Giving depth to your fantasy worldsEdit
Fantasy is a distinct genre, filled with unique worlds and creatures. Though some fantasy books are set on Earth, many are not. Even great stories need a setting and it's as important as everything else. The following elements will be needed in varying degrees but if all of them are used it will help change the fantasy world into a world that feels real to the readers. A world that they will want to spend time in.
Like any story, a fantasy one is set at a particular time (past, present or future). But unlike stories set on Earth, following the Earth timeline where the people in the story have a known history that the readers can relate to, fantasy does not. But the fantasy world does have a history. Without one, nothing can exist. Many fantasy stories refer to battles that happened in the past or contain songs which are sung as folk songs. But where do these come from? Why do certain races have a hatred of each other whilst others are close allies? These are important things to know. If the world is an alternate version of Earth, then a good place to start is Earth's timeline or the history of a particular country. Economic changes are likely to be in the recent history of the fantasy world but further back in time geological changes take place. All of these will have affected the civilization at the time and resulted in the current population of the fantasy world. Fantasy stories often involve a war or battle of some description and though some of reasons behind it are likely to be given in the plot, there is almost certainly a more detailed reason behind it. People don't just suddenly decide to go to war; hatred grows from a misunderstanding, passed on through the generations until all that the races know is hate. What was that misunderstanding? Some readers will want to know how the world in which the story is set came to be so different from Earth if it's an alternate version of it or if the races evolved in the same way as humans.
There is no set pattern for creating a history for a fantasy world but it is important because it makes the story itself more believable. If a world has a history, then it is easier for the reader to except some of the more fantastical elements of the story.
Maps don't need to be done before the story is created, particularly as the world is likely to develop and change but a map not only helps the reader but the author as well. A simple line drawing with place names and borders marked on is enough to give a feel for the land. More experienced cartographers could do a map showing the height from sea level or distances. The map should be appropriate to the story - if it's a pre-technology civilization, then a computer drawn map will look out of place. Instead, calligraphy pens can be used to create a map that looks as if a character out of the story might have drawn it. The map needs to show the places the main character travels to, as many readers will check the map to follow the character's location.
When the time comes to get the book published, make sure the map is printed on a single side. Ones printed over two sides, though larger scale, are annoying when the place the reader is looking for is on the join.
Within the fantasy genre there are many subgenres. Some use more magic than others. But the way magic is used will either help the story or cause the reader to close the book and never open it again. First a few important points about the use of magic.
- Magic should not be used as a shortcut to accomplishing the mission or objective.
- Magic must follow a set of rules, created in advance.
- If the character suddenly learns a new magic spell, the reason should be better than they needed it to escape the situation.
- Advanced magic is no different from technology.
- Magic is unpredictable.
- Magic has consequences.
Ignoring these points could easily spoil an otherwise good fantasy story.
Steps for creating a believable magic systemEdit
- Decide who can make use of the magic. Is it something they are born with or a skill that only a select few can use after years of training under a master? Or perhaps whoever owns a particular artifact can use the magic.
- Is the magic used to harm or to heal? This is very important. It can probably do both without either the author or the magic wielder even realising it. So a decision has to be made which one the wielder intends to use it for.
- If the magic is a series of magic spells or incantations, then write out exactly what spells the characters knows and stick to it. If the story involves them learning new spells, then how or where did they learn them? Otherwise that list is all they've got when it comes to a difficult situation. Keep the list sensible. Certain types of magic will mean the reader looses interest. If the magic is contained within an artifact then write down exactly what the artifact can do. Unlike a character learning new spells, an artifact can't. The only thing that changes is the intensity or effectiveness of the magic.
- Decide on the consequences of using the magic. There will be some. Think of it this way. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed in form. Everything has an equal and opposite reaction. Magic is a form of energy. If magic is used, that energy must go somewhere, particularly if excess energy is used. So one type of energy is being converted into another, in this case the other is magic. And since there is an equal and opposite reaction, good magic will create bad consequences and bad magic will create good consequences. The consequences don't need to happen instantly, but at some later date they need to happen.
- If only a few people possess magic, how is it viewed by those who do not? Are the magic wielders worshipped or shunned? Do the wielders consider themselves blessed or cursed? This will be different within the story itself and just like in real life people will react differently. So this needs to be the general opinion, then characters who feel differently can be explained within the story.
- Every time magic is used within the story think about how to write it. Unless it is deliberate, tacky or silly descriptions won't do the believable magic justice.
Language evolves and changes over time. Different races are likely to have developed different languages. Though I'm not suggesting that all speech should be written in those languages, they do form an important part of that world and its races. The simplest way is just to give the language a name such as Elvish or Dwarvish. But there is no depth here and it will feel as if all your races speak English (or whatever language the book is written in). The occasional use of a language made up for the story works well to convince the readers that the characters are not English.
