Borgor crept forward across the stony floor. He'd trekked for many leagues across the plains of V'lsht to reach the lair of the nekromancer Yoxxat, in the heart of the isolated volcano. Muttering a prayer to Benef, god of adventurers, he pressed on. How had he let the president talk him into this? Distracted, he did not notice the narrow chasm until it was nearly too late. Only by shooting out a hand and grabbing a stalactite did he avoid a hundred-foot plunge into boiling lava!
So you've decided to design a world. Maybe you're a budding novelist.
Perhaps you produce computer games. Most likely, you're a GM running a fantasy role playing game. In any case, you feel you need a setting for your adventurous narrative, be it a planet, a continent, or just a city. This article is addressed primarily to those working in a genre-fantasy context, but science fiction authors are not left out. Fantasy authors are more prone to the pitfalls of the exercise, however, since sci-fi authors are likely to have background knowledge of appropriate fields. The various areas below need not be addressed in the order given. Each writer will have preconceptions about the design process, and the intention here is to inform, not destroy, those ideas.
Geography and geology
Firstly, it's not essential to draw a map in order to create a world, and you may be better off not doing so. Lois McMaster Bujold barely ever provides maps for her novels, leaving the fans to figure it out. Terry Pratchett's famous Discworld was only mapped once well over a dozen novels had been produced, by piecing together assorted references in the books. Secondly, when you do draw a map, draw one which makes sense. While it's entirely acceptable to say that the gods built this or that landform, or that a thing was created by magic, it's not really OK to produce nonsense. The Forgotten Realms world suffers especially from this, partly through being written about by several different authors. One FR novel happily places an artesian well directly above a location where the setting's originator Ed Greenwood had already established there were natural caverns. As these caverns are shown with stalagmites and stalactites, it's a reasonable bet that they're limestone or similar. Artesian wells form where the bedrock is clay. Elsewhere in the same world, a lone volcano is placed in the centre of a large bay at the edge of a continent. J R R Tolkien is nearly as bad, although Karen Wynn Fonstad's Atlas of Middle-Earth tries heroically to make it all fit.
In general, decide what forces govern the geography of your world, and make sure that the topography is consistent with them. If you envision a plate-tectonic composition for your world, work out which mountains are fold mountains and which ones are created by subduction, intrusions or parts of basin and range systems. Rivers flow over impermeable rocks but sink into permeable ones. The directions of ocean currents and prevailing winds are affected by planetary rotation. Mountains affect climate, creating rain shadows. Different kinds of caves are formed in different kinds of rock. Most are incompatible with those terribly dramatic lava flows that fantasy creators love so much. A little leeway is allowable, but someone, sooner or later, will notice if one of your centrepiece locales should have dissolved. Using magic as the explanation for such quirks will wear thin if overused.
Human geography also requires care. During the Roman era in western Europe, planned towns with grid street plans were the norm, as in modern-day America. Similarly, dead straight roads linked towns and forts with little regard to the tribal inhabitants round about. However, from the middle ages until about 1900, towns developed more or less at random or according to convenience. Roads followed contours in the landscape, or curved to take in villages along the route. Towns were built either by rivers, for fresh water and trade, or on hilltops, for defensibility and vision. While it may be aesthetically interesting to make your imperial capital a perfect circle with a radius of three miles, evenly divided into eight memorable districts, it's worth pausing a moment. Is the population growing or shrinking? Are the sizes of the districts appropriate to the level of employment in the industries which occupy them? What was the area like before the planned city was built? If you are seeking an authentically medieval flavour, making things a bit more organic and higgledy-piggledy will help. On another 'human' geography note, why is it that the villains often seem to live in barren, inhospitable terrain, yet command armies vastly superior to those of their plains-dwelling victims? Don't bad guys have to worry about supplies?
History and mythology
Just as maps are neither essential nor automatically good, so too with timelines. It may give a pleasing sensation of power to describe events ten millennia before the frame of your main story, or to envisage endless royal lines. But you risk boring the reader or player, and painting yourself into a corner. The history of the real world does not, in the main, consist of heroic struggles against monolithic evil, or the wise reign of stable and beloved dynasties. An examination of the Hundred Years' War, for example, shows that millions of people died, very little permanent gain was achieved by either side, and that the dramatic moments were mainly the product of fluke rather than grand strategy. The Habsburg dynasty, which of all European houses most closely resembles the Numenorean model of Middle Earth, was nevertheless a family like any other, only more in-bred. It had good members and bad ones, high points and low. History is notably short of long-lost heirs reclaiming their thrones, evil empires cast down in ruin, and kings whose rule would stand up to democratic scrutiny. This is not to say a fantasy world
cannot have these. They are among the staples of the genre. It would be prudent,
though, to be clear that other, more 'regular' historical events occur as well.
