How to Build a Fantasy World Part 3: Land

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Hi there! How are you this week? Keep in mind that just because Suicide Prevention Month is technically over, that doesn’t mean those dark thoughts just disappear. You can ask for help any month of the year. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you love, to me, or to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you need to talk to someone 800-273-8255. ❤

You’re not finished yet.

You have stories to tell.

Speaking of stories…

Wow, excellent segue. Very smooth.

If you’ve been following along with this series, you should have a pretty firm grasp of how your world operates by now.

If you haven’t yet, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series to make sure you’re getting all that World-Building awesomeness at your disposal!

So if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you know how your societies operate, your magic system is in place, your deities are properly situated, and all your laws are tied up with a neat little bow.

What’s left, you ask?

Excellent question!

Geography, Climate, and Flora & Fauna.

Let’s do this, people.

Geography:

What does this land look like?

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Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

This can be a bit daunting for a lot of writers, but can I be honest? It’s my absolute favorite!

It’s so fun. Let me show you how:

Quick note: You should create your land with your story in mind. You don’t need to know the shape of every continent if your story never leaves the area. You should know where your character needs to go, and important locations/landmarks, so you can include them in your map.

I used this site to build my maps. It’s totally free and so easy to use!

You can ask it to create something for you, or you can just start building!

I usually start with an idea in mind, then kinda randomly go from there.

Does your MC travel through a forest? Add it!

Is there a mountain range that surrounds there hometown? Cool, put it in!

Do you like lakes? Add one! Add three!

Just keep in mind as you are beginning to imagine and build your map, you do need to follow the basic rules of geography (unless there’s a magical reason why you don’t).

If you really need a particular landmark, but it’s not within the realm of the “possible”, make it magical!

A wizard grew that mountain from the roots of an ancient river.

There is a forest in the middle of the desert because a fairy with a pension for chaos decided to put it there.

So, in short, make it possible, or make it magical. But, whatever you do, you have to make it believable. You never want to pull your reader’s head out of the story.

So lets talk about some simple rules really quickly before you start drafting your map.

-Mountains form because of tectonic plates. They will form in natural lines, not just at random (unless there’s a really good reason).
-Rivers flow towards the sea. Branches of the river may flow into each other to form one large river, but they will not split apart before they reach the sea.
-Land is warmest near the equator and gets colder the further you go in EITHER direction.
-Climate is influenced by geography. Mountains create a natural barrier that trap air and moisture. Often, one side of a mountain range is colder and/or wetter than the other.
-Forests are often in wetlands. They can be mild climates, or extreme, but almost always wet. Think of tropical rainforests versus temperate forests. Hot & humid, or cold & misty.

Bad Example:
The map from A Court Of Thornes And Roses.
Guys… I love these books but… this map is not good. I’m sorry.
The mountains are all over the place.
The rivers branch off in unnatural ways.
There’s a random mountain IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LAND with no other mountains around it, but we’re not given a real reason for this happened, except that it’s a magical place, but… That doesn’t explain why Mass just said NOPE to basic geography. Tell me a wizard put it there. Tell me a Queen died there and from her body, a mountain took root. I don’t know but…
Tectonic plates are a thing. Give it a Google.

Awesome Example:
The map from Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard is BEAUTIFULLY done.
Not just the illustration, but the way she laid out the land.
You can tell she used the Mediterranean as her inspiration.
It’s very clear how borders came to be between kingdoms (natural boundaries like rivers/forests/mountains).
Rivers flow to the sea. Mountains are found in groups or trails across the land (that’s how tectonic plates work).
Just really well-crafted. Take a look if you need inspiration. She also did a video on her Insta about how she made it and that really helped me with my mapmaking.

I am far from a geography expert. These are simply things I have gleaned from my own research. I highly suggest doing more research if you’re going to focus on geography in your story.

After that, just play around with whatever you’re using to create your map. Work on it until it feels right to you.

Climate:

Weather & what it means for your story.

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So as I mentioned before, climate is very much influenced by geography.

Mountains trap moisture and air.

It’s hotter the closer you get to the equator, colder the further you get from it.

Thank about how your geography might impact climate, and determine what the weather will be typically like for your society.

What implications does this have for their way of life?

While modern societies have learned to run with nearly any climate, your society might not have such modern conveniences.

How will your characters need to adapt in order to survive in this land?

How have societies tailored their cities, their way of life, to fit the demands of their climate?

A lot of research has been done into the behavioral differences between cultures in different climates.

Give us some weirdly specific facts!

Example:
Here in Portland, it rains all the time. Like 8-9 months out of the year.
But we have this weird cultural faux pas where you can’t use umbrellas.
Everyone knows you’re not from here if we see you using an umbrella. And we WILL make jokes about you. We WILL give you weird looks. We WILL pretend not to know you.
Is shielding yourself from the elements a sign of weakness? Is wet hair a weird fashion statement? No clue. All I know is that it rains here all the time, but I’m not even sure I own an umbrella. And I certainly wouldn’t be caught dead using one.

Flora & Fauna:

The types of plants and animals that live in this land.