There are thousands of different languages spoken worldwide with thousands more that are no longer used. Languages fit into groups, known as a family. The families are based on the origin of the modern language and its location in the world. It is worth studying some of the language families that exist and a sample of the languages in them. Spoken languages such as Hebrew and Arabic that have used for thousands of years are worth looking at. You don't need to be fluent in them to have an understanding of the sounds and construction.
Creating a spoken language is long, difficult and tedious. But it is fascinating to see how it develops. Created languages are commonly known as constructed languages or Conlangs on the internet.
Mark Rosenfelder's Metaverse has a very detailed guide to creating constructed languages.
Steps for creating a spoken languageEdit
- Decide what sounds the language will have. Are there nasal sounds or ones which need a rolled tongue? Perhaps a different sort of sound such as clicks. The sounds will affect everything from here onwards.
- Will it be a full language, where readers who are interested enough can learn the entire language or will it only be a partial language, enough to cover the needs of the story but nothing more. There is nothing wrong with only creating a partial language. It requires far less time but still needs to be consistent.
- What rules does the language follow? When doesn't it follow them? Languages follow a set of rules but there are always exceptions to the rules. It is easier to create a language which always follows the rules but it is less realistic. Write all of these rules down for future reference.
- Here is where there are variations in the way of creating a language. Each one will be followed through.
- For partial languages, decide on all the words you want to use. This is the most easily done after the story has been written and the author has decided which (most likely small) sections will be in the constructed language.
- For full languages, it is easier to work on the language alongside writing the story or during the research stage before writing begins. A list of words as a starting reference is a great help, one in which the words can be edited is even better. Remove all the words that are not needed. Depending on your source of words there could be modern and foreign words or names included. In this instant modern means words like internet, which a fantasy race may not have any concept of. Though there is no reason why they can't.
- For partial languages, create a set of words for the chosen sections. With only a small amount of words, it is easier to follow set rules and never break them. The words can be created either by making up random words which follow the rules or by using software.
- For full languages, it will take a long time to make up words for all the words. And it's unlikely that the author can think of that many words, which follow their rules (though if it can be done, then the constructed language will feel very much unique). I recommend software to help. Just make sure that that the chosen rules are input and consistent each time. Fantasist.net has software that translates a set of words following a set of input rules.
- For partial languages, translate the sections and have a read through them. Are the words easy to read and pronounce. Since it's only a partial language, there is no opportunity to specify how the words are pronounced and there is a chance the reader will say them differently. This doesn't matter so long as the combinations of letters can be read. Getting someone else to read the translated sections will help to find any problems.
- For full languages, once all the words have been translated, go back and check every word. Doing it in alphabetical order helps. Try and say every single word aloud. There will be a lot which are impossible to say and some which just look odd. If a random word generator is used then occasionally words resembling a swear word do appear and should be removed unless they are wanted in particular. Look for repeats and words that are similar to others are easily confused.
- For partial languages, any words that caused problems need to be redone. Once every word sounds right and has been tested, the language is complete.
- For full languages, all the ones removed need to be put back through the software. Again go through and check every single word, including the ones which were ok before. This and the previous step need to be repeated until every word has 'passed'.
- From now on, the steps are for full languages. Take the words which don't follow the rules and decide what is different about them. Now translate these, making sure that the rules inputted previously are not exactly the same. Several different sets may need to be done depending on whether each of the words that breaks the rules is similar to another word.
- Check them against the rest of the created words (all of them). Using a different colour separates them until they too have 'passed'.
- Construct some sentences or paragraphs in the constructed language and try reading them. Words which worked well on their own may not work when combined with other words. Maybe these could be ones in which their form changes if it is before or after certain words or sounds. Try out the ones causing a problem with other words.
- Give a paragraph or two to another person to read and see what they think. Don't give them the entire word list.
- Since it's a full language, giving it a name is appropriate. What does the race refer to themselves as? Can this word or a variation on this word be used to name the language?
It is worth studying the written forms of some of the languages on Earth. There is a big difference between syllabic scripts, word and letter scripts but all are used in modern languages, with varying degrees of complexity.
Below is an example of my created written language. It is called Oedian Plains and is for my science fantasy book. It contains 105 different characters. This is the TrueType font version but it was originally created using a calligraphy pen.
Steps for creating a written languageEdit
- Decide which written form is going to be used. Will there be characters for each individual letter or will it be based on syllables or a single character for entire words? If it's syllables, then the sound of the language already needs to be planned out.
