Imagine stepping through a clothes closet into a world of witches and warlocks, where animals talk and magic thrives. Imagine racing through time far into the future. What would it be like? Would some people live in an idyllic setting while other live underground? Imagine peering down a rabbit hole and then falling, falling, falling to a place ruled by playing cards. Been there before? Sure we have.
Remember the image of the Fellowship of the Ring traipsing up the slopes of a New Zealand glacial field. We can believe this fantastic landscape is Middle Earth and orcs wait just around the corner because we can relate to what Tolkien described. Many fantasies take place in a medieval world. Hogwarts is really a castle complete with ghosts. We are comfortable with that. Remember the images created by the illustrators who honed Avatar into a work of art full of exotic plants and dragons waiting to be tamed. How much richer was the audience’s experience because of their visual craft?
Every novelist must describe the settings where his story’s action takes place, but when a science fiction or a fantasy writer takes pen in hand, he builds a world which predetermines much of the action of his story. That’s not to say that his imagination isn’t constrained by simple physics. The reader must be able to relate to the description.
One of the first steps to building a world is to map it out. The Game of Thrones and the Hobbit are movies where the introduction displays an intricate map. Take the time to create it in some detail. I have one fantasy novel that I literally imagined unrolling a map on a tabletop, placing a sword along one side to hold it down and a mug of ale and a knife to keep the other side unfolded. The southwest corner of this elfworld contained an aged and magical forest. Through the center of the map, I visualized roads that led to villages and cities where humans dwelt. A mountain range which sheltered the homes of the mountain elves and dwarfs ran the northern length. This world was large but finite, like some pre-Columbian concept of our world. If the characters traveled far enough, they could, in a sense, fall off the edge of the table. Entrances to its wonders came through doorways, gateways from other dimensions, one to our world through which my main character stepped. Not so nice characters could enter at other points, but the elves had granted powerful magic to warders who protected these doorways. Forces were in play to weaken the warders’ magic and allow entrance to destructive elements. Thus the conflict was born, and the story put in motion.
If the main character travels space to a new world, is a sentient species already in place? How does the planet affect their physical form? In what ways are they like us, different from us? The reader has to be able to relate as well as to be surprised with something new and exotic. Is their culture more primitive or more advanced than ours? How do they modify their world to provide shelter and food? Describe their homes and their meals. What part does weather play in their lives? Even Shangri-La had limitations. The story would be dull if their world was too perfect.
Build into this world different customs and language. What kind of government do they have? How do they greet one another? I loved making a new language for my Ysabet series. Simple phrases can be repeated throughout the novels so that the reader becomes familiar with them.
What part does religion play in the story? Many sword and sorcery novels have complex polytheistic religions. Some have multiple religions in competition with one another. I based the religion of my Ysabet series on a sky god/mother earth concept where the main demigods evolve from their natural world. It worked for the Greeks.
It’s great fun to invent new animals and plants, especially in pristine worlds which evolve independently from sentient beings. Such a world finds its own balance, and when the author adds an outside influence, either the world must change or the alien adapt.