By: Daniel Arenson
Fantasy and science fiction are about other worlds. Sometimes worlds in the distant past, full of wizards and dragons. Sometimes worlds similar to our own but touched with magic. Sometimes other planets or our own planet in the future. One of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of writing speculative fiction is building your world. How can you invent a world that is unique, exciting, and feels real?
Does your world have a high premise, a unique selling point? A Song of Ice and Fire is about a world where seasons can last for years. Dune is about a desert planet. The Chronicles of Amber is about one true world casting infinite “shadows,” including Earth.
You can create an imaginary world simply by inventing new locations–a forest here, a mountain there. But a unique “theme” to your world will help it stand out.
My series Moth is about a planet that doesn’t spin around its axis, leaving one half in perpetual sunlight, the other in eternal night. Each side developed its own cultures, and day and night clash throughout the series. I could have created a simple world where two kingdoms battled, but actually dividing the world between day and night made Moth more memorable.
What makes your world unique?
Fantasy novelists often draw maps for their worlds. This process can help you learn more about your world. As you draw coastlines, mountains, swamps, forests, ruins, and settlements, you can let your imagination run and invent new locations and cultures as you go.
When I created the map for Moth, I used software called Campaign Cartographer. But a map can be as simple as something you draw with pen and paper.
Take a look at my map for Moth here. As you can see, I divided my world into two halves–one half in eternal sunlight, the other in endless night–fitting the theme of my world. I then added geographical features (mountains, forests, rivers) along with cities, roads, ports, and borders. As I was drawing the map, I was also inventing new cultures. Who would live in the desert? What would my islands’ civilizations look like? Drawing the map helped me invent not just the geography but also the people living here.
Fantasy and science fiction worlds often feature different cultures. Each of your fictional civilizations should be unique. What weapons do they use? Longswords, scimitars, katanas, ray-guns? What armor and clothing do they wear? What gods do they worship? What are their naming conventions? What is their history? What is their cuisine? The list of questions goes on.
When creating my fictional cultures, I often “borrow” bits and pieces from real Earth cultures. In Moth, the people of Ilar wield katanas, wear samurai armor, and build pagodas, all borrowed from Japan. Meanwhile, the people of Orida sail longships and live in mead halls, giving them a Nordic feel. The ruins of Til Natay, deep in a jungle, are inspired by the ruins of Ta Prohm in Cambodia.
While my fictional kingdoms aren’t copies of any real civilizations, they do include elements from cultures in our own world–weapons, ship designs, architecture, and so on. For your own worlds, you can seek inspiration from Earth or simply create your nations whole cloth.
You can also let your civilization’s environment influence its culture. On the dark side of Moth, there is no flora. That affects the cuisine of the people living there. I show them eating a variety of mushrooms, salted bat wings, deep water fish, and other foods that don’t require sunlight. Fire is precious on Moth’s dark side, with public fireplaces being elaborate and holy places of congregation. My “night folk” even wear the luminous lures of angler fish as jewelry, trapping the light in glass beads. Different environments–desert, mountain, sky, planets with vastly different geographical features than Earth–will similarly affect your world’s cultures.
Many fantasy novelists simply create copies of medieval England. For your world, you have a chance to create more varied cultures, seeking inspiration in all of Earth’s continents and your own imagination.