Building A Credible Fantasy World
I’ll never forget the day that I finished The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien. I was in graduate school, and I was already a fan of the rest of Tolkien’s books, but I had never really thought about crafting my own fantasy world until I read this. Here was the whole creation and history of an imagined world that could (and did) spawn countless stories and characters. And there was even magic in the world that had its own reasoning and order and rules. It all fit! Taking The Silmarillion with the whole of Tolkien’s work, nothing seemed arbitrary. Quite the contrary, everything to seemed to grow organically from the beginning of things, just like our own world.
With this knowledge, I started thinking about the story that is now Scar of the Downers (which will eventually be a trilogy). It started with one character, Crik, and blossomed from there. Crik lives in the city of Ungstah, but how did Ungstah come to be? And there other characters from a different city, how did that one start? And who are these other characters, what is their origin?
Since my novel was an adventure-based story, the first thing I had to create was a map. I had to know where my characters were going. So, I sketched one out in about five minutes.
As the months and years wore on, I added more and more to the map. I also moved things around as the story required.
Little by little it changed. As the histories became known, the names began to change. Layers replaced other layers and the land took shape...
... until I arrived at the map below (which I will admit is not completely finished or detailed.
As I wrote the story and created new characters, I had to build their home into my world. Little by little I added to the world (and the map), creating backstories about parts of the land, giving them their own histories, even if some of them didn’t make it into the final draft of the book.
An example of this concerns Wester Village, the town surrounded by a wall in the first scene in Scar of the Downers. Andevin and Fordon are sitting in a tavern there. In creating the world and writing the book, I drew up a short history of how and why the people of Wester Village built the wall around it. Though it didn’t make it into the final draft of the story, it is still there, perhaps subtly informing the action, and who knows, might make it into another book down the line.
One of my favorite aspects of fantasy novels is, perhaps not surprisingly, the magical and fantastical elements. I like to be taken away from the “real world” and transported somewhere that has mystery, prophecies, and enchantment. So I imagined all kinds of magical things, and then part of the fun was developing the boundaries of it, who could do it, what could counteract it, that type of thing.
And then, there are the fantastical characters. Just like the villages, the cities and the forests, all the characters have a history of how they came to be. In Scar of the Downers, there is a race of people called the Dendron that live amongst the trees. They have a story of their origin that they have passed on from one generation to another. It is their history. This is a short write-up of the Dendron’s genesis:
Ages ago, a wizard, who often liked to wander through the nearby forest, was treading along his well-worn path. Normally, he would bring his staff with him when he traveled, but since he was so close to home he decided to leave it there. What he didn’t know was that a beast had come down from the nearby mountains and was searching for prey.
It had tracked the wizard on his walk where it attacked him, knocking him down. But with his staff at home, he had nothing with which to defend himself. The wizard picked up the closest thing to him, which happened to be a stick, and with it, he defeated the beast.
Grateful for his life, the wizard examined the stick and was thankful for its strength. He then asked the stick what it desired.
The stick replied, “Life.”
Returning the stick back to the tree would only guarantee that it would eventually break. But who would graft it on again? No, that would not do. For saving his life, the wizard promised the stick life by giving him branches that would not be cut off and a life that would not end with the seasons.
The stick asked the wizard, “How can you do that for I am only a branch?”
The wizard replied, “I will give you breath. Blood shall flow through your body and a voice shall come from your mouth. The forests will be your home, and where you die a tree shall grow. You blood will be its water, your body its roots.”
From this, a race was born.
(This was an artist's rendition of the Dendron. Illustrated by Tia Beattie)
I know I will never reach the breadth and depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (after all, he created his own language!). However, I know that will certainly have fun trying.