In my current work in progress, I’ve got a revolution going on in a fantasy setting, and this brings up the whole topic of world building, which has been much on my mind lately.
World building is an essential part of creating a fantasy story (or a science fiction story or a historical story or an alternate history or any other type of story where the world inhabited by the characters is in any way different from our own). (It’s even part of storytelling when the world doesn’t differ from our own, since the world from the characters’ perspective will still be different in some ways from that of the author.) To some degree, world building happens organically, as do many other parts of storytelling. You have maybe a character or two and a plot element or two and you write some scenes displaying the characters and advancing the plot lines, and you realize that this means your lovable thief comes into contact with a priest of the god Nunk-Noo, and so you have to consider the status of the priesthood, the doctrines of Nunk-Noo’s worship, whether the priests have magical powers and if so what they are, whether the god himself ever puts in an appearance, whether there are competing religions, whether this one is an officially-sanctioned cult, and so on.
But in at least the broad strokes, it’s probably best to have your world pre-planned. The details can be added later, as you write, and the only hard and fast rule is that you have to be consistent, and you can’t go back and change anything you’ve already published.
One way to do world-building is to start with either present-day reality or something historical as a template, and then change things and add things and figure out what would happen as a result. In doing this, it helps to have some understanding of both politics and economics, as well as science and the impact of technological change on society. (This can even help with the impact of magical change, although of course the magic itself you can make up.)
Which brings me to my work in progress, Goddess-Born, a companion volume to The Green Stone Tower.
Goddess-Born is set in the Kingdom of Grandlock, which I had already described in the first section of The Green Stone Tower. It’s a society that:
- Has an early-modern level of technology: smoothbore, single-shot firearms, sailing ships and navigation, gas lamps, some steam-engine applications, horses as the main transportation vehicle, printing, no electricity.
- Has a constitutional monarchy for a government, but with no democratic representation; the King and the Noble Council rule the country; nonetheless there are provisions in law protecting rights and a growing democracy movement.
- Has very little in the way of magic. There are some magic users but they operate secretly and, although this changed at the end of Tower, magic was prohibited by law and a capital offense. However, the Green Stone Tower itself is a reminder of magic and a link to an alternate world where the magic users were banished ages ago, becoming the faerie — many of whom have since returned.
- Has an established religion, the monotheistic worship of the Good God who gave people the secrets of farming.
- Historically was part of the High Vance Empire, but broke away from it and established an independent kingdom; for this reason there is tension and frequent war between the two countries.
That’s more or less the way things stood at the end of the first book. But in Goddess-Born, two major changes are happening. One arises naturally from the level of technology enjoyed by the people of Grandlock: this is incompatible with the governing structure of the country. It’s not an accident that in the history of our own world, the development of printing and the early stages of the industrial revolution coincided with a wave of democratic reform and revolution that swept Europe and European colonies (such as America). Grandlock faces the same. The nobility have used the new technologies to force farmers off their land, creating a pool of unemployed people and forcing wages down; the people are suffering economically and, with printing, ideas about self-government and equality are rapidly distributed among them. Revolution looms.
For the Grandlock Revolution I used the French Revolution as a template just because it makes for good drama, so I put in a nice storming of the palace, the troops turning on their masters, and the rise of a provisional government that initiates a bloodbath, hanging noblemen and anyone they perceive to be a threat to their power. I’ve also got a brilliant general in the wings who, after winning some victories, will be poised to take over the government as Napoleon Bonaparte did in France.
The other major change began at the end of The Green Stone Tower, and that’s the return of the Old Gods and the repeal of the witchcraft laws, with a consequent surge of magical activity. Most of my main characters, although not all, are sorcerers, and the gods themselves play a subtle role in the unfolding drama. There is for example a nasty priestess come from the other world, a devotee of Malatant, God of Shadow, and her machinations are behind much of the ugliness that occurs. The head of the provisional government is one of her pupils and a sorcerer in his own right. The two most important characters are children of the Old Gods fostered with a noble family and a merchant family in Grandlock — hence the title of the book; these two are called “goddess-born” because each had a goddess mother — and their opposition to the priestess is perhaps the most important defining plot line. A noblewoman who, for personal reasons, is a part of the democracy movement receives a gift from the God of Art and becomes an eloquent writer of political tracts, and receives guidance from the Goddess of Wisdom about her role in crafting the new government.
As always, the main story is personal, but the background and backdrop are important, and the world in which the personal stories occur impacts the stories themselves. It should all fit together and move logically from one place to another as the story unfolds.
Beginning with your template, as you add each element, fantasy elements included, ask yourself:
- How will people react to this?
- What will the people involved with it do in the world?
- What will their interaction be with the holders of political and economic power, or with ordinary people?
Any changes in material circumstances will always have potential political, economic, and social consequences, and understanding those consequences (whether or not they are an immediate part of the story) is a lot of the art of world-building.