EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook www.amazon.com/The-Sarcastic-G… for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!
World-building, for me, is one of the biggest things about fantasy. It has, in many cases, saved a book from sucking. Conversely, poor world-building can drag a brilliant plot and excellent characterization down. What is world-building? It is consistency of logic and the new rules that you introduce as part of the story. Easy to say, hard to do. World-building, in good fantasy, more often than not, provides some kind of critical plot point. (If it doesn't, that's okay, but really good fantasy usually takes an established rule and gives it story stakes.)
Examples? Phillip Pullman establishes the rule of daemons in his His Dark Materials trilogy, so that by the end of Book 1, when someone grabs another character's daemon, it horrifies the reader. Because it was so heavily established that touching another person's daemon was anathema, forbidden even in battle, a betrayal of a cultural value. Another, different, example is in Garth Nix's Old Kingdom trilogy, with the seven bells of necromancy consistently behaving as they are described: the bell Ranna always puts someone to sleep; it never does anything different.
This is a two part series, but the first part will be an overview. For the most part, I build my races and worlds through a series of questionnaires. Over the years I've narrowed things down quite a bit, to about 10-15 questions. But if you're looking for a good place to start, Googling world-building questions will help you discover more about your race/culture than you ever wanted to know.
1. Laws and boundaries need to have some kind of ramification for the characters. This rule is at the top, because it's the one I see broken the most often. People take the time to establisha brooding council, an evil king, a cadre of badass soldiers, or what have you, and the characters skip right past them. A country that cuts the hand off of every thief? The hero steals indiscriminately, without fail, every time, and always has. A mansion guarded by the biggest, baddest bunch of guards the world has ever seen? Well, the hero and friends send a grappling hook over the wall and climbs on up. Mostly, this happens because someone is giving detail to a
world, but not willing to explore it further because it's inconvenient to the plot. After all, you want your heroes to confront the evil chancellor in the mansion, because that's a much more interesting scene than killing guards. As tempting as it is to write an anti-hero who plays by his own rules, please keep in mind that societies have rules for a reason, and it's very, very difficult to survive on your own outside of them. A sub-problem of this is having a very strict society, like, say Victorian England, and having a product of that society flout its rules without consequences. If a woman decided to throw off her corset, get drunk, and cavort nakedly in the street in Victorian England, I can't even begin to tell you how badly she'd be beaten. But a lot of people write the sassy heroine with a smart mouth because it's more fun. This bugs the crap out of me. I hate seeing an established society that a "speshul" hero is allowed to give the middle finger to. Not only are you moving into Mary Sue territory, but you're also passing up a prime opportunity for conflict. Show me a hero struggling to operate within a society he doesn't necessarily agree with, and I'll show you a hero with reader sympathy.
2. If "Oh, my God" exists, I want to know why. Religion is one of the major driving forces in the real world, especially the further back in history you go. It's influenced politics, war, and economy, whether you like it or no. Examining religion and its place in your fantasy world is very important, because a world made of atheists is going to have just as many rules and regulations as a world of a thousand gods. Whether your God or gods exist isn't necessarily important, but the way the culture treats them is. Even in our world, an atheist says "Oh, my God" when he's freaked, because there is a cultural backdrop behind the exclamation; our culture has religion in droves. If there are no established gods, talk of an afterworld, or even a chat about metaphysics, and someone says "Oh, my God", it makes my brain short circuit. Where did this God come from? Is it just the one? Is he mad at you for taking his name in vain, or just his priests? Are there priests!? Either find something else for them to say, or establish that there is religion somewhere. Religion is so closely tied with cultural values that to overlook it, whether because you hate it or are attempting to be PC (see Rule 3), odds are that someone, somewhere, in your fantasy world looked up at the sky and said, "Why are we here and what happens after we die?" Differing religions, naturally, make for great conflict. Especially if the gods are real. Keep religion in mind when you're world-building, because it's a massive piece of the puzzle. This doesn't mean you have to go on author tract about it, or even make it a major part of your story, but allow it to be part of the backdrop.
