Fantasy Worldbuilding, Part I: Inspiration, Research, and Bare Bones

I don’t know about you guys, but for me, the idea of a story can ignite from a single picture I see that sparks sudden inspiration. Then, all of the concepts that have been brewing in my head until then suddenly burst to life, my imagination goes haywire, and it’s like watching fireworks in my head.

When I’m planning or doing the initial outlining for a novel, the plot and the world and the characters tend to come together and go hand-in-hand. I don’t know about other writers out there, but there is no way I could do them in isolation. The plot is driven by my characters; my characters are shaped by the world; and the world will need to be built in a way that allows the plot and characters to come alive.

So how do I get started? What do I do when I start my process of “worldbuilding?”

1. Inspiration

So you have an idea for a book. It was probably sparked off of a single image or is the result of a culmination of all that imagination-driven goodness that has been brewing in your head for a while. Regardless, you need inspiration. What are some things you can do to get inspired, some resources that can help you?

  • Read. I know this sounds super obvious and cliché and you’re groaning, but if you want to be a writer, reading should be the one thing that remains constant throughout your writing life (besides writing). Besides learning all of your writing skills from reading, writers tend to draw inspiration from each other. Reading inside your genre gives you great perspective to what is relevant in your space these days, what’s popular, and sometimes, what’s overdone. However, remember to read outside your genre, too – historical nonfiction, chess strategies (yes, I got inspiration for one of my scenes from chess strategies!), successful negotiation skills … all of the knowledge you store from these seemingly-irrelevant books will become stored in your brain until, one day, you can use it.
  • Pinterest. For those who don’t use it, this is the best source of inspiration for me. Pinterest is an image collection site that allows you to save “pins” (images) to specific “boards” (a collection of pins under one theme). For example, you can have Pinterest Boards for quotes, weddings, travel, home design … anything and everything you want. Even better, your dashboard collects data on the types of images you like – so my dashboard is filled with fantasy-related images and inspirations!
  • Travel. For me, my current WIP, Blood Heir, was inspired by my trip to Russia three years ago. I fell in love with the majestic, imperial spirit of the beautiful country – and a thriving, medieval-esque world of ice and snow began to blossom in my mind’s eye.

2. Research

We read fantasy to be absorbed into a different world; we want to see how the world works; we want details and colors and sights and sounds and smells to seep into every aspect of our reading. As fantasy writers, we owe this to our readers. But our world will only “seep” into our writing if it is fully fleshed-out already.

A well-built world can do wonders. A lot of fantasy we read nowadays (especially YA – and I don’t mean this in a bad way, since I am a YA fantasy writer myself!) tends to have a king on a throne in some faraway kingdom, horses and cobblestones, knights and thieves. That’s … generic. That’s about what every single medieval-based fantasy book will definitely have.

So how can your world stand out from the rest?

To make a world stand out – I mean, truly, become three-dimensional and alive, there are so many aspects that you need to consider. Not just the food, the clothes, the entertainment … but also the economics, the transportation, the government … and you need to be as detailed as you can get on these. For example, my current WIP is set in a Russia-inspired world. Russia has a particular style of art called lacquered art that I decided to insert into one scene in my book. But I didn’t just write, “Ana went into a store of lacquered art.” That’s still not specific enough. What kind of lacquered art, besides the regular vases and plates and baskets, will be unique to my kingdom?

In this world, the kingdom’s emblem is a white tiger. There are legends of phoenixes, and there is a legendary bird (an icehawk) that is specific to this kingdom. The passage I wrote was:

Tigers and vases lined the shelves while swans and icehawks and phoenixes twirled gently before the windows, all painted with swirling patterns of leaves, snowflakes, and fruits.

Do you see how the world becomes more alive this way?

There’s no way around this stage; you have to do your research. And that starts with opening up your browser, going to Google or Wikipedia or whatever search engine you prefer, and typing in “Government of England.” Or something. I always start from several cultures from which I want to draw my inspiration, and as I go along and jot down notes about my world, I also find ways to make it my own (like the lacquered tigers).

3. From Bare Bones to Fully Formed

The process of worldbuilding is very much comparable to human anatomy. You begin with the bare bones of your world (sections 1-7 in the list I will present), and once you have the bones, you begin to fill in the flesh. Finally, you put on the skin, the hair, the nails … and, voila, you have your world.

You start out with several large totem poles, and when you answer the overarching question and plant your totem pole for that section, you can then start to flesh out the rest — the details.

For example, my thought process for Blood Heir: “What type of government does Cyrilia have?” > “Absolute monarchy.” From then on, I can start to think: Well, in an absolute monarchy, who are the other players in power? How does the law work in relation to the absolute monarch? How does that impact my MC’s view of her world? Does she respect the guards, or is she disgusted by their fall to corruption, or is she somewhere in between, still hoping that there’s a chance for them to become good again? How does Cyrilian law play a pivotal part in shaping her thought process throughout her exile and throughout the book?

Do you see how one question leads to another, and how every single totem pole / “bone” of your world will lead to many other, smaller details that fill themselves out? Do you see how the world seeps into every aspect of the book: the plot, the characters, and the characters’ decisions?

This is the power of worldbuilding. This is the power of a world well-built.

Below is a list of details that I always start out researching in order to build my world. (SFWA also has a great, much more thorough, list of questions you should be answering.)

  1. Government
    • What type of political system does your kingdom operate under?
    • Who are the decision-makers?
    • How does this impact the everyday lives of citizens?
    • How are foreign relations? Are there other kingdoms, and how are the relationships between those kingdoms and yours?
    • What are some significant events that happened in history that impacted the mindset of your people and current governing body?
  2. Economics
    • What kind of an economic system does your world operate under?
    • What goods and services does your kingdom trade? What goods and services does it purchase from neighbors?
    • Where is your kingdom located, and how does the climate shape the economy?
    • What is the currency?
  3. Magic
    • What is the magic system, and how does this impact the government, the economics, and the daily lives of the people?
  4. Food
    • What types of food do your people eat, and how is this impacted by the climate and the economy?
    • What are some popular dishes, drinks, etc.? (I usually brainstorm a whole list; this is my favorite part!)
  5. Clothing
    • What types of materials are your people’s clothing made of, and how is this impacted by the climate and the economy?
    • What are some traditional types of clothing?
  6. Culture
    • (Yes, this is the catch-all bucket for anything that didn’t belong in food or clothing.)
    • What are some styles of art that your kingdom traditionally has?
    • What are some styles of music that your kingdom traditionally has?
    • What are some styles of dance that your kingdom traditionally has?
  7. Language
    • Language … is a whole other animal. Obviously, we’ll all write in English, but there may be certain words you can weave in in the “local language” of your world to make it seem more unique. Being able to do this takes experience and is a fine balance, since it’s tricky to insert foreign-sounding words and have your readers remember it and understand it. For me, whenever I see an italicized word, I’ll be really interested in looking at the composition and how the author made up that word – from what linguistic roots did they draw their inspiration? For others, I know, they tend to skim. Too many made-up words, and nobody wants to read your book anymore. I’ll be putting up another blog post on how I write “language” (irony, much?).

What are some other aspects of worldbuilding that you think of when you begin to build your world?

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