World building is my favorite part of fantasy, both in reading it and writing it. This can be a bit of a drag when reading because so many authors seem to gloss over this critical aspect of the genre and it ends up leaving glaringly large plot holes, inconsistencies, and nonsensical events that I just can't get over. For me, the world is a major factor in the story itself--not just the setting of the story--and it needs to be treated with an appropriate amount of respect and consideration.
So, when writing a work of fantasy, how do you begin the gigantic task of world building? I'll use my own fantasy novel, The Last Dragon Princess, as an example to show you my process. With this story, I started with just a general idea that was devoid of any real plot-I wanted to write a Dragon Shifter Reverse Harem fantasy. I wanted it to be high fantasy, so that meant building my story somewhere other than planet Earth. I started with the planet itself, Cefron, and extrapolated how each factor would affect a civilization. It's not enough to say 'this story occurs on a different planet,' and leave everything Earth-like. Each decision in world building will have ripple effects that cascade down into the civilization and everyday life of the characters you're writing about.
Cefron is a tidally locked world, which means it does not rotate on its own axis--there is a perpetual day side, and a perpetual night side. My background is in Biology and I'm a science nerd, so I knew this presented a number of logical problems that a civilization would have to figure out how to deal with which would, in turn, affect the societies' culture. For instance, I'm working with a humanoid species--they need conditions similar enough to Earth. The planet can't be as close to the sun as Earth is, because it would become overheated with the constant solar exposure on the day side and become barren. My solution to this was a further orbit away from the sun with a thicker atmosphere. This means the landscape is tropical, with a very long year (or 'season,' as it's called in the book). A thick atmosphere also provides some temperature stability on the night side and it extends the growing season on the day side to, effectively, year-round. This effects clothing, housing, building practices, agricultural practices, the types of animals common on Cefron, and, especially, how the Hisgeii measure time. Time was a big problem--how do you define a day on a locked world? The sun never sets. A civilization needs a way to measure time. So, I had to figure all that out.
Then of course, in fantasy you need a magic system with its own rules. A magic system can be based on anything, but it needs to be based on something. Willy-nilly magic that shows up when needed doesn't work and it doesn't tell a good story. Your reader wants to feel like there is an underlying logic to your world just like there is an underlying logic to the rules of our world--things like gravity, physics, psychology, things we may not fully understand, but still deal with on a daily bases. You don't need to explain how everything works, but--just like your planet--your magic needs rules. Your rule could be that random people are born with different 'gifts,' like the ability to control water or move things with their minds or fly. Gifts could run in families, or they could be random and unpredictable. A magic system could be based on external factors, such as what kinds of foods the people eat or a special herb that gives special powers. However, the rules need to remain consistent. If no one can predict who is going to inherit a gift, then don't have a peddler selling magical apples that will bestow a gift on the eater. You're characters will know this is insane. Also, keep in mind that the rules of who gets access to magic and how is going to have ripple effects in your society.
In The Last Dragon Princess, the story's magical system is based on genetics. This affects marriage practices and customs and pretty much forces a very strict caste system, which affects the legal system. Adultery is a pretty big offense--it doesn't just affect the people immediately involved, it affects the entire society because a child born with impure blood cannot defend against their enemies. But, is this punishment across the board? Is the punishment as severe for adultery within one's own caste? I had to figure all this out. Since The Last Dragon Princess has a lowest-of-the-low caste, that's going to affect things like societal race relations, segregation, and even the monetary system. All of this would have been very different if my magic system was structured differently. If a culture evolved with a magic system based on random gifts, there would probably be a very strong religious element to the society, possibly even the main political power structure of the world, in order to explain why "the powers that be" chose certain people to be born with certain gifts. That's a natural evolution of a culture and it makes sense that it would evolve that way. Every decision has ripple effects.
Some important things to keep in mind when figuring out how your society works: There is always going to be an elite group of people and a lower class group of people. Your job is to figure out WHY they the lowest of the low and highest of the high? It needs to make sense, at least to your characters. Who are the privileged segment of the population and WHY are they privileged and what is the price of that privilege? A society is not going to move resources and opportunities to one segment of the population "just because." It needs to make sense, and it will have ripple effects. It's not enough to say 'the Tins were poor and had to do their work along with the Fons' work, because the Fons were powerful and that's the way it had always been.' That doesn't work-why do the Tins continue through the ages to do the Fons' work? There has to be a clear reason. Otherwise, at some point in your long history, some Tin is going to get up in the morning and think 'I wonder what would happen if I didn't go and do the Fons' work today, and instead stayed home and watched Netflix?' If there is not a clear and severe consequence to not going and doing the Fons' work, the Tins are going to say 'fuck the Fons!' and stay home and watch Netflix. Understand that the consequence has ripple effects, too. Do the Fons just go over and beat the crap out of the Tins for not showing up? Can the Fons get arrested or punished by society for doing that? If not, why not? If they can, how do they maintain this subordinate relationship with the Tins?
In The Last Dragon Princess, the society is based on a strict caste system which is directly related to the magic system. Sparks are the lowest caste and result from interbreeding among the higher and middle castes. They are virtually powerless as shifted dragons (like the artwork above? That's one of the dragons from my story) and make up the majority of the population on Cefron. There are four higher castes and three middle castes, and these people enjoy increased wealth, better access to the freshest foods, better housing, servants, education and opportunity to pursue better jobs than the Sparks. On the flip side, their behavior is strictly regulated, they must marry within their caste or risk punishment (up to and including death in some situations), and their children are likely to be taken from them and raised by specialists. Always know what the flip side to privilege is in your stories.
Language will also be affected by these factors, from what your characters call the common items around them to how they name their children. Language has nuances, idioms and turns of phrases that even most speakers don't understand the origins of. You need to know their history so that you will have a better understanding of their language than they do. Does that mean you have to invent a whole new language? No. You can borrow names from a specific region or time period to get a feeling of consistency and come up with two or three phrases or idioms that make sense in your timeline to sprinkle throughout your story. For instance, in The Last Dragon Princess, the characters are fighting against oppressors who they once worshiped as gods. As an exclamation, they would often call out 'oh my gods!' This is a little thing, yes, but it fits perfectly in the story, and it gives the reader a feeling of authenticity and total immersion. For the people living on Cefron, using a singular god in an exclamation wouldn't feel right, given their history.
Who does the work of everyday life? Why them? Are there some jobs that only certain people are allowed to do? Are there certain jobs certain people are forced to do? How advanced is your societies? Are they in a bronze age, a stone age, or are they more advanced than we are? What about their neighbors, their enemies, their allies?
You can see how after this was figured out, I had a pretty good idea of what my world looked like and how it functioned on a social scale.
Then, after all these steps are done, you have to do the work of building your
individual characters and figure out how they fit into this society and how
they react to it--it's the same rules from here on out as for developing any
other story, but the world is different, and it MUST remain consistent. If you
set down rules, you don't get to break them if you write yourself into a corner.
World building is just extra steps that come first.
Interested in reading more about The Last Dragon Princess? Click here to check it out on Amazon or on the cover below to read a summary and the first two chapters for free.