F is for Fantasy Worlds – Building races, places, history, WORLD by JC Andrijeski

Some Thoughts on World Building

Guest Post by JC Andrijeski

World Building on a Grand Scale

What has aided me more than anything, in terms of world building, is my love of history. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) history is so rich already with both inspirational and unusual people, religions, cultures, wars, mass hysterias of whatever kind, social movements, violent uprisings, prophecies, beliefs, languages, customs, mythologies, folk stories and so forth, that it doesn’t take much to look around and pull and stretch and recombine those different elements into new combinations.

Often I find myself doing this with cultures, customs or historical phenomenon that fascinate me for whatever reason anyway. An example of this –– like many people, I’ve always found World War II interesting. Not so much for the battles themselves (although many of those were quite fascinating as well), but more for the peculiarities of the psychological waves that reverberated through Europe during that time, affecting everyone from the children up to the most decorated generals, and everything from racial politics to music, art and architecture. Again, like many others, I find this most sobering, puzzling, tragic and yet illuminating around the collectivity known as Nazi Germany. At this point, it’s not so much the leadership that interests me as the fact that the vast majority of ordinary people were swept along in the tide of that ideology…in most cases, people who otherwise appeared perfectly sane, reasonable and even compassionate to others. The fact that so many could end up not only Nazi sympathizers, but could cry and throw flowers whenever Hitler appeared still strikes me as an almost surreal episode in our collective history.

Influenced by Buddhism

Slavery as a theme

With the Allie’s War books, I found myself borrowing from all over “real-world” history. There are elements of the Nazis and World War II, of course…but also reflections of the challenges currently faced in Tibet (a people pretty much in the midst of cultural genocide), glimmers of the remnants of the caste system in India, Native America culture and history, Buddhism, more esoteric religious studies I’ve done, odd cultural quirks I’ve come across in India, Poland and other places I’ve spent time. In addition, my educational background appears, probably most notably around American forms of slavery and slave revolts and even slave religions, the Vietnam War, my readings on social movements and the psychology of groups who feel powerless in the face of larger forces, how cults and brainwashing operate, the nascent power struggles and cultural misunderstandings between China and the United States, martial arts training I’ve done, articles I’ve read on bio-engineering and virtual reality…and on and on.

The meat grinder effect, in other words. I actually think part of the key to world building is to know something of the world, or at least to be interested in people around you.

A lot of what ends up in the worlds I build in my books…in fact, the vast majority of this, surprisingly enough…isn’t even really deliberate. Often I don’t even see the real-world parallels until after the words are on the page, and sometimes not even then…sometimes it takes someone else commenting on this or that for me to realize where the germ of an idea originated. I’ve never deliberately put a “message” in any of my books, in terms of my opinion on any of these issues. I just really don’t think that kind of thing belongs in fiction, so I do my best to avoid it.

Brainwashing by cults?

Of course, it should be fairly obvious to anyone who reads my books that I’m not too keen on slavery or brainwashing by cults…nor am I overly fond of what the Nazis did in Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. But I don’t write with any intent to sell any particular point on these topics, and really, that’s not the point of including a form of history that resonates with some aspect of our own. The point is to make the world feel real. It’s to make it feel as though something I’m describing could really have occurred. To do that, all I really have is what I know of human beings and how I think they might be likely to behave in certain situations. A lot of that ends up being based on historical precedent…either my own, or what I’ve read.

Really, I just want to tell a good story. To that end, I want the worlds I create to breathe and live…meaning, I want them to feel plausible, multi-faceted and dynamic. More than that, I like characters who are caught up in complex cultural contexts that force them to make tough decisions…mainly because most human beings seem to be faced with those same confusing and competing loyalties and decisions in their own lives.

In terms of how to pick and choose from these “real world” incidents, that seems to happen for me pretty organically. There’s that “meat grinder” effect I mentioned…it just seems to occur naturally as I interact with and read about the world. It takes everything I see, experience, or think about, then chews it all up and spits it out in a different combinations, usually in terms of whatever feels right for that particular story or set of characters.

