I’m thinking of doing a quick series on world building for fantasy and sci-fi, particularly aimed at novel length fiction, but probably applicable to just about everything else. After all, the worlds in which these things are set are often the most memorable things about them (although with Game of Thrones it may be the beautiful lego version of the TV title sequence).
I thought I’d start by saying what I believe to be the wrong way of going about it, inasmuch as anything can be truly wrong in an aesthetic endeavour. The wrong way, for me at least, goes something like this: you sit down with a big piece of paper before you have come up with any story ideas and you draw a big map, being sure to draw lots of individual trees, marking out a neat area for the elven nation and writing in ‘here be dragons’ everywhere you can be bothered.
What’s wrong with that, I hear you ask (actually you probably don’t, because you’re sensible people who don’t talk to your computers, but I’m going to pretend). That is, after all, how almost every RPG type started off making worlds as a kid. It’s fun, it’s simple, but actually, there’s a number of potential problems there.
The first is the timing of it. Even if your story is fantasy, where the world is a major selling point, it is my belief that the essence of the story should come first. Without it, you are making a story (probably a fairly standard one) to fit a world, not creating a world for your story. If you sit down and do your world first, how does it reflect and support your story?
Then there’s the map drawing. Believe me, the least important part of your world is that straggly coastline you’re spending so long over. It isn’t about how it looks. Nor is it hugely about the areas of empty forest signified by those trees I mentioned, except in special cases (such as where huge swathes of forest are important to the character of the world in the story. See Robin Hood). It’s about people, and themes, power centres and economics and all kinds of interactions, not lines on a map.
The problem with the elven nation thing? Well, it means that in drawing a map, you’ve made major decisions about both the composition of the people of your world and the politics of it. Decisions that could radically shape your story. Because you happened to scribble the word ‘elves’ on your map, you’ve committed to the presence of at least one traditional fantasy race, probably along Tolkein’s lines, and you’ve given yourself over to the idea of them having a country, which means that you’ve probably also committed to the idea of every other species having a distinct homeland. You can see how major that could be in terms of the feel of your world.
And finally, we have the dragons. Again, they’re a commitment to an element of traditional fantasy, but they’re more than that. They are implicitly a commitment to either a western European, vaguely medieval feel or (possibly, but not probably) a vaguely oriental one. Again, it’s a prejudgement of the whole tone of what you’re doing.
So am I saying that you shouldn’t draw maps? No, of course not. There’s a time and a place for everything, but what I’m saying is that a map should be an illustration of your decision making process, not something that does it for you.