Fictitious worlds are not for the faint hearted. When I started building Elenchera in 1999 I was aware of how foolish I was being, how many hours, weeks, months, even years it would take. Truth be told, it turned out to be longer than I expected! At present Elenchera is still being developed, bit by bit, day by day, with each novel that I write. The bulk of the history is in place. I have 500+ maps, 47,000 years of history, I know the main events that occur and I am confident writing a novel for the Elencheran Chronicles and being comfortable with the zeitgeist of a particular time.
When I looked into building a fantasy world I found a useful guide by Orson Scott Card whose lessons I haven’t forgotten. He argued that with any town you should be able to explain why certain races live there, why they have a particular faith, why they are at war with a neighbouring kingdom etc. Any question that might be asked, you need to be able to answer! In short, world building has to be thorough with its history.
Middle Earth has history spread across thousands of years. The Lord of the Rings takes place in Tolkien’s Third Age but there is much more going on prior to that. The films of the trilogy touched on events in the Second Age in the introduction but much of the narrative goes back as far as the First Age. The Hobbit is around 50 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, whereas The Silmarillion covers the First Age and some of the Second Age. Sometimes writers won’t need to mention the history in depth, dependent on the story, but knowing about it makes for a more convincing narrative in my opinion.
Fantasy games are similar. My favourite RPG series is Final Fantasy and each instalment comes with a different world with a carefully thought out history. The best world in my opinion is that of Spira which features in Final Fantasy X. The narrative covers a period of more than a thousand years with the past being a world where humans are reliant on technology known as machina and in a great war it is machina that has defeated the more natural resources of magic and the summoning of gods. However, punishment comes in the form of a giant monster known as Sin that terrorises the world every ten years.
In the present Spira is a fascinating world with a variety of races, nations and cultures, far more in-depth than any other Final Fantasy game there has ever been. One religious group are followers of Yevon, another are a crusading force known as the Youth League, while a reviled group known as the Al Bhed still use machina where the rest of the world manage without it. Sin is deemed the punishment for the use of machina and as a result the world lives a simple existence in the hope of atoning for the sins of their ancestors. It’s striking that in our own world science and technology, while beneficial to us, have proved so damaging to the world. Will our world end up like Spira? Though Final Fantasy VIII is my favourite in the series, Final Fantasy X has the most complete world and it’s interesting that this game led to a tradition being broken in the series – a sequel in the form of Final Fantasy X-2, which none of the previous instalments had had the privilege of before, they were always self-contained stories.
Intense world building eliminates any headaches when writing a novel. Though ten years of working on Elenchera was often monotonous it is a good feeling being able to pick up a map and plot the journey of a group of characters, read up on the history and know which nation is in control of a particular archipelago when my latest story is set, or know simply how advanced societies are at this time. History is a subject that has always fascinated me. It shouldn’t be ignored. Everything that has gone before has built the world that we live in today and the same intricacy needs to be prevalent in a fantasy or sci-fi world if it is to have enough substance to be convincing.
Elenchera is detailed, around 2,000 pages of timelines, maps, lists, biographies etc but it is a valuable resource to me as a writer. My philosophy is not to regale readers with endless passages about the history of a particular island but simply to touch the surface. The detailed stuff is primarily for my benefit, to help me keep control of the narrative, to help the movement and dialogue of the characters flow more seamlessly.
Only in being fully absorbed in Elenchera can I confidently convey any of its history and the lives of its characters to readers. I feel like I’m Bruce Lee or the Dalai Lama sharing some key wisdom here but only in truly knowing your own world can others even hope to begin to know it too. I’m sure some great philosopher said something along those lines but it seemed appropriate to share it here. What’s that sound? I think it’s the plagiarism lynch mob knocking at the door! I’d best be going!
- Greatest Track Ever: Final Fantasy VI “Ending Theme” (1up.com)
- A World without Compromise by David Brown (riteshkala.wordpress.com)
- Fantasy World Building – Through The Wormhole (laneymcmann.com)
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