Written on 2003-05-29; Read the original post on LiveJournal
Do not make a list of things you absolutely have to have in your world, any more than I think you should make a character profile. This results in a mechanical thing, not a living world. When I created my first fantasy world, Arcadia, I assumed that I was writing about a world in which kings, knights, and castles would be common, and a more or less feudal society the norm. I am lucky that the story was already moving so strongly in another direction- for one thing, the dominant race of that world is non-human, and far too individualistic to bear feudal constraints- that I more or less forgot about it. From time to time I would remember, but those concerns always got submerged in another new development. And now I have a very atypical fantasy world, where the only monarchies are special cases (one formed to stop a war, and the other formed of wolf shapeshifters, laid out along lines where the King or Queen basically takes the place of the alpha). Forming a non-Generic Fantasyland can be a wonderful thing.
Consider not having your fantasy world dualistically divided between good and evil. I know that Tolkien did it, but not every fantasy author is Tolkien; in fact, I would argue that no one is but Tolkien himself. And even Tolkien was more subtle about it than writers of Generic Fantasy are. He tempted his heroes, made the ending of LOTR as much about sorrow as joy, and proved that the line between "good" and "evil" in characters like Saruman and Denethor can be very, very thin. Making your evil into a hulking Dark One might satisfy your audience's need for clarity, if they really have it, but it also makes your opponents into caricatures. In extreme cases, it can also suck the life out of the heroes like a black hole. Consider having many, many sources of evil, or not identifying one at all. I've taken several different tacks in the creation of several different worlds. Arcadia, my first-created and most atypical, has no identifable source of evil, no single evil power that could gain ascension over the world. Others, like Orlath, have the Dark, which the Light thinks of as evil, but which is not so, and powers like Shadow that are firmly between the two extremes. Eloria, full of shapeshifters who have been forcibly converted into either animals or humans with only a few animal traits, has a faceless, nameless power that did this, and the shapeshifters will probably never learn its true name or nature.
Along the same lines, consider having your heroes lose, or at the least pay high prices. This is one of the things Tolkien did that does not have a large following among recent writers of fantasy. Sometimes, a minor character will die, but they usually die heroically, achieving results for the main heroes far beyond the pain their death causes. Sometimes they even come to life again in the sequel. Heroes will have happy marriages, a lingering fairy-tale element. I think one thing that makes Lord of the Rings so powerful is the sorrow entwined with the destruction of the Ring, the knowledge of the suffering that has occurred so that Aragorn can reign in Gondor. Such a picture is, I think, deeper and fuller and more beautiful, if less emotionally satisfying, than the antiseptic ending of a fairy-tale.
What about a new pantheon of gods? Many fantasies seem to take one of three courses:
A Christian-like religion, perhaps without Jesus.
A more or less generic pantheon, sometimes lifted whole from the Greek, Roman, or Egyptian, sometimes given new names and slight cosmetic alterations.
(Lately more common) An earth goddess religion in conflict with an evil male-centered one.
All three lack a certain something. Christian religions confine you to a worldview that many readers are already familiar with, lessening the allure of the exotic that draws many to fantasy. (It may also cause you to repeat all the contradictions and problems of the Christian religion, but that's from my point of view as an atheist). If you steal a pantheon, you have to explain why these people in another world just happen to worship exactly like a culture from ours. The earth-centered religion is a good idea in theory, but turns too easily into a transplantation of Wicca or even a "message" about feminism, environmentalism, or some other criterion more positively left outside the circle of your story.
Don't base specific events in your world's history on specific events in ours. It's a Bad Idea. At worst, if you draw the parallels too closely, your readers will notice and suspect you of making either an in-joke or an allegory. (They may read on if they enjoy that kind of thing, but some, including myself, will not). At best, you'll create a sense of eerie similarity, and you may enable history buffs to predict what happens next. This doesn't apply to alternate histories, of course, but in pure fantasy, try to make your world a priori, not a posteriori.
The same thing goes for cultures. Why lift the Chinese culture, or the Native American, or the Roman, or the Central European, and plop it down in your stories whole? How will you explain how this world just happens to have the exact same beliefs and stories and even names as a culture from our world? Convergent evolution? Alas, very few fantasy authors ever try to explain this at all; they seize on the culture out of personal love, to avoid having to do the 'work' to create a culture of their own, or both. This doesn't mean that your preferences can't influence your culture. I created non-evil Dark creatures for the world of Orlath out of love for the idea of taking new perspectives. Tolkien fashioned ideas of Elvish love and marriage very closely after his own Catholic precepts. But sculpting out of love is not the same as pure theft, and most of your readers will be able to tell the difference.