Otherwise, when the present story gets under way, the central roles of the heroes
and villains will be far too obvious, and suspense will be destroyed.
Mythology, likewise, can suffer from being too heavily structured. Anyone wishing to find a real-world pantheon with distinct gods of good, evil, law, and chaos will search in vain. While dualist systems like Zoroastrianism are certainly known, the philosophical complexities dreamed up by Gary Gygax and his ilk are not well-suited to myth-making. Have a read of something like The Golden Bough, and consider for a moment what the feel of a real-world myth is like. By the time the ancient Greeks were writing seriously structured accounts of how the gods came to be, they were simultaneously coming to regard those same gods as little better than fairy stories. Even if the truth of your fantasy theology is based on some hard structure, bear in mind that the peoples who worship the gods or tell the tales will probably not see it that way. Priesthoods of rival deities will not seem very passionate about their faiths if they appear to the reader more like government departments, each promoting their portfolio on behalf of some higher power yet. If you present some philosophical or religious concept of 'the balance' between good and evil, of idealised neutrality, beware of pitfalls. If
'good' must somehow be kept down to maintain the 'balance', then you are undermining the moral idealism of the 'good' faction, and giving validation to the 'evil' side. And if all educated people in the world believe in the 'balance', it will be difficult to depict convincing differences of moral opinion. Seriously powerful beings who serve the ideal of balance can also become the ultimate deus ex machina, guaranteed to reverse any crucial situation at the last moment.
Some writers feel the need to expound their own moral or religious beliefs in the form of fantasy literature. If done in a skilled and sensitive manner, this can be both informative and enjoyable. J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis each did this in their own ways, but all their works are distinctively Christian in character, which does not detract at all from their value as literature. Philip Pullman notably puts an opposed, atheist position in his works. Difficulty arises from this approach when the story and setting become heavy-handed as a consequence. Lewis' The Last Battle is arguably an example of this, and I understand from others that Silver RavenWolf's Teen Witch series, as well as being terribly pulpy, also suffers a lot from proselytising. This may be the reason that the designers of RPG worlds, many of whom are Christians, choose rather amoral polytheistic structures for their games.
Society and sexuality
For anyone living in the modern world, and especially in the 'New World' of
America and Australasia, it can be hard to envisage a world whose social
structures are radically different. When creating a fantasy world based on
medieval Europe, remember that there were no democracies of the modern sort at all. Social mobility was generally limited, especially in rural areas. In areas not dominated by autocratic monarchs or powerful feudal lords, the church or the guilds usually held sway. Even those states which were notionally republics often chose their leaders from a very limited pool with hereditary membership, creating a de facto nobility. Moreover, the modern nation-state did not exist. Different domains could overlap, as where the Norman and Angevin kings of England theoretically owed fealty to the French king for their continental posessions. Borders were fluid, if they existed at all, and many of the better-defined states were tiny, consisting of single cities. Some lords held several domains which were not connected to one another, having married foreign heiresses.
The saying that there is no honour among thieves seems entirely disregarded by many fantasy authors, who choose to depict highly obtrusive thieves' guilds in their cities. In a few rare examples, these guilds are convincing gangs, but all too often the guilds appear stuffed with gentleman jewel-thieves, tarts with hearts, and chirpy street urchins, to the exclusion of any truly threatening criminal element. It's as though the authors have watched the drinking-den scene from Lionel Bart's Oliver! without noting that its main character is subsequently horribly murdered.
One particular social phenomenon deserves a mention. There seems to be something of a fashion in relatively recent fantasy literature of addressing questions of sexuality. Issues ranging from prostitution to homosexuality are presented through the medium of the fictional society. While this may sometimes be apposite, it is best done with care. The real medieval world was neither liberal about sex nor terribly hygenic. While it may be dramatically interesting, not to mention titillating for author and reader, to describe sophisticated and egalitarian cities where sexual experimentation is easy, it can strain the suspension of disbelief. The temple healers must have unlimited power and patience to support such a system, one feels. Conversely, gritty or violent sexual depictions may turn off the reader without enhancing the world created. One particular pitfall to beware of is the creation of idealised same-sex couplings of the opposite sex to yourself. Enough has been written elsewhere about women writers who eroticize gay men for female readers. The converse is perhaps even more likely. Make sure you know what sort of fantasy you are depicting. We can't all be Anne Rice.