With Allie’s War, since these are much longer and more complex books, and now there are five of them (five and a half, including the prequel novella), often I’ll miss whole aspects of the seer culture or of a character, only to discover later that it’s critical for one or more characters or plot points. Then I need to go back to think about how that element might be incorporated without contradicting what I’ve already written, which can be easy, or really, really tough, depending on what that is.

The power of Culture

One thing I do think is important in world building, however, is that you need to think of the whole world, not simply the superficial layers. It’s easy to forget how differently people think when put in a different setting, cultural context…or even physical body. Someone who was raised a slave sees the world very, very differently than someone who grew up in a suburb in California. Someone who grew up in a different religion sees the world differently too…and if you get into longer life spans, different physiology or sexual mores, different marriage rites and breeding cycles…then things really start to get interesting, and often fairly complicated. The other thing to remember is that cultures that come into contact with one another affect one another, and often borrow heavily from one another.

Sometimes it can be just as fun to ask the mundane questions as well…like, what kind of foods a group of people might shun, what little tics or rituals might be peculiar to them, prejudices and misconceptions they might have about other groups, and so on.

All in all, I think the most important thing about world building is to make it fun. Our own world is such an amazing and diverse place…writing fiction is such a grand opportunity to learn more about it, and to ask yourself the tough questions about why people do the things they do. I don’t ever want to be one of those writers who pulls their ideas only off other works of fiction…I want some of what I write to come out of my direct experience with the world and the people in it, too. I think of it as Xerox copies…if you get too far from the original source material, your world can come off as pretty stale or derivative.

But I am only one writer, so of course I wonder…how do other writers create their worlds? What kinds of worlds do the readers who are reading this prefer? Does what I wrote above resonate with you at all, or do you approach this question very differently?


About the author

JC Andrijeski is a bestselling Amazon author who has published novels, novellas, serials and short stories, as well as nonfiction essays and articles. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and webzines, and a children’s story in the illustrated anthology Ogner Stump’s 1,000 Sorrows by Wonderella. She also published a graphic novel set in the world created in her Bridge series. Her nonfiction articles cover subjects from graffiti art, meditation, psychology, journalism and history, and have been published in online literary magazines as well as print venues such as NY Press newspaper and holistic health magazines.

Find JC Andrijeski on:

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14 responses to “F is for Fantasy Worlds – Building races, places, history, WORLD by JC Andrijeski

  1. My world is very similar to the present reality with the addition of a society of vampires who live side by side with humans but stay as separate as possible. I write more urban fantasy and my vampires do shun certain types/classes of vampires, have different eating habits, and have a justice and social system all their own similar to the humans.

    • Hi, thanks for stopping by! I had a question, did you plan the world out before you started writing, or did you develop it as you wrote your books?

      • I have mostly planned it out but details keep evolving as I write. Since it is basically modern day Topeka/Kansas City/Manhattan Kansas I had a pretty good base to start. The details of the Vampire pecking order and prejudices and other details develop as I go.

  2. My series deals with with slavery and subjugation on a secondary level, meaning that these themes are not the main story line, but do have an impact on what happens. The fantasy world (Mother) was envisioned as an idyllic, pastoral setting on the surface, but with some major structural flaws within the societies inhabiting it. Law vs. Chaos plays as important a role as Good vs. Evil and not in a way most people might expect.

    JC, awesome, in depth post in your usual entertaining voice. Well done!

  3. Hey, thanks Mother-Earth! And your world (and the book and/or books) sounds really fascinating! I love playing with the whole light/dark, good/evil thing, too…it’s such a complicated question in so many ways, and everyone seems to have a different take on it, despite some shared commonalities. I guess I have the same question Ritesh had of the other writer, above. Did you plan this world out beforehand? Or did it happen sort of organically?

