The Magical Art of World-Building


“World-building”. To a writer, the very word conjures up excitement and anticipation, the opportunity to let the imagination soar into fresh skies, plunge into original environments, create a world that is absolutely unique—or only a little bit original—from our own. In world-building, one must “step outside the box”, think along paths that are strange. It’s a chance to stave off becoming stale in our writing by engaging in a mind-stretching adventure with all artistic weapons at the ready.

In meeting this challenge with my next novel, Winds of Carthanna, a low-fantasy medieval romance, I’ve discovered building even a slightly different medieval world is both fun and amazingly difficult. I want a novel world (the low-fantasy part), but in a setting that feels so familiar my readers will be at home there. Yet the effort required to step into the future or a place that doesn’t exist is truly daunting. It sounds simple. Just think up something new and write it, but the first thing one learns in world-building is that a new world means new laws by which that world must operate.

If one introduces what seems even a minor alternation, such as the sky will be amethyst instead of blue, it must be believable. Why is it amethyst? Although this information would never get into the story unless, e.g., the people of the world can control the weather, the author still must gain an idea behind what causes the change. (Magic? Thought control? Advanced technology? Unique cosmic circumstances?) But it ripples out from there. Each of those creates its own set of ever-expanding variations to real life, not to mention that a different color of sky will probably mean different vegetation, possibly differing climatic conditions. The people who inhabit the world may see a dissimilar visible color spectrum, or even hues unique to our real world – and that’s only the beginning. One question leads to ten others, which lead to… well, you get the idea. If one initiates a major innovation like some form of magic or an original race of beings, not thinking through the rules governing this alteration can lead to painting oneself into a corner very quickly — and then having to figure out how to write one’s way out.

What might seem a tiny bump along this road can become a pitfall (it required over an hour of work and uncounted permutations of a known word to generate a brand new word to describe my hero. In the process, I learned how much care an author must take when I discovered that the made-up word I liked the best turned out to be a real word that had a rather unfortunate definition in another language. Eek!)

It’s even difficult to decide how to describe my setting in world-building terms beyond “low-fantasy historical romance”. A “mirror” earth in a parallel universe? An alternate reality? Yet that shoves hard against sci-fi boundaries, and I want the fantasy kingdom I’m building to feel like it belongs to a distant time on our earth. After all, I want my knights to ride horses, but realistically, how many other worlds possess equine transportation? Yet my research indicates a fantasy kingdom within our world must have an explanation of how it can exist all unknown to us. So far, I can’t think of one that hasn’t already been dreamed up.

You might ask, is it worth it? Oh, yes.

Aye, it’s a challenge. I’ve got a list of about 150 questions to answer about my imaginary kingdom. Some are easy. Others are not. Aye, it means way more time and effort than normal research. But oh, it’s fun! It’s also invigorating to the creative process. When I return to the last two books in the Ballads of the Roses, I’ll be ready to tackle those stories with mind and heart refreshed.



4 thoughts on “The Magical Art of World-Building

  1. This kind of world building is fascinating–but it sounds very difficult. Especially coming up with all the rules governing the new reality–and remembering those rules!! That must call for a good sized notebook (oh, of course, computer folders-full 🙂 ) of information. Looking forward to reading the result of your planning!


  2. This sounds like you’re enjoying the process, Mairi! I’ve found, even when attempting to stay true to history as we know it, discovering facts and words can be difficult when you’re writing of a time before much written word, or a time when all records were lost to war or other tragedy. And, in one of my books, a known Medieval word had been resurrected in the urban dictionary to mean something entirely different (and slightly embarrassing, I might add!). Wishing you plenty of imagination!! ~Cathy


    • Màiri, who is still internet-less, says to tell you that she’s dazzled by the number of components as well! Thanks for noticing . ..


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