- What look will the characters take? One consideration is what tools will be used to write and on what surface. If the race hasn't get a form of ink but always carves in stone, then straight sided characters are more believable. If they only ever write with ink and never carve the characters then they are more likely to contain curves with a few straight sides.
- How many characters are there going to be? This will vary depending on the written form chosen. What about accented letters? Perhaps the form changes when a certain letter or syllable follows.
- On a piece of scrap paper just jot down any letter/syllable like shapes. Random lines and curves seem to work so long as they are letter like. The shape of the character can also be used to represent different sound lengths. Alternatively software can be used to generate characters all linked in appearance. Don't forget about additional characters such as the comma and full stop. The Alphabet Synthesis Machine is a clever piece of software that generates characters and allows the user to mutate them.
- Using either characters created on scrap paper or ones generated using software, go through each one and handwrite it several times on a sheet. Does it feel awkward? If it does, there is a good chance that the races in the story would find it awkward as well (unless their hand/writing tools are significantly different to ours). Maybe, the character doesn't need to be removed, just modified. Writing does this all the time. As a symbol becomes too hard to too long to draw, then it gets simplified. This can be done by removing the number of separate strokes required to form to the character.
- Using either words from a constructed language or any chosen language, write out a few paragraphs. Does it look like a real language or does it look more like a jumbled mess of computer code from the printer? Take this sheet to someone to look at and ask them what language is it. If it appears believable they won't be able to identify but will think about it. If it looks like computer code, hopefully they'll tell you.
- Write out a set alphabet (for all the written forms) with a guide to pronunciation.
- Translate the section of text, making sure all the rules are followed, particularly if a constructed language is being translated.
For those who wish to do more with the written script, certain software can be used to convert it into a Windows TrueType font.
Both spoken and written language changes over time to take into account new words and the simplification of speech. Dialects are also the result of language evolution but have not changed enough from the original language yet to form a new one. Though in time, dialects can form an entirely new language. To evolve a language in a story it is important to know how long the language has been used for in that world and the lifespan of the race. Language, both spoken and written does not change in a single generation but over many thousands of years and generations. In today's world spoken language has more obvious changes than written language. The way a teenager speaks is quite different from the way an elderly person speaks. And the written language used by both reflects that.
Steps for evolving a constructed languageEdit
- Decide how many major evolution steps will occur in the language. There will be minor steps happening continuously but the major ones are when it forms a new language, with enough differences that speakers of one will feel they have to learn a new language to speak to someone who speaks the other.
- What sound changes happen at each step? This is often changes in the sounds certain consonants make such as the sound change between b and v or th and d. Changes in spelling or even standardising a system of spelling which perhaps did not exist in the previous language step are also important changes. This is another set of rules to keep note of.
- Apply the sound changes consistently to all the words in the constructed languages. If the original language had words which broke the rules, then the evolved language probably does as well. This is likely to be the same words as before but could contain additional words. Following the rules allows the language to be evolved by hand or software can be used. Fantasist.net has a dialect maker which will help to age the language.
- At each step, read all the words and make sure that each one can be pronounced correctly, making sure the sound changes are pronounced. Repeat this at each evolution step but don't take shortcuts in the steps because it is hard to predict how the language will appear over several steps.
- The written script in the story probably came into existence more recently than the spoken language and as such will need less evolutionary steps.
- If letters or syllables have been lost completely in one of the evolution steps then these characters will need to go as well. If new letters or syllables have been introduced because of sound changes then new characters need to be created. Don't use any removed ones. This isn't natural and will only lead to confusion.
- From the remaining characters, try to reduce the number of strokes required for each one. Maybe when the written language was first used, it was designed to be carved in stone but now the race has discovered a form of ink and prefers to write using that. Try rewriting the straight sided characters in a smoother fashion. A calligraphy pen gives a good representation of a feather quill that might have been used. If the race no longer carves in stone then the shape of the character will change because flowing curves are quicker to write than a number of straight lines.
- Once the spoken and written languages have been evolved, consider whether it will have a new name. Sometimes this will be as simple as naming it a modern version of the old language. Otherwise, the name is likely to be similar to the original but each step could have a different name. This means a language evolution over five steps will have a significantly different name. An alternative is to perhaps name it after the new area in which the language is spoken.
There are always some hard to believe creatures in a fantasy book. Good creatures bring the story to life and a lot of readers will accept them as they are. But some readers will want to know why the creatures are like that. A few awkward questions are:
- How do the dragons fly?
- How do they breathe fire?
- How does the creature become invisible?
- How did the creature develop to be so big in a world of small creatures? Or the opposite of this.
These aren't as important as the other areas in giving the story depth but some research on the internet can reveal a few interesting ideas that will help to give the story that added completeness.