How to build your own fictional world
Remember that this is your world. Take some time to delve into it and decide how similar or completely different to the ‘real’ world it should be. Fictional worlds have been set in completely different times or spaces. These worlds typically contain their own well-crafted continents, with well-detailed countries and locations that have their own backgrounds in the narrative.
A historical background is essential in a world that is entirely different to our own. Not only does it help set up the story itself and determine the conflict in it, it also gives the readers the chance to explore the fictional world as an alternate reality and enjoy the feel and the thrill of a novel, fascinating environment. George Martin’s Westeros (in the A Song of Ice and Fire series) is a long continent that might have been based on the shape of Great Britain. The great northern part is large, yet cold and almost barren, in complete contrast to the lush gardens, warm weather and the gay people of the south. The Starks of the north are just as hard and cold as their land, and when they come down south they hardly fit into the subtle cunning and flagrant backstabbing from honey-tongued folks that characterised politics there. Events quickly escalate into a war.
The entire story itself is driven by a magic system – the Targaryen dragons. They are the Machine. Martin provides a background to the magic system that is in very close keeping with our own history. There is no Rome in this story but there is Valyria, just as old and just as great. The Valyrians are dragonlords, having tamed the beasts centuries earlier; and with these beasts they carve themselves an empire. Instead of proconsuls there are archons, dispatched on dragonback to govern the provinces. The fall in this story is darker: no mere conquest of the Visigoths, there is the Doom of Valyria. The Targaryens, survivors of the horrible cataclysm, turn west and conquer the Seven Kingdoms. But before long they lose their dragons; their Iron Throne naturally followed. But the old generation is reborn in Daenaerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, who brings forth new beasts and through them the old ways.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is set in the same universe as our own, but she introduces a new dimension. Her tool of choice is, of course, the introduction of a magic system, that friend of fiction writers and readers alike. Rowling’s “Wizarding world” is set right in the midst of the ordinary populace. Witches and wizards (individuals not unlike us, except with the ability to do magic) live among nonmagic, everyday folk – referred to as Muggles. There is a hidden platform at King’s Cross Station exclusive to wizards. There is a Ministry of Magic underground in central London, with a Minister for Magic. Rowling crafts a Wizarding world that has not only its own identity, but more importantly the touch of feeling real. That is the appeal. She creates background events for the Wizarding world, events that often correspond with similar happenings in our own history. Witches and wizards used to live openly until the witch-hunts began in Europe. To settle matters and protect themselves, they decide to go into hiding. The international Wizarding government passes a statute of secrecy, establishing laws and protocol for wizards to keep themselves hidden – such as the law forbidding underage magic outside Hogwarts, the Wizarding school. Strict penalties are enforced to deter lawbreakers, and often – when these laws are broken – Ministry officials and the civil service are deployed to undo the harm and create cover-ups. With all these, Rowling ensures that young children will go to sleep every night believing in their heart of hearts that Hogwarts is real. One day they’ll get their letter. One day they’ll have feasts every day and fly on broomsticks – just like Harry.
What rules are in place for your story? For every worldbuilder, there must be laws that bind your fictional universe. The consistency and the limitations that these laws provide are the tools that bring your story to life before your audience. In Harry Potter, wizards are quite unable to do magic without their wands. In Lord of the Rings, no one can move from one place to the other instantaneously, even if they are at a level approaching divinity, so Sauron is forced to watch painfully from his tower as the Ring dances tantalisingly over the edge of Mount Doom. Superman, embodied in Clark Kent, does not have powers except under a yellow sun, nor can he get over his tumultuous relationship with Kryptonite. But your laws do not have to be just limitations. They could serve merely as a simple guide – made obvious through the narrative – of how your world works.
On that note, you do not have to include a magic system either. Your world could be just like our own, but with unique cultures and sensibilities and perhaps a different history. Just ensure that your story comes alive before the reader. To help yourself gain the insight you need, ask yourself questions such as:
What kind of people Iive in this world? Is there a government? Who holds power?
What is the culture like? Is there a hierarchical system in society?
What do people believe in? What are the religious or spiritual beliefs? How do they live their day-to-day lives?
How have things in this world changed over the ages? What are the differences between the current time and the olden days?
Reflecting on these questions and relating them to the personalities and motivations of your characters will help you craft a world that will be just as real to your readers as the world around them.