First, a disclaimer:
Normally, I world-build accidentally: I start writing a story and then end up building a setting around it.
This works decently for me, but it ends up with a couple problems, the biggest of which is artifacts of old ideas hanging around (seems like that part in the Matrix where they meet the vampires, etc.): is it Calenta, Calenna, Catenna? And shouldn’t that be an initial K anyway?
Sometimes I start with a mood, or a specific scene – Emrys being forced by his vow to kneel for Shahin, for instance – or a feeling. That determines certain things: if the mood is oppressive-government-control, there must be an oppressive government. If a vow forces someone to their knees, then vows have that power.
A lot of times, the worldbuilding comes from a question or a plot bunny or just an idea that appeals to me. That stuff is organic, and sometimes it Tribbles, grows out of control, and is hard to track.
Sometimes, I answer questions, and those questions set things in place, and lead to more questions. For instance, right now I’m pondering how a sexist, tightly-gender-bound matriarchal monarchy (Tír na Cali) handles transpeople (Carefully).
But before you get more than a few drabbles in a world, there a few questions even I like to answer first (after you’ve picked a broad genre, of course)
- Is this on Earth? If not, where are we?
- Sci-Fi offers in-and out-solar system, in- and out-galaxy, space ships, asteroids, and the question of whether or not they’ve ever heard of Earth (Star Wars for a “no”; Star Trek for a “yes.”)
- Fantasy offers: second-world, a place that is in no-way Earth (Middle Earth); a place that one travels to FROM earth (Narnia); a place that is disturbingly earthlike but the countries have different names (too many to name).
Science Fantasy (Darkover, Pern) offers… lots of options, mostly combining the first two.
- What is the scope of the magic or science? For instance, can it:
- Cure disease
- change someone’s appearance
- Travel long distances quickly or instantaneously
- shift between universes
- Make someone love you; make someone obey you.
- How far-reaching is your government, and how powerful?
- And what form of government is it, and is it benign or malevolent or… other?
To be fair, that last one can be hand-wavey for a while in, say, urban fantasy, if you’re talking about the governing body of your magical group, not the government of the real-world-like “normal world.”
As a note, while urban fantasy is often set in “a world just like our own, except xx beneath the surface,” I’ve read some interesting books where the world is NOT just like our own in some critical ways, and/or the magic is overt, not at all beneath the surface.
And as a second note, in any urban/modern fantasy setting, or cyberpunk/Shadowrun-like setting, you’ll have to figure out the scope of both your magic and your technology…
…which is where I am. And, because it’s a post-apocalyptic setting…
…First I have to figure out how badly everything was ruined, then how long ago it was ruined, and then how much they have built back up, and in what directions.
That being said, I think the magic is totem-based, with superimposed animal spirits and some *ahem* non-animal spirits.
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