I have crafted two fantasy worlds in my career so far. The first, Primoria in the Snow Like Ashes trilogy, included eight countries; the second, the world in my latest book, These Rebel Waves, includes six countries. If you’re keeping count, that’s fourteen separate countries operating within two distinct worlds, not to mention that many of those countries include tribes, peoples, and/or development that has shaped regions in different ways.
The proof is in the numbers, then! I must be an expert in crafting fantasy worlds. I’ve hit peak Writer; my job is done—
Sorry, I was laughing too hard to finish that sentence.
Building fantasy worlds is like any other aspect of writing: There is never a point where an author thinks “I’ve learned all I can about this.” Each book presents a unique plot and characters and pacing, nuances, and prose and—you guessed it—worlds. This forces authors to relearn skills on a regular basis, but there are tried-and-true methods that many fall back on.
Today, I want to share one of the exercises I use when staring down a new project. I have Frankenstein-ed this together from a number of world-building resources, taking the details that work best for my brain. That’s the beauty of any art industry—there is no “right way” to do things. There is only your best way.
20 Things to Consider When Building Fantasy Worlds
The first little blossom of an idea for These Rebel Waves came from (I’m not making this up) a late-night geology class and the term “stream piracy,” which is a real geological thing—look it up. But my sleepy brain heard “RIVER PIRATES.”
So, starting with a nugget of “RIVER PIRATES,” let’s walk through these questions!
**Note: there is no proper order to these questions, and you’ll see that much of this process is in a “loop” of coming back to questions, jumping ahead, etc.**
1. Country/Place Name
This is always the thing people latch onto: “But what’s this country calllllled??” The strange thing is—I don’t know what a place is called until I have a broader background on it. So let’s pin this question for later.
A world inspired by river pirates. I’m thinking an island cut apart by rivers, which would mean livable space is rare. Population: no more than 200,000.
It’s an island—but a tropical island? Any icy landmass? A desert? Well, a desert wouldn’t make sense, if there’s an abundant supply of water via the rivers—let’s go with tropical.
Where did this tropical island come from? More—where did its people come from? Let’s think about the second part of the initial idea: pirates. What makes any pirate story great? The factions who clash and spike tensions. So on this tropical river island, we’ll need at least three or four pirate groups to provide conflict.
It was at this point in creating These Rebel Waves that I brought in the first of many additional idea blossoms. I’ve always loved early-1900s New York, particularly Five Points—the neighborhood in Lower Manhattan that saw a clash of gangs stemming from immigrant groups. That could be a fitting addition to this island! Pirate groups based on crime syndicates.
What stories do people in this world tell? What gods bring them to obedience?
Ohhhh, gods. I’ve long wanted to incorporate my own sordid religious history into one of my books. How could an oppressive religion work in a tropical river island commanded by pirate syndicates?
Well, those pirate syndicates came from somewhere, didn’t they? We established that they’re based on immigrant groups. Beyond this island, there must be a “mainland.” Maybe a god and/or religion controls one of those countries?
This question should almost always be dealt with last, but I have it here so it stays in my mind throughout the process. Holidays depend on what’s most important to your world—victories, accomplishments. We’re too early to know these specifics, so let’s come back to this one.
A tropical river island populated by pirate syndicates. A mainland where religion rules at least one country.
Are there any styles from our world that could work in this context? Something about this sounds familiar. A country ruled by an oppressive religion—Spanish Inquisition, anyone? And pirates lend themselves to the Golden Age of Piracy! A mash-up of those eras would create a fantastic style: colonial meets Spanish.
8. Terminology/Language Differentiations
If this tropical river island is home to immigrant groups, they would have developed a way of talking—similar to how language developed in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. Things could get messy if I try to juggle many languages in every conversation, so having one base language would make things easier for everyone involved. But what is this language?
Going back to the religious country—I’m intrigued by the potential of this country being the antagonist. For that to hit home, they’ll need to have high stakes on this island. What if said country is trying to overtake this island? It’d give the country more agency if the island started as their colony—they’d just be trying to keep what was theirs. This means the main language would have developed from the antagonistic country’s language!
9. How They Keep Time (Years/Months/Season/Etc.)
In my Snow Like Ashes trilogy, four of the countries were encased in each season—which meant their methods of keeping time were not dependent on weather, as is custom. But for These Rebel Waves, the tropical island is, well, tropical, and thus exhibits only a few season shifts throughout its twelve-month year.
10. Highest Level of Development
We’ve established that this will be a Golden Age of Piracy/Spanish Inquisition mash-up, so the level of development will reflect that.
If the pirates in this world stick to rivers, they wouldn’t sail around on large behemoth ships then. What if they used steamboats?
The politics of this world come from so many angles: the pirate syndicates; the religious mainland country; whatever other mainland countries we come up with. And don’t forget the innocent citizens who aren’t pirates and just want to get through their day, thankyouverymuch.
12. Ruling Family/Group
Is there one pirate syndicate that “rules” the others? Is there another group that’s taken power over the pirates? What about the religious country—if we make it a theocracy, who speaks for their god?
13. Division of Power
This goes with question 12. Who is below the main ruler? Who really runs things?
What do we know about pirates? They usually steal something. There must be something valuable on this island. Gold? Too easy. Let’s loop back around to this.
15. Greatest Weaknesses
The biggest weaknesses in this world are by far the relations between the groups vying for this island. This means this story is shaping up to be political, with pieces changing the game and secrets weakening the system.
16. Most Common Prejudices
The pirate syndicates hate each other for encroaching on their various territories. The mainland countries hate each other for similar reasons. Deeper prejudices tend to crop up as you get into the details of a book—for now, blanket hatred is a lot to work with!
17. Greatest Strengths
Despite the hatred between these groups, there’s a lot of unity. The pirates rally to their syndicates; the religious country rallies to its god. That’s a definite strength when the main plot of the story starts to take shape: unity!
18. Recent Wars
We’ve touched on a few—the various pirate syndicates fight with each other; the religious country is trying to cleanse the island. Are there other wars?
19. Surrounding Countries/Peoples and Relationships With
This question answers itself! The pirate syndicates. The mainland countries. TURBULENCE.
But who are these people? What other mainland countries are there? What cultures, histories, languages, styles?
20. Magic System
Magic can get so tricky in fantasy books. With These Rebel Waves, I was determined to keep it simple—the plants on this island are magic! Thus, pirates steal magic out of the riverbeds. The religious country wants to destroy magic. Easy. Right?
But what do the various types of plants do? Why does the religious country feel so threatened by them? How do the other mainland countries feel about these plants?
Nothing is ever simple with magic.
There you have it—a quick run-through of my Twenty Questions: World Building Edition! This is meant to give the barest start in the world-building process. Loop through this list as many times as you need until you feel like you’ve got a solid start on your world.
But remember—you do have to start writing at some point. Many of the details of your world will pop up through exploring it!