Fantasy and science fiction share one important thing in common: the world you’re creating is an imaginative, unique world, very different than (or, at least, augmented from) the world we actually live in. While your fantasy or science fiction may be set in our current world, you will have creations and beings that are not common to us, such as magic, supernatural beings, colonies out in the farthest reaches of a new galaxy or technology that has yet to be invented.
In a way, you are the discoverer of new lands, telling your readers about the day-to-day lives and the major event that’s about to change everything. When creating this new land, there are a few options that you should be exploring.
Augmented or Created
The very first question you will want to answer is whether your world is just like our own or whether it’s like no world we’ve ever seen before. This seems like a deceptively easy question. As with all of writing a fantasy or sci-fi story, however, nothing is that easy.
For example, say you’re writing a story based in the real world, augmented by beings that can do magic. How do these beings stay hidden from humans? What happens if humans learn about them? How does their history entwine with human history? Are there rules that keep them safe from humans? Are there rules that keep humans safe from them?
The list can go on and on, but you probably get the point. If you write a story based on augmented fantasy plots, you’re going to have a lot of questions to answer for your readers. Head them off; thinking of every single question is impossible, but you want to be diligent in catching the ones that will cause you major plot hole issues later.
On the other hand, if you’re writing a story in a world completely created on your own, you will have to create the entire experience for the reader. What does food taste like? What does music (if any exists) sound like? How do you convey that to your reader without an info dump? This is both the perk and the challenge of creating a new world; you will define everything, but, then again, you will define everything. It will take a lot of time, most likely a lot of meticulous note-taking and a lot of patience.
Hierarchies or Democracies
Maybe it’s just the international relations and anthropology major in me, but if you create an entirely new world, or even create a world that exists in tandem with our own, you will have political and cultural climates to consider, as well. For example, if anybody ever played the popular vampire games in the ’90s, The Embraced, you know that vampires had different factions with their own leaders, their own cultures, their own power struggles. How does this type of structure look in your world? Are there democratic communities? If so, are they representative (electing an official to speak for the people) or direct (the people form working groups and speak for themselves)? Are they hierarchal? Is it a kingdom? A dictatorship?
There is also culture to consider. What is unique to the art of these communities? What topics, if any, are forbidden? What topics are popular? What is the favorite pastime? What is the favorite food? Are there any nuances to the language that differentiate it from the one you’re writing your story in? What makes headlines? What are the spiritual beliefs? Are there any that tend to clash amongst your communities?
Again, this seems tedious, but all of world-building is. Spending time on these kinds of questions, though, will help you build a world that stands out from many fantasy stories.
Another way to make your story real to your audience is to spend some time on the environment surrounding your characters. Even if your story is based on this world, perhaps your characters feel temperature differently. Perhaps they’re in-tune to storms and disturbances. Using nature to highlight the fantasy details of your story is a great way to immerse the readers in the experience.
In a completely fabricated world, there are still many things to consider. What is the weather like around your character. Is food scarce or abundant? Is water clean or must it be purified? Do you have mild seasons or do they present a danger to your characters? As is always my advice, you’ll want to ask yourself many of these questions, even if you don’t intend to mention it, as making it real for you will make it real for your readers.
Sci-fi writers working on a story about advanced technology may want to pay particular attention to how their new technology affects the world around them. Perhaps the emissions are toxic. Perhaps it runs on clean energy that helps to clean up the environment around it. Whatever you decide, new technology will always have some sort of affect on the environment of your characters, and it should always be considered.
The economy of your created world, believe it or not, is very important. People have to procure resources somehow, and if not hunters and gatherers, they will need to have an established job market. What does that look like in your story?
In an augmented story, again, this is easier—they can look just like ours, or they can look different. In my story, the Sirens are split into Warriors, Healers and Diplomats. These are the only three jobs they can choose from among them, but they can also choose to blend in with humans by holding a human job. Perhaps your characters hold a job with a unique relationship to the fantasy or sci-fi element of your story. Perhaps they hold a human job that is affected by these elements.
In a unique world, you’ll not only have to think of how the elements of your story affect your characters’ jobs, but what the jobs even are. Are they open only to certain people? Are the best paying ones reserved for well-known families, or is there a lot of mobility? Is the job chosen at birth, is there some sort of test or does the applicant just decide to apply? What sort of reputation do the jobs hold? What characteristics are the best fit for the jobs? Does your character hold a job like this? Do they fit well within their job? You will want to answer every single question that comes your way about how your characters work, what that work amounts to and how satisfied they are with their job.
There are a lot of different things to consider when building the world in your story. These are only a few of the pieces you will, at the very least, want to answer for yourself in order to write a well-rounded world. Incorporating your characters into a fleshed-out world makes for an unforgettable experience.