How to Build a Fantasy World Part 2: Systems

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Hi there! How are you this week? Are you taking care of yourself? Make sure you’re balancing work and mental health. ❤

If you’re a writer, especially a fantasy or sci-fi writer, you are familiar with World Building.

Or maybe you’re not, and that’s why you’re here! Hah!

World Building is the term the writing community uses to describe creating the world for your book. This is so much more than just a map.

If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 to make sure you’re getting all the steps!

This part will be all about systems.

Quick note: This will be a bit more challenging if you haven’t already determined the details of your culture, listed in Part 1 of this 3 part series.

So, what systems am I talking about, exactly?

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Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

What you need to think about here is Government, Infrastructure, Economy, Agriculture, and Magic.

Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds!

I’ll break it down for you and give you some questions to answer so that you can flesh out the details.

Government:

How is this society ruled?

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Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

Is there a monarchy? A chief? Is this a democratic society? A lawless land?

Logistically, how does this place work? Every society needs laws or boundaries, even if they aren’t a sovereign nation.

Even if the law is “there is no law”.

While you don’t need to write out a bunch of laws or create in-depth systems of government for every aspect of your society, you do need to think about what your character will encounter in their story.

Will they have a run-in with the law? Do they ever talk about the governance of their land or peoples? Are there limitations to what they can do/where they can go?

Who would they ask for help if the situation called for it?

Example:
The Selection by Kiera Cass is set in a dystopian society.
This society has social classes and a monarchy (among many other things – read the book for more detail).
This way of governing has a massive impact on the MC and her life. Her family’s income, her future, her career, who she can marry…
Cass had to create this governing body. She drew on real-life examples and added in a little hand-waving.
Do we know every single detail of how the government operates? No. But do we need to? Also no!
We know what is pertinent to the story. What gives it depth.
Definitely read this book if you’re looking for an example of good fantasy government building.

In this vein, you should also take a moment to think about how this society relates to other cultures. Trade? Arranged marriages? Wars?

Do they have allies? Do they have enemies?

Again – don’t worry about this if it isn’t necessary to YOUR story. If you never mention another society in your book, then who cares that they signed a peace treaty with them 30 years ago?

On the other hand, the more detailed you plan this society, the easier it will be to write your story. Don’t go into crazy, unnecessary details, but have a firm grasp of how this place works.

Believability is EVERYTHING.

While you don’t need every single detail of the society planned out, having that idea in your head can add depth to the story, even if you don’t specifically put those facts in. This will happen simply because you know it works, so it will be easier to convince your reader it works.

Infrastructure:

The layout of this society and how they get around within it.

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Here, you need to think roads and homes.

What kind of roads run through the main city? The suburbs? Dirt, gravel, cement, traffic in the sky?

It can be good to sketch out a map here so that you can keep the layout straight in your head as you are drafting your story.

How do they travel within their area? To faraway places?

What do the homes look like? Modern homes made of wood and plaster? Lean-tos with thatched rooves? Houses made of packed dirt?

No houses at all, but tents or wagons for a nomadic society?

What do the rulers live in and how is it different from what the poor live in?

Think about the layout of your city. How do you get around? Where do you need to go on a regular basis?

Do they have grocery stores? Markets?

Is there piped water? Electricity?

How do they heat their homes? Cook dinner?

Do they trade with other societies?

These should all be appropriate to the time period of your story.

Example:
Throne of Glass is set in a time period before most modern conveniences, however they have running water for the sake of the story.
Maas just kinda does some hand-waving around how this is possible, but she does it so well that, as the reader, you don’t really care!
Sometimes having the character admit they don’t know how something works, or that something is weird, can be all the explanation you need.
“I don’t get how it works, but it does, so I get to enjoy the benefits of other people’s brainpower!”

While there are so many details you can and should come up with here, the main ones you should be thinking about are what will directly impact your story.

You don’t need to know they fly in blimps to visit distant lands if they don’t use them, or ever visit distant lands, during the story…

Economy:

Money and its various uses.