Tolkien started the rot. Being a linguistics expert himself, he drew up
languages even more readily than maps. Ever since, fantasy authors have felt the
need to give their worlds apparent depth by including snippets of non-English
tongues. However, not all those who do so are linguists themselves. And even if the characters do not converse in an alien language, place names may be expected to reflect the linguistic traits of the locals. Be very wary of simply throwing together little-used letters like V, K, X, and Z in order to give an exotic feel. Likewise accent-marks and apostrophes. If your readers will not readily grasp what an accent-mark is meant to stand for, leave it out. Lynn Flewelling is notably guilty on this point. There's nothing wrong with using elements of real-world languages. Raymond E Feist's Midkemia features many English- and French-style names, and does just fine. J K Rowling's Harry Potter novels likewise make deft use of European languages. If you must devise a language from whole cloth, be sure to be consistent. Anyone trying to understand the place-names in David Eddings' Belgariad and Malloreon series is asking for headaches. Of course, real-world names can be confusing or inconsistent too, but usually there's a good underlying reason.
It is also goofy and distracting to invent new spellings of existing words simply for effect. 'Magic' was a good enough spelling for previous generations, and if you start using 'majik' instead, you will detract attention from what your magic actually does. Please, please don't call your planet 'Yrth', or any other funky re-spelling of 'Earth'. Take my word for it. Moreover, if you devise languages, make sure they are consistently used. If the heroes need an interpreter to make themselves understood in a particular place, apply this rule consistently. It may be very simple to declare that a 'common tongue' is spoken by everyone in the world, but it's unconvincing. Historically, languages with a wide geographical spread usually, though not always, were understood mainly by specific social classes such as scholars. And where a language was more universally known, it might only exist consistently as a script, or a spoken language, rather than both.
Time and distance
As with languages, maps, and timelines, original calendars are not essential. Tolkien struck a happy balance by detailing the various calendrical systems of Middle Earth in the appendices to the Lord of the Rings, and using the Gregorian calendar in the main text. A natural advantage of this approach is that the reader will not have to flick to the front or back of the book mid-paragraph to find out when the month of Zgkrbh is. Also, while many fantasy authors create new calendars, it's remarkable how many of them nevertheless make a year 365 days and a month 28, plus or minus one in each case. A further habit is to divide the year into 12 months, each as long as a lunar cycle, and assign the remaining days to festivals lying outside months (and usually outside weeks, too). The underlying misconception seems to be that this irons out the mismatch between months and moons, which it doesn't. If you want months to match moons, make the year length evenly divisible by the length of the lunar cycle. Also, having too many days a year that belong to no week will make the weekdays themselves irregular and unmemorable, undermining the idea of a week itself. Better, perhaps, not to devise a calendar at all.
If you've drawn a map, make sure you understand its scale. If you measure
everything in leagues, make sure you at least know how long you've decided a
league is. Avoid measuring things in kilometres, as the metric system is overtly modern. Also, if your map covers about a twentieth of the planet's surface or more, decide what projection it's meant to be. If you don't know the difference, compare a Mercator projection to an equal area one in a real-world atlas. Also be aware that magical or other means of flight, or clairvoyance, greatly increase the likelihood of accurate maps being available within the setting. As a consequence, characters may well be aware of other continents - so you certainly should be. Too many fantasy worlds cover only single land masses. Ursula le Guin's Earthsea series is a pleasant change, in this as in other respects, from the likes of Middle Earth, Dragonlance, and a zillion and one other one-continent settings. Make your mind up how tall your mountains will be, and check your choice against real examples, for plausibility. Be clear as to how far you think a day's travel is under various conditions, too. Tolkien seems to have changed his mind over this between The Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring, when the journey from Bag End to Rivendell takes vastly different lengths of time. This wouldn't be so bad, except that the well-equipped party, travelling openly along the high road, takes much longer than the poorly-equipped fugitives.
