Quite some time ago now, I decided to take on the mammoth task of building a fantasy world. Fantasy has always been a love of mine. There’s nothing better than escaping the horrible things in this world and moving into another filled with endless, exciting possibilities.I particularly like original worlds in fantasy because of the escapism and the ability to disappear into a new world. I was toying with the idea of setting fantasy in this world but I decided to start my own from scratch.
I have had a go at building a fantasy world before and made some admittedly lazy attempts at this. Anyone who does world building or simply respects the genre will know that you cannot do a lazy version of an entire world.
What I tried to do was invent my own tiny world within the confines of a walled city, with everything outside the city as a blank nothingness. I wanted a small controlled space where I could develop everything in close confines of my narrative.
In my weak defense, it was for a university project and I had only limited time to create something. However, that blankness is still there, burning a hole in a dark and dusty folder somewhere. I still haven’t done anything with it and probably never will.
This time I wanted to do it right. I owe it to the genre I love.
I started with a simple concept. A lot of this type of high/epic fantasy follows a particular theme. It is based around medieval Britain/Europe. It’s often inspired by Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the history they are inspired by.
I know why people still continue to use medieval Europe as a base for their worlds. They are popular books and they are set in a style of era that’s very interesting. The medieval world gives writers fantastic tools like swords, castles, kings, dragons – all the things we loved as children that got us into the genre in the first place.
My lazy story was based around this. I clearly thought ‘well I’ve read fantasy, I know all that medieval stuff. I’ll just plonk a castle here and a dragon there and whey!’ and I insulted the genre.
The truth is, I actually know very little about the medieval era. The little bits I know, or more likely assume I know, are interesting, but it’s never spurred me into meticulous research.
I think if I were to advise beginner world builders, I would say the cliche: ‘write what you know’. Usually I don’t like that advice and find it kind of limiting. But it is true really.
Write what you know, even in fantasy. If like me, you want to use a historical period as a vague framework, make sure you’re writing about something you’re familiar with.
If you don’t know it, you better make sure that you do at some point.
So I learned to forgive myself for my crimes against fantasy and have taken it as a lesson. I came to a decision – no medieval stuff. So I started to think about what else I could base my story on (loosely). It wasn’t difficult to pick an era.
My True Love
I have adored ancient Egypt since Year 3 in primary school when my teacher sat us down on the carpet and told us about the Egyptians pulling brains out of dead people’s noses. While all the normal, healthy-minded children said ‘eee that’s sick’ (in a Scouse accent), I was sitting there grinning like some sort of miniature psychopath.
I fell in love with Ancient Egypt. It was a beautiful, crazy, horrible, brilliant era. I could never get bored with it. That time period was something completely different to anything else I had heard about. It was like reading a fantasy story. How could those people have actually existed? They felt fictional, but the best part was that they weren’t.
Egypt helped me come across another culture, Ancient Rome. The part that interested me most was the conflict between the two countries, Rome’s triumph against the dying Egyptian empire.
I became interested in Rome not just because of the link to Egypt but because it too is amazing. An empire with incredible military might, armed with the audacity to take on the world. Their ambition for glory and their ingenuity, make them one of the most fascinating cultures of all time.
What I wanted to do is blend these two loves together to make a fantasy baby. I wanted the technology and society of Rome but also the mystery and exotic picture of Egypt.
This became the basis for me to set my world on.
Why use history?
What’s history got to do with building a fantasy world? One of the reasons I started to create my own fantasy world was because I was writing historical fiction at the time. I was writing about Egypt, the period of Akhenaten’s rule. It’s one of my favourite parts of Egyptian history and I was so desperate to get it right.
The problem is, there are a lot of missing parts to that history. No one knows the full picture so it’s impossible to write a 100% factual piece on it. That didn’t stop me obsessing over the details though.
Eventually, the project became more about facts than an interesting story. It was very frustrating and I felt that I was limiting myself too much. I decided to put the project away. Maybe I’ll pick it up again one day.
So I went to the opposite end of the scale and thought – what if I write my own history? What if I can start from scratch and make anything I want possible. Fantasy gave me this freedom.
However, I know that writing whatever you want isn’t always a good idea because you can lose focus with that approach. I wanted to limit myself a little so I could keep on track to create a world that was believable so I used history as a framework to do this.
My decision early on was that my story would cut across multiple countries and that I would base one on Egypt and one on Rome. I wanted them to be a basis to test ideas and inspire the everyday fabric of these societies.
When I have a new idea for something, like a weapon or a source of political conflict, I take a look at the history of these countries to see if such a thing would be possible or realistic in that time period/societal structure. Of course, my next challenge was to avoid copying too much of Egypt and Rome.
The history approach has helped to keep me focused and inspired. However, I know that some people would hate the confines of this approach.
I’d love to hear about the early days of other peoples’ fantasy worlds. How did you start yours? What were your inspirations? Please leave a comment below.