Hey, guys! Today, I want to share the #1 thing I wished I had known before writing the first draft of my fantasy novel. World building must come first– before plot and even characters.
I know that seems… extreme, and I understand because my characters are one of my favorite parts of writing. When I began writing, I initially pushed world building aside and played with my characters first. I mean, I did some basic world building before I began my first draft, but nothing thorough. Then during edits, I realized that I needed to develop my world better, and then I realized that world building changed the story I originally told and the characters I created.
After all, could the King of Gondor return to Tatooine? Could the Four Pevensie children save Middle Earth? Could King Arthur pull the sword from the stone in Diagon Alley and ruled over the Ministry of Magic? No, because the best fantasy stories cannot be told in any other world.
Does my story have to be told in my world?
This question is a simple test to see if your world is developed enough. If the answer is not “yes”, then you have some more work to do before you can come back to your plot.
I have seen lots of world building questionnaires about stars or food or plants or economies, but I am not convinced that going through a check list creates a well-developed world. So instead, I want to recommend a personalized version of the fantasy master’s world building strategy. Tolkien’s world building primarily centers around two types of development: inspiration from old myths and putting his personal hobbies into his world.
Most of you know that I am a huge advocate of finding world building inspiration from old myths– there are so many intriguing and underused creatures and so many myths leave me asking “Why?” One of the myths that inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit was an Old Norse list of dwarf names. In the midst of names such as Durinn, Thorinn, Bifor, Bofor, and Bombur was the name “Gandelf” which translates to “wand/staff elf”. Why would a wand elf be listed among a list of dwarves? Well, you have to read The Hobbit to find Tolkien’s answer!
To find inspiration from old myths, I’d suggest you check out Encyclopedia Mythica for a start. The articles are not super detailed, but they have a lot of different mythology, so if you find one you like, you can research from there. Afterall, you cannot tell the same story with a selkie as you can with a peryton.
But Tolkien also used his own hobbies to develop specific aspects of his world above the rest. Tolkien loved languages, so he developed languages. He also loved stars and poetry, so he used that to develop his world. If you don’t like history, then create a world with no written language and a poor oral tradition, but find something else to develop. Maybe you love art, so make your world have a unique type of art or each nation to have a specific style of art unique to them. Maybe you love botany, so create and develop a vivid plant like for different areas of your world. Do you love water or swimming? Make a world underwater and see what the effects of that are. Do you love chemistry? Consider making various potions (ground in real life science) a key aspect of your world’s development. Do you love maps? Then make detailed, accurate maps of your world. Do you love politics, martial arts, thunder storms, tea, or debates? Take what you love and work it into your world. Build your world around what you love.
Could my characters have grown up in any other fantasy world?
If your answer is not “no”, then you should probably set aside your characters and work on world building some more.
While I am a firm believer that we are not merely a product of our environment, the environment someone grows up in will change and affect their personality, goals, and motivation. So can we really expect to transplant a character we have already developed into a new world? Whether a character is a product of the culture around them or a rebel against society, their world is foundational for characteristics and quirks. So while many other genres of writers might come up with characters before setting, fantasy writers should world build first.
As you are thinking about how your world affects your character, consider these questions:
- How does the physical world affect the cultures of your characters?
- What virtues are most valued (this also can tie into your physical world)?
- What aspect of the world and culture is most developed and valued (arts, science, math, storytelling, agriculture, mining, etc.)?
- What do most people want and why?
- Where does your character agree with or value the same things as the culture around them? To what extent are they a rebel against their own culture and society?
By no means is this meant to be an extensive world building questionnaire– there are better bloggers who have done that. But these are just a few questions to get you thinking about how your world affects your characters.
So how important is world building to plot and characters? Maybe important enough to evaluate your story and do a rewrite.
So what do you think about world building? Does your world make the cut, or are you considering more edits like me?