    • I forgot this posted from my WordPress. This is Alan from your GIA group on FB : ) … anyway, yes it was planned out beforehand, at least the highlights. Some things evolved later as they tend to do : )

      • Oh, hey! I should have recognized the moniker, Alan – very cool! And thanks for letting me know, ha. Now I want to read your books even more. The ever-growing list of cool and talented writers on GIA… 🙂

  4. In my MonsterGrrls series, the Unknown World (where all monsterkind live) is basically a pocket universe set apart from the world of humans by a magical Barrier. Morlock Heights (the Grrls’ home in the Unknown World) is a small area of this place, where the majority of my races (vampires, werewolves, Mad Scientists, Creatures, and witches) all live. Some live in Town (the nearest metropolitan area of MH, which is a bit worn-shoe-rundown and largely Victorian) while the largest concentrations of monster races live in outlying areas surrounding it. The Mad Scientists have a Mad Scientists’ Guild Hall in Town, and the witches have their own community in a swampland/woods area called Witchhazel, while the werewolves and some vampires (who refer to their “families” as Clans and Houses, respectively) live in the mountains. Most of these communities run themselves with their own governing bodies (the vampires have a High Court Of Vampyr, which is a sort of dysfunctional Parliament, while the werewolf Clans are all overseen by a Baron and a somewhat republican body called the Remnant Of Ulfric, for examples), but all answer to a main governing body composed of representatives from all races called the Council Of Monsterkind. Much of this world apes human society, to some degree, but there are some cultural things; vampires tend to be aristocratic, while werewolves are more of a military colony. Mad Scientists and witches are respectively white-collar and blue-collar. Creatures (with some exceptions, such as my Creature-Grrl Frankie) are more or less seen as unskilled labor.

    The UW was largely influenced by the Universal Monsters movies (which all seemed to be set in some odd kind of post-war European mashup world where people wore German-influenced costumes but spoke with British accents) and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I cannot say that any of this was really planned; basically, I just picked and chose what bits I liked and blended them all together. It wasn’t really based on any one thing, although Pratchett’s influence on MonsterGrrls cannot be denied.

  5. I am assuming, as I have yet to tackle a Fantasy world, that the freedom allowed (little need to use our world as a base, other than for reader familiarity) is both a blessing and a curse. Like you said above, worlds are complicated places, and you need to build them in layers.

    With all of that work involved, no wonder so many Fantasy authors write more than one book in the world they have created, since not to do so must feel like a waste.

    I try (primarily science fiction author speaking) to take our world as a jumping off point, and decide which themes are necessary for my story.

    Are the citizens oppressed by a authoritarian regime? Has technology progressed to a point where a few of the accepted norms of today no longer true? Once I know the main plot devices of my story, I start to fill in secondary stuff like how far into the future the story takes place, the rate of development since our time, and how it has forced changes in society.

    There’s alot to consider, but I think that a little planning and thought before you start page one can save you alot of headaches later on.

    • I agree, Chris, although it’s funny, I’ve also tried the “dive in and see what happens” approach, too…usually in requires a lot of filling in later, as it often happens that I figure out key aspects of the world in the process of writing and figuring out how the characters fit into it. I like a lot of your questions, too! Great questions for sci fi, especially…

  6. David M. Brown

    Fully agree with you on the importance of world history. I was indebted mostly to one book, Cassell’s World History, a timeline of all the key events and developments in history. I read that cover to cover, noting anything of interest: battles, people, discoveries, etc and that helped with the world building for my fantasy world, Elenchera. I did start with the maps first of all and once I had read a lot of history books, I began the painstaking work on the timeline. It currently stands at 47,000 years and may develop further. I currently have enough history in place to work on a few novels for the moment though. Thanks for this great post and good luck with your writing 🙂

    • Again, sounds really cool…I know I keep saying that, but the idea of a 47K timeline excites my inner geek, I admit. I have a timeline built too and am a big map nerd…although I haven’t made my own maps yet, sounds very cool. My timeline’s also only about 200 years old, but then, mine is an alternate history, so pretty much starts a generation before “first contact” with the race of seers I introduce. Thanks for sharing, (everyone, really!)

  7. Hollywood and Bollywood as well as Indian mythology – those are my influences….Actually I’ll tell you a secret, I come from a different planet – and carry memories in my DNA which inspires my new worlds – 🙂

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