced Isengard, trying to flourish on the border of a wasteland.
Before embarking on creating your own world, you need to decide exactly what are the differences between the real world and your imaginary one. Of particular importance is the limitations imposed on it. If your world has alternate laws of physics that allow your characters to escape a sticky problem, introduce them in advance because revealing solutions just-in-time is the mark of an amateur.
What kind of things need to be considered for your new world? How about a brief human geography lesson:
Population: Who lives there? Are they like earth-like people, animals and plants, or something else? If they are something else, limit the number of species drastically to prevent writing an alternate biology book.
Settlements: What kind of places do they live in? Metropolis, cities, nomadic camps, villages built in tree tops, attached boats floating on the sea, or massive underground hives?
Culture: How do language, religion, and education differ between groups in the society?What kind of political state predominates and how is it organized? Even in a small group such as a family there has to be structures of leadership and division of labor.
Economics: How do the inhabitants gain sustenance, protect themselves from the elements, produce goods and trade with others? Denizens of imaginary worlds must do some kind of work to survive. What is the standard of living and quality of life in your world? Is it changing…. for better or for worse?
Medicine and Health: The medical rules depend on the species inhabiting your world and their level of development. Characters will have to deal with the challenges of illness and death.
History: This is an area that I like to spend a lot of time on which prevents me from actually writing. Most readers don’t want lengthy back stories, so it often works best just to give hints about the history as needed, unless it is a very intriguing history.
The final challenge is informing your audience about your world without writing an alternate history at the beginning of the novel. The rules of your world should be introduced in small doses before they are actually needed for the plot. Remember, the alternate worlds in Science Fiction and Fantasy works share more with the “real world” than they differ from it. Otherwise the world you have built would simply would not make sense to the readers.
Artwork by S.L. Listman