Try to come up with a new system of magic, and clearly set its limitations. Many magical systems in fantasy turn out, in essence, to be disturbingly simple. They may rely on fairy-tale ideas, such as certain swords that can only be handled by the pure of heart, or feudal ones, such as only members of certain families having the ability to do magic. And the costs often seem to be small. Consider: What would actually happen to a mage who created effects by chanting and waving his hands? Why those particular gestures? Why those particular words? And what would happen if someone broke his fingers or gagged him? Even in cases like this, where the mage could be neutralized relatively easily, few villains seem to think of it.
Why the stupid villains? Even if your world is divided dualistically, why not make beautiful, powerful, and intelligent villains? I didn't know for certain that this was a standard in fantasy when I made Arcadia, and so I have beautiful, powerful, and quite clever "evil" creatures. I had one Orc-like breed, but they have since been discarded. Even in other fantasies, I've noticed that I have a tendency to avoid stupidity. In Orlath, this is deliberate; the entire thing was created as a parody of other fantasy works, and so the creatures of the Dark are not particularly evil, and certainly not stupid or ugly, except to the prejudiced eyes of the Light. But I think the idea could work even in a "standard" fantasy. Why are most Dark Ones hideous creatures hiding from the Light? Why not make them stunningly beautiful? In the few cases I know of where this has happened- I am thinking of sirens in some legends, and the drow in the D&D campaign- there have been readers who take to the new creatures like fish to water. Villains who don't look like slime will not cost you your audience.
Don't steal continents from Earth, either. Unless your world is deliberately set up as alternative history, close resemblances even to physical places should be avoided. If you have a continent Australia's size and shape and located in Australia's place, I can bet you that some readers will look at it and think "Australia" even if you identify the place as Daamalsa. And there are fantasy readers who will give an author a lot of grief if they believe that he or she represents the place where they live, and gets it wrong.
You don't have to make every fantasy epic- and I mean that not only in the sense of length, but in the sense of subject matter. Very few epics tell us the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters. They concentrate mostly on actions, and grand actions at that. Beowulf fights battles. The epic doesn't tell you about the times he stops to relieve himself. Even most fantasies don't concentrate on characters feeling hungry or tired or thirsty. For amusement, I have sometimes counted the number of days that fantasy characters are apparently going without food or rest of any kind, and come up with numbers that are staggering. Remember that these kinds of needs don't go away, and if you're writing about a world without modern Earthly conveniences- as you are almost surely doing- they become far more pressing. If you can't just open the fridge to get food, what do you do? How do you preserve it once you've hunted it? How do you cook it? And so on.
Consider limiting the use of prophecies, destinies, magical quest objects, and the like. They are inheritances from epic poetry, but are not usually employed as skillfully. Again, does your character need to be the center of the world? (See other rules lists). Is it really necessary to lay out everything that is going to happen from the moment the book begins with a stupid prophecy? For an example of good prophecies that keep the readers guessing, see Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series; for an example of a very stupid prophecy that reveals far too much, see The Wayfarer Redemption.
Remember that your readers don't know as much about the world as you do. If you make an assumption and then neglect to explain it, it might be understandable. If you keep doing this, you are going to confuse your readers to hell and back. It might seem as if you are just pulling coincidences and exceptions out of the air to keep your heroes going. If that is really the case, Stop. Plot a real story.
A final note on style and language: Try to make your style fit the story. Don't write in modern Earth slang unless you have a world that can be sculpted that way. Would your high-flying elf really say, "Bring it on!"? Would a character who doesn't speak English make a pun dependent on English words? Sometimes an author can do something strange well; Steven Brust, who writes the Vlad Taltos series, has a hero who is a mob boss and assassin, and whose whole world is considerably less formal than most fantasy. When Vlad says, "Do not fuck with me, gentlemen," it is credible. When a princess says that in a story that is supposed to be serious high fantasy, the effect fails. The point here: If you want to be able to use certain slang phrases, curses, and puns, the whole story must bend itself to creating that effect. Otherwise, it has failed.