Photo by Pratikxox on Pexels.com

Unless you have an economy-focused story, there’s really no need to get into the nitty-gritty here.

At a certain point, giving a ton of details can actually create less clarity and more questions.

If you say there are banks and the currency is gold, awesome! As a reader, I believe that.

If you say there are banks and then there’s this detailed system behind it, oh and there’s the treasury, and the money is based on this physical resource, and you pay for food with gold but you pay rent with favors, and we trade with other nations using livestock and then there is this system of credit and…

Oh gosh! That is so confusing. As a reader, I’m lost. And to be honest, I don’t really care… Unless there’s a specific plot-based reason I should.

Keep it simple, friends.

Here are the questions you do need to be able to answer:

What does their money look like? Gold, bills, coins, favors, life-force, etc.
How much is that money worth? What does a set of clothes cost? A dinner out? A month’s rent?
What relationship does this society have with money (greedy, rich, poor, give tithe to their religion, etc.)?
What relationship does your character have with money?

If there is anything else (story specific) that you can think of, certainly work that out.

But, again, keep it simple!

Less is more.

Lies are best crafted when they don’t have too many details. We know this, we were all teenagers at some point in time.

Agriculture:

Farming & Food. It’s that simple, folks.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

The main questions you need to ask yourself here are:

What does this society eat? Is there a difference between food of the rich and poor?

Do they grow food, or have it imported? Or is it manufactured?

What kind of crops do they grow, if they grow any at all?

What kind of livestock do they keep, if they keep any at all?

Is the farmland incorporated in the story? If you never need to mention it, then don’t worry about it! If your story is set in a palace where they are waited on hand and foot, never traveling to a farm or speaking of one, then telling your readers about the society’s agriculture is totally unnecessary!

Magic:

The magic system or powers in this society, and the world beyond.

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Magic systems can be intricate (and intimidating) even in the most basic of magical stories.

The key things (for a believable magic system) you need to remember are these:

Power comes from somewhere. An god/entity, nature, another person, animals, blood…
There must be a cost. Energy, life, time, memories, beauty…
There must be rules or guidelines (cannot create life or love is really common).
There must be a limit to how much power someone can have or use (whether you grow tired or the cost is too great).

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Who possesses magic/powers?
What kind of magic/power is it?
What is the cost of using it?
Is magic/power evil? Good? Or is it simply a tool as good as its user?
Is magic/power a secret, or does everyone know about it?
Does magic/power elevate someone’s social status, or lower it?
If someone uses too much power, what happens to them? Body/Mind/Soul.
Is the magic/power tied to religion in some way?

Now, if you’re talking about powers, it will be a bit different, but still the same premise!

Where does it come from, who has it, what are the limitations?

Example (magic):
Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin has a magic system that trades memories for power. The bigger the power, the more important the memory.
This has grave repercussions for the user as they change every time they lose these pieces of themselves.

Example (powers):
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard uses powers instead of magic.
The power seems to come from inside them, and is based on some kind of inner well of energy. It can be drained and refilled. There are limits, which are different for every powered individual.
There are many different types of power, and groups who have the same power, but everyone seems to have their own spin on it.
Aveyard even goes into lovely detail of explaining how this was some kind of mutation, elevating powered members of society to a higher social status, creating a rift between peoples.

Keep in mind that this is all up to your imagination!

Go crazy, make weird rules and exceptions, do something no one’s done before!

Just keep in mind that the questions above, while only a helpful guide, will help you create a believable magic system.

If you don’t care about believability, then by all means, make power unlimited and free for all! It’s your story!


I hope this guide has been helpful for you in creating the systems within your world!

Don’t forget to check out the first post here on Culture.

Next post next Friday will be the 3rd and final part of this series.

Take care of yourself and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you love this week!

Sending love,

MK

Linux would create a world where magic tennis balls are tossed all day in fields of dog treats, and human hands never tire of belly rubs.