Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Worldbuilding #2

And here we are, the second part of what may become a quest in its own right: my codification of methods for constructing and fleshing out worlds both like unto and separate from our own. Now we enter my comfort zone, genre fiction. And more specifically, fantasy.

The first rule? No taverns.

Let me clarify that before you can call me on how truly preposterous that is. I mean you should not open your story in a tavern, and you should avoid handling major plot points in a tavern. Same goes for inns. I’m not saying you can’t have them in your story, but you need to wait until later. Because taverns and inns are absolutely everywhere in fantasy. And of course,  Tolkien used them. The Inn of the Prancing Pony in the Lord of the Rings is an extremely prominent example of everything people expect from a High Fantasy tavern: gritty mercenaries, shady hangers-about, the mysterious badass sitting in a corner who turns out to be crucial to the story. So you cannot use any of these things to get your story rolling. Unless, of course, you are very very good, because you can get away with anything in writing if you’re very very good. My comma-splicing, on the other hand, is just a transcribed form of the manner in which I speak.

So where would I suggest you go as an alternative? Hard to say; where you start in the world will be governed by the rules it works by and the particular geography of the place. If you don’t have at least a vague mental image of your world’s layout and layabouts, that would be an excellent place to start. First of all, what subset of Fantasy is this? Is it idealized High Fantasy, where Paladins are Paladins, all villains have mustache-twirling contests (yes, even the ladies) and the laws of physics are whatever the gods feel like that afternoon? Is it Low Fantasy, with a mix of good and bad, some ideals that hold up and others that don’t, and where elements of rationality make the irrational even more so? Or is it, indeed, Dark Fantasy? Because whichever of these you’re going with should affect the full condition of the world, from its landscapes to its biomes to its wildlife, not just the average number of ‘fucks’ and ‘whoresons’ spouted in a given Merchants’ Guild meeting.

If it’s High Fantasy, how many of the ‘classic’ races are you bringing along, and if so which? What are the politics between them? Where are the biggest threats to the world? If it’s Low Fantasy, which fantastic elements actually exist in this world? And if it’s Dark Fantasy, it better be a thrice-damned satirical world mocking all the edgy tropes and general angst associated with the term Dark Fantasy, because that’s all gotten very dull. I’m joking, by the way, you write whatever you want. Just be clever with it, hm? Getting back on topic, let’s say I decide to go with High Fantasy. While there’s no specific order I have to do this stuff in, some questions I’ll need to address are:

1. How extensive is this world’s history, and how well-preserved is it? Do people constantly stumble across the ruins of ancient civilizations like it’s Indiana Jones and The Excess of Somehow Untouched Artifacts, or is it easier to find a pure diamond in a wheat field than a single shard of a thousand-year-old feeding bowl? This is a big one because I shouldn’t go and suggest that most of the prior civilizations have left little behind them and then start conjuring ancient relics from out of nowhere in order to give adventurers something to do. For that matter, if my world has a lot of adventurers, they either need to be terrible at it or the traps in these ruins need to be impossibly deadly. Otherwise there’s not going to be enough to go around, and no bards want to sing about the lone legion of six hundred heroes who swept into the ancient necropolis and snagged all the valuables therein. That’s just too many names to keep track of.

2. How does magic work? Does it consist of its own set of rules, or does it function within those of physics? Are the limits defined by the caster or the castings themselves? In the most general sense, can it replicate thermonuclear explosions or not? Because this actually has huge geopolitical implications that need to be taken into account. If five-year-old children regularly manifest dangerous powers that they don’t know how to control which turn everyone around them into red confetti, people may have concerns about letting those mages just do whatever. On the other hand, if I don’t arbitrarily include a group who are able to completely nullify magic by… using magic, the people may not have much choice. Whatever the rules are, they should be consistent.

3. Are there deities? Do they interact with the world directly, through selected representatives, or not really at all? Do they just draw power from the things they represent, or do they actually control those things? Are people pissed at them for a perceived lack of helpfulness, or a genuine lack of helpfulness? Because people are going to be pissed at the gods regardless.

I could go on with this for pages, of course, but I’m sure you’ve got the idea now. You may not necessarily need to write your world’s rules down, but you need to know what they are. They may not be relevant to the story in a direct sense, but they’ll govern the behavior of your main characters and all the generous folk and general jackasses they meet along their way to do whatever it is you figure they should be doing. And of course, you’ll have a much easier time deciding on a plot with all these rules in place, because then you know which ones it’s most compelling to fiddle with.

I apologize for the relative dryness of this one. That’s how rules are, y’see. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say ‘Yay, a rigid set of instructions, disobedience of which will bring severe consequences!” Largely because people don’t talk like that in our world. But maybe in your world they do, and that’s a rule in itself. It’s also joke you can’t use, because I’ve already burned everyone out on the Needlessly Elaborate Phrasing line of humor, but it might be a rule. Next time, however, we get to meatier subjects: the effect these rules have had on your world at the time your story begins, and how you can play around with them in order to make life a little more interesting.

Just don’t bring in any drunken Dwarves. Because, and everyone say it with me, “Peter Jackson did it, but I can’t remember if it was in the book, so that’s sort of open-ended isn’t it?” But also because there’s hilarious tragedy in a bunch of squat, beard-endowed fellows who drink constantly and never get drunk.

(Part One Here) (Part Three Here)

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