3. Politically correct is not a necessity. Pressure from contemporary cultural norms encourage things like equality, fair trials, and not being racist. Unfortunately, it's only been in
the last hundred years that crap like that has actually become the norm. Women could vote before black people could sit in a restaurant next to whites. Before that, you could put up a sign
that said "No Irish", and before that, you could work children in factories for 16 hours straight for ten cents a day. Before that? A lord owned your ass and the asses of your kids and great-grandkids, and could throw you off your land to starve for getting mud on his doublet. Before that? Well, you were just on your own to keep marauding barbarians off your mud farm. Even Ancient Greece and Rome treated their woman pretty bad, and don't even get me started on stuff like the handicapped or mentally disabled. The Middle Ages are looked upon with a highly romantic air, and don't let that stop you from writing in it, but do a tiny bit of research, please. I love the Middle Ages because it was so different; I love how they made bows, and glass, and built cathedrals. I don't need to see peasant women being treated as valuable member of society, because they weren't; I know it and you know it. Again, that these societies, by our contemporary standards, were unfair gives a lot of opportunity for conflict. Don't skip over it. You need not emphasize in the other direction, like in Monty Python, but show us your world, the dirty and the clean. The good and the bad. It'll make it more believable, and if you don't, odds are you're in cliche' territory with all the other morons.
4. Warfare drives technology; in fantasy, magic would do the exact same thing. A lot of people seem to forget this. If there are people out there who can throw fireballs, I can just about
guarantee you that there's a king out there, with a lot of gold, that he's willing to throw at their feet in order to burn his enemies. And if the fireball throwers refuse, well, they have families, don't they? Or, if they're too dangerous to be allowed to live, a king with an army wouldn't mind trying to wipe them out. And maybe capturing some of their kids, so the kids can be raised to be fireball-throwers for the king. It applies to just about everything. Invisibility? Shapeshifting? Talking with animals? Espionage. Teleportation? Flying? Sneak attack. Energy blasts? Dragon-summoning? Head of the army. I never understood how Paolini's so-called golden age of Dragon Riders wasn't really some kind of military junta, especially since punishment for things like murder and theft would be meted out by flying, scaly death tanks. I mean, maybe your wizard is the one in charge. Magic and what it can do has to be considered very carefully, because it has huge ramifications. Magic is power, and power is everything. Just ask businessman and politicians, and look at what they do with it. I hate seeing heroes with super-awesome destructive powers, who A) never get blackmailed, bribed, or asked to do some fireworks by the folk in charge, B) never get mobbed by people or towns who are
terrified of what they can do, or C) imprisoned for blowing shit up. This goes double for someone whose powers haven't been seen in a thousand years, were responsible for the death of a civilization, or mentioned as having a hand in the end of an age/world by a prophecy. Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle series treats very powerful magic in a realistic way, because the main character becomes embroiled in squabbling factions that each want part of her power. Same with the concept behind X-Men. Don't just give your hero abilities and go with it; examine what kind of ramifications that kind of power would have. I mean, if people freak out about a gun in an office building or high school, imagine how they'd react to fireballs ...
5. How people get food must be examined. Many fantasy writers overpopulate their worlds, not just with a human and elven and dwarven populations, but with massive, immortal dragons, marching orc hordes, and perverted centaurs. First of all, starving people = not fun. Ask anyone who saw or wrote about the French Revolution. In fact, riots in Rome were a big reason why bread and circuses was developed to keep the people happy. If a populace is well-fed
and entertained, it's less likely to riot on you. Conversely, a town under siege usually breaks because it runs out of food, in many cases after they've eaten the horses, dogs, cats, rats, and the dead. One such town gave their guy in charge to Genghis Kahn, because he wanted to keep fighting and they didn't because their families were starving to death. Long story short, I have no
idea how Sauron kept all those Uruk-Hai fed. Conversely, if you have a so-called evil king, who is willing to let Urgals- er, I mean, orcs, march all over the place raping and burning, pretty soon you're going to have a pissed off population. And I don't mean an indignant population, I mean a "I'm so hungry I'll throw myself on a knight in plate mail for the chance to eat his horse" population. Same goes for dragons, who, if they're bigger than elephants or even some whales, would have to eat meat. Meat was a rarity for peasants, who saw it maybe a couple of times a month if they were lucky. Sooner or later, if no one has anything to eat, it all breaks
down. The ones in charge may live, but a lot of people are going to die. The aftermath of the Black Plague saw famine on a scale so massive that harvests literally rotted in the fields. So, if
you have marauding hordes, tectonic plates shifting in a matter of seconds, reality torn asunder, earthquakes, or dragon attacks, you'd better show me what kind of aftermath occurs. Again, story stakes and conflict come in here, but don't just have it for the sake of the hero. Show us the world the hero is defending and why, and we'll be much happier.