Creating worlds

By Scott Bury

One of my favourite parts of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Ring was the maps. I’d spend hours poring over the depiction of Middle-Earth and the details of the Shire, Mordor, the land around the Lonely Mountain. I especially loved Pauline Baynes’ illustrated map of Middle-Earth. The complex and believable map was one of the main reasons that I preferred Tolkien to CS Lewis.

Pauline Baynes' map of Middle-Earth

Pauline Baynes’ map of Middle-Earth, courtesy Geo-Hackers


I developed a habit of drawing my own fantasy maps, with little triangular mountains, shaded forests, long, twisting rivers, mysterious seas and sheltered harbours. And I found that the more complex I made the map, the more convoluted the coastlines and twisting the rivers, the more realistic the map looked.

Fantasy writers by definition create new worlds. To reach an audience, the challenge is to find the right balance between fantastic — the reason an audience reads fantasy — and realistic, so readers can identify with the characters.

I think that one way that some fantasy writers succeed in this is by making their worlds big and complex.

Look at a real map and note how complex it is

map of Newfoundland

Newfoundland — a complex coastline Wikimedia Commons

Exploring a new world, through maps or text, is a major part of the attraction of reading fantasy.
And creating a new world is much of the fun of writing fantasy.

Some fantasy writers, like Bruce Blake in his Icarus Fell series, create a world very similar to the objective world that authors and audiences share, populated with a angels and demons, or perhaps impossibly beautiful vampires or werewolves. At the other end of the spectrum is the completely invested world with its own geography and societies, like in Autumn Birt’s Rise of the Fifth Order series.

As a writer, I think I prefer to lean closer to setting the story within the objective world we share with our audiences, and populating it with fantastical elements. My own has dragons, wizards, magical weapons, vampires, short people who live underground and more.

The real world is so much richer, more complex and varied than any imaginary planet or middle-earth-like setting. The world we live in is the product of millions of minds, of sets of experiences, sharing and intersecting and changing at a mind-blowing rate. Its possibilities for stories are endless.

The first advantage for the writer is that you don’t have to invent languages or names. So many imaginary worlds have character and place names that just sound fake. Tolkien’s only have any consistency and believability because he spent years inventing languages that the names come from.

For his Song of Ice and Fire series (adapted for TV as Game of Thrones), George RR Martin made a world that’s a close analog of our own. Place names and character names are the same as, or very close to, names from the shared, objective world:

  • Eddard, RIckard, Joffrey, Tyrion, Martell, Reed
  • Westeros, Essos, Harrenhal, Casterly Rock

Others are obviously invented or based on other fantasies

  • Argon, Drogo, Cersei, Viserys
  • Dorne, Qohor, Qarth, Valyria.

If you don’t have faith, you have to make it

Another advantage to setting your fantasy in the objective world is that you don’t have to invent religions. A little research can reveal beliefs, rituals and practices that are more bizarre, shocking, horrifying, unbelievable yet undeniably real than any you could imagine.

  • Cathars who willingly threw their children and themselves into fire lit by their enemies, so firm was their conviction they were going to heaven
  • blood and human sacrifice rituals of the Mesoamericans
  • sexual rites of the mesopotamians
  • cannibalism
  • worship of every animal from bulls to snakes to fish.

History is complex, constantly changing and debatable

If you’ve ever tried to invent a back story or a history for a character, let alone a world, you’ll probably find there is no convenient starting point. There’s no zero. Every action decision and relationship is the result of something that happened before. Even the Big Bang had something before it.

The history of a nation is the result of relationships, intersections and minglings of millions of individual story lines. People have goals and ambitions formed by so many different forces, and we can see by history their drive toward those goals can be helped by emotions, psychological and physical strengths and weaknesses, friends and enemies. Those relationships can change suddenly. A powerful king can die of a simple infection. The Roman Emperor Justinian was killed by a flea bite that gave him the bubonic plague.

I remember reading a poem in grade school about Richard III, King of England, losing the battle of Bosworth Field:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

Sometimes, the greatest events with the most convoluted back stories revolve on the simplest things.

A lesson for all us writers to learn.

Scott Pic-ScottBuryBury is a journalist, editor and novelist based in Ottawa, Canada. He has written for magazines in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia.

He is author of  The Bones of the Earth, a fantasy set in the real time and place of eastern Europe of the sixth century; One Shade of Red, a humourous erotic romance; a children’s short story, Sam, the Strawb Part (proceeds of which are donated to an autism charity), and other stories.

He is now working onthe true story of a Canadian drafted into the Red Army during the Second World War, his escape from a German POW camp and his journey home. It’s tentatively titled Out of the USSR.

Scott Bury lives in Ottawa with his lovely, supportive and long-suffering wife, two mighty sons and two pesky cats.

He can be found online at, on his blog, Written Words, on Twitter @ScottTheWriter, and on Facebook.

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