World-building is at once one of the most exciting and daunting parts of any fantasy writer’s process. I’ll walk through some of the steps that were helpful to me as I created the world behind my debut novel, We Are the Fire.
1. CREATE THE PREMISE
The starting point can be different for every author—maybe a character, plot point, or question.
For We Are the Fire, the story began with an emotion: I wanted to watch something burn. My day-job at the time was led by corrupt people, and it was difficult to know who to turn to for help or how to resolve the situation. To vent out my frustration, I wanted a story about an arsonist—specifically, someone who could set fires via magic.
Whatever your starting point may be, have a clear understanding of it… because you’ll build a world around that idea.
2. CREATE A WORLD TO SUIT THE PREMISE
If you begin with a character, you’ll need a world that complements—and most importantly, challenges!—this character. Or start with a plot point or a question, and you’ll need a world where this idea is plausible but also causes friction.
For WAtF, I needed a world where teens had the ability to set fires through magic. But it I didn’t want that ability to make them powerful. They weren’t the ones in charge; rather, they were at the bottom, told what to do and forced to serve.
How could that be? What if it were an empire situation, and these teens were in its army—not by choice, but made to fight in it. Their home countries had been conquered, and they were stolen away and given these fire powers.
And how did they receive these fire powers? In fantasy, characters can be born with magic, learn it through a special school or mentor… or, they can have the power bestowed upon them. I chose the latter for WAtF, and had the characters gain their fire magic through an alchemical transformation. I played fast and loose with our world’s alchemy—which already toes real-world magic, a mystical version of science! In WAtF it’s not metals being transformed, but people turned from ordinary humans into beings who can raise fire with a spark and a breath.
3. TIME PERIOD
When you’re creating a world, you’ll need to think about the time period it exists in, because that affects everything from the societal standards to available technologies. I wanted WAtF to be an industrial-age fantasy on the cusp of technology. There’s a steam locomotive that appears several times, along with a telegraph—and both play an important part.
Think about how time period serves your story. Think about when your characters need to live, what that time period offers (and doesn’t!) and how those options both help and hinder the characters.
4. CREATE A HISTORY FOR THE STORY WORLD
Whenever your story is set, you’ll need to understand how the story world got to that point: how and why the society built itself to the structure, viewpoints, and limitations presented in your book.
For WAtF, I had to ask myself why the people of Vesimaa were stealing children from conquered nations and transforming them into fire-wielding warriors. What had pushed them to such dire and horrible actions? And how did they justify it?
To answer these questions, I told myself stories about this world: Vesimaa had once been a peaceful and largely rural country of farmers and craftsworkers who loved music, food, and family. The country was blessed with forests and fertile lands, as well as mines with the highly combustible verikivi mineral.
Enter Scamall: A fierce nation of industry and war. The people of this country weren’t afraid to take resources from others. They invaded Vesimaa for its natural resources, especially the verikivi mines.
Vesimaa created their army of fire soldiers as a way to get Scamall out of their borders. But they didn’t stop there. Out of fear, of desperation, and a sense of working toward their country’s future security—because everyone is the protagonist in their own story—Vesimaa conquered their neighboring countries to add those resources and young fighters to their continued defense against Scamall.
5. CREATE FOLKLORE, TOO
Don’t stop with historical facts. Think about folklore, too: the stories people tell themselves to make sense of their world. Folklore is a great way to learn more about the traditions and perspectives of other cultures and times, and it’s often a fun addition in any fantasy world.
In WAtF, the army of fire soldiers, Tuliikobrets, are named for the legendary fire demons once said to walk Vesimaa and guard it. The incendiary verikivi stones, key ingredient in the alchemical process that creates the fire soldiers, are believed to be the work of these ancient demons.
GO FORTH AND WRITE!
Remember, when building a fantasy world, start with the seed of your story idea and build up a world around it—one that both serves and challenges your characters and their goals.
Sam Taylor grew up in Arizona's deserts and now lives among Connecticut's trees. She spends her days writing, being mom to the world's cutest boys, whirling through dance workouts, and baking too many cakes. She does not possess fire magic, but does have one fire-colored cat. We Are the Fire is her debut novel.