Values of measures, such as pounds and feet, not to mention miles, were different in different places. A museum in Bremen, Germany, exhibits whole sets of foot-rules for the measures of different towns and countries. Kalen has pointed out to me that there's no problem with a system which apes the
metric system, but has an explanation rooted in the physical dimensions of an old
king, or something. This highlights the underlying issue. People often feel
comfortable with a system which has grown up or been accepted over time. Even the
subtle change from the Julian to Gregorian Calendar attracted a lot of comment at the time, and the French Revolutionary Calendar seems terribly jarring to us because it is forced, and at odds with its surroundings. There is an inevitable fondness for what feels organic and time-worn, and it is often part of the ethos of a traditional fantasy world that this is the case. Of course, if you want the world to feel artificially ordered and constrained, go right ahead and have systematically named months and totally standardised weights and measures.
The impact of technology on the world is often a key theme in fantasy literature, without being fully developed or understood. In The Hobbit, Tolkien attributes the invention and manufacture of weapons and instruments of torture to the goblins, and develops this theme in The Lord of the Rings with Saruman's agressive industrialism. Yet despite the fact that the villains have much of the industrial might, and the heroes live either in idealised rustic and wilderness settings or in purely defensive fortress-cities, the artefacts of the orcs and goblins appear crude and ill-formed, while the heroes are equipped with fine goods. This is particularly vivid in the film versions, where the Uruk-Hai appear to have swords made of highly brittle pig iron, while Anduril is forged from the shards of Narsil by two skinny elves with the minimum of equipment in a woodland glade. It's difficult to see why Saruman has such muscular and tireless workers, huge fuel supplies, and countless 'gears and wheels', but cannot produce properly forged weapons.
Similarly, other fantasies have the heroes and heroines decked out in highly
fashionable fitted boots and breeches which require machinery to produce in
advance of the technological setting around them. Again and again, the villains are industrially advanced and powerful, yet produce crude, ugly and ineffective items, while the heroes' homeland is pastoral and idyllic, but able to equip them with finely-tooled weapons and the like. This goes hand-in-hand with the paradox of agriculture. The villains live in wastelands, and have advanced technology, but never seem to consider the option of irrigation. Nor do they need to, since their armies seem not to need to eat. There is often a morally didactic element to such portrayals, as the author's feelings about the applications of technology in their own time and place take precedence over plausibility in the heroes' environment. There is also a reverse fallacy, where an unscientific hero-character, faced with an insurmountable problem, 'invents' a technological solution which is in reality either unworkable or a modern product of scientific research and enquiry. A typical example of this is the ship portage in David Eddings' Belgariad, not to mention various books in which vegetable oil is a high explosive.
Food and drink
It's curious how many fantasy heroes seem to go about their business eating
nothing but trail rations, stew, and occasional banquets. The scene with the bowl of stew in the extended DVD version of The Two Towers had strong, and probably deliberate, echoes of the 'stew' entry in Diana Wynne Jones' book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. When your heroes are in any sort of centre of civilisation, remember that the food can and probably should go beyond stew. Styles of cooking, food taboos, and standards of preparation can vary widely from place to place. Indeed, the heroes may order that reassuring, familiar-sounding stew only to find that the local recipe has hot peppers in it! Some cultures eat horse meat, and others absolutely do not. Even in modern Europe, this can vary over very short distances. Some vegetables are considered animal feed in one place, and culinary essentials in another.
Why not wash down all that fascinating food with a mug or two of the famous
dwarven ale? Because a traditional ale uses grain, hops, and warm-fermenting yeast, that's why not. I have read far more books with dwarven ale in than ever explain how the dwarves come by these ingredients. Even if you're strictly early medieval, and ignore the hops, it's worth pausing to wonder how you get grain down those mineshafts. Likewise elves who make wine in dense forests. As many noders have pointed out since this article was originally posted, it's quite possible to make beer and wine drinks out of many fruits and crops. This is, of course, the way a skilful writer rationalises these traditional fantasy elements. In doing so, depth is added to the world, as different production techniques are employed by the various peoples.
The cardinal rule in all of this is to preserve mimesis - that is, the apparent reality of your world. You don't need to have volumes of abstractions like language and geology if you don't think you'll use them. But a little care can give the reader the pleasing illusion that such things could exist, and that there are no glaring contradictions lurking just below the surface. A little thought about the points mentioned can lead to an altogether more pleasing experience for the player or reader.
With thanks to Swish Girl and mock style, for proofing and advice.