Among fantasy writers, world building is to their work as learning to read is to an education. Foundation. You cannot really write a rip-roaring fantasy without a world into which to plunge your hapless characters. By definition world-building includes a land, a culture, a magic system, the rules within that system, and even the history of that world. It’s the ultimate god-like creation.
JRR Tolkien set the gold standard for world building, and hopefully we aren’t expected to go to the minute detail to which he reached. He had a complete history, even to the geologic epochs of his world. The book Silmarillion reads like the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and it is just the background sketches for his novels. He developed languages – note the plural – that make sense and become an integral part of the plots in his work. Tolkien is to blame for our shared imagery of elves, dwarves and even the hobbits and orcs that he created from scratch. His world-building is our goal and competition.
How do you follow such footsteps without duplicating or plagiarizing? I don’t pretend to be the most creative one out there. I give that to Brandon Sanderson, but I use my own method. I started the Wise Ones series as a map, way back when I wallowed in my teenage angst. I drew mountains and forests, rivers and ruins. I neglected the logic of rivers flowing from the highlands and into the ocean, and eventually needed to change that. I plopped villages all over the place, without considering the need for a sentient people to live near their resources, like water, or arable land. I then put a few diamonds all over it, thinking of them as the great cities. Then in grand fashion, the map went in a drawer and I forgot about it.
Later, when I saw the need to take Tiamat, my first character, out of her village and throw her to the wolves, I pulled that map out and sent her on an adventure. What caused the Wall that cut the Land off from other countries? Why did Paleone have ruins? What actually happened at this fortress that it was placed there in the middle of the mountains? Why would anyone live way-the-heck out there? I didn’t have answers, but Tiamat went from place to place, learning the world in much the same way I did. She had the adventures, and I created my world in tandem with her.
The magic system of the Land emerged at the same time. Heart Stones, Name Magic, Wise Ones with their royal clothing and all of the creatures, language, culture and history of the Land has become an adventure in discovery. That’s why I wrote all nine novels before I published any of them. I had to develop the world, revealing it to myself in the same way my characters discover it. I’m the Hobbit on his first trip down the road.
Of course, you need not utilize my method. It’s slow, cumbersome and really puts a damper on getting published eventually. However, I believe you need to find what works for you. If that means you follow in Tolkien’s well-worn ruts, using elves and dwarves and wizards, please do so. But be on the lookout for a way to put a twist on it or you’ll never distinguish yourself. Or you can put so many unique patterns into your world-building, you use coins to fly like Brandon Sanderson. Any way you do it, go down your road with a thrill of discovery and do not look back. Leave a trail of your own.