Photo by Laura The Explaura on Pexels.com

Climate and geography will have a big impact on the types of plants and animals in the land. So it’s important to determine climate before you really get underway.

Is your story in a desert? You’re probably not going to see many trees or leafy plants.

Is your story in a wetland? Your character might not even know what a camel is.

If you’ve modeled your land after somewhere in real life, try researching what kind of plants and animals live there! This will make the story more realistic.

Using a made-up language in your story? Use a word from that language to name some common plants or animals.

Make up your own creatures for this land based in lore or your own imagination.

The sky really is the limit when it comes to writing fantasy.

The key here is just to have a list in mind so that if your character is walking through the street, you know what kind of animal is rummaging through the trash beside them. If they venture into the woods, you know what they need to be wary of. What they can eat. What might make them sick. Or try to eat them.

As long as you are able to make it believable, you can add whatever feels right to you!

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I hope you found this guide helpful!

Make sure to keep up with your writing this week.

Even a paragraph is better than nothing.

Sending love,

MK

Do you have a Linux beast in your fantasy world? He’s a good boi, so I’d highly recommend it.

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.

Photo by Jerry Wang on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Joy Marino on Pexels.com

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.

How to Build a Fantasy World Part 1: Culture

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Hi there! Hope you’re healthy – body, mind, & soul! You are your top priority so make sure you’re giving yourself the effort you deserve! ❤

As you may know from previous posts/Instagram, I have a “finished” manuscript to my first novel floating around.

I had to take a step back and get some more beta readers because I wasn’t having much luck with querying. So it may be a while yet until my baby is out on the shelves.

That being said, I wanted to chat about how I build my worlds.

World-Building is my absolute favorite part about crafting a story.

I love drawing the map, creating cultures, thinking up religions… All of it!

Because there are so many details, I thought one big post might be overwhelming.

So I broke it out into 3 parts that you can follow along. I will post them every Friday.

Keep in mind, this guide will be specifically for fantasy/sci-fi stories, or any story set in another world. Basing your story on the real world is a whole different game.

This first part will be all about culture.

Quick note: If you have multiple nations within your novel, you will have to repeat these processes for each one!

Photo by Askar Abayev on Pexels.com

Another quick Note: You should have a basic premise of your story already in place before you begin. This way, you stay on track and only build what you need.

Culture is basically the customs and social interactions of a set of people.

This includes behaviors, social structure, the way people dress and act, language, etc.

This can be quite the hefty task, but it can be done if you break it down.

You’ll need 4 basic pieces: Appearance, Belief System, Social structure, and Language.

Appearance:

What do people look like, and how do they adorn themselves?

Photo by Tru1ea7n Long on Pexels.com

Most of the time, my MC comes to me fully formed.

Hair color, skin color, physical attributes, personality, skills…

Sometimes they even come with clothing preferences, and I shape their culture to make sense within those guidelines.

But it’s ok if you’re not sure yet. That’s where the creative part comes in!

The main question you need to ask yourself here is how does the majority of this society look, physically?

Are there major differences between people (some have two sets of arms, some don’t), or subtle ones (run-of-the-mill gene recombination)?

Are they human, animal, a mixture, humans with non-human qualities (claws)?

Wings? Pointed ears? Tusks? Cat whiskers?

Are they not human at all? Perhaps snakes or wolves or fish?

Example:
The people of A Court of Thornes and Roses series by Sarah J Maas vary between societies.
There are the humans and the fae, with all the normal differences to be expected between people born to the same society but different parents. Then there are other societies like the Ilyrians, the “lesser faries”, the Valkyries (a society but not a race).
This is a great example of variance between cultures, but also within cultures.
You’re only limited by your imagination!

Let’s remember here that you will have a wide variety of readers who will be different from you in a variety of ways.

The assumption that white & light eyed & able-bodied & neurotypical is the norm, and anything else is “other”, is not one that will do you any favors in your writing.

Nor will it serve your readers.

Please keep in mind that differences in skin color, hair color, eye color, gender, preference, abilities, and so much more are the things that make this world BEAUTIFUL.

And you have a moral obligation to be inclusive and respectful in your stories, regardless of what you look like, regardless of your abilities and preferences, regardless of your upbringing.

*dismounts soapbox*

Another piece of appearance is adornment: how does this society dress?

This can be a result of climate, beliefs, societal norms, and also personal preference (just like the real world).

You will need to decide what kind of clothes the society wears, as well as specifically what each of your characters prefer to wear.

Cold, snowy climate? Furs and boots will be pretty common! But maybe you have a weird character who refuses to wear long pants. Maybe he likes to feel the chill wind rustle his lower leg hairs.

What kind of jewelry does this society wear? And is there a difference between the classes?

Everyone has earrings, but only the rich have nose rings.

No one except the “low class” wear jewelry because it’s considered vain and sacrilegious.

Do people have tattoos? Do they have cultural significance, or are they simply personal preference?

There are lots of ways to adorn a body, and not all of them might be common to your own society, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

This is a fantasy world, after all!

Belief System:

What does this society believe in?

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

Is there a deity? Multiple? Strict atheism? Do they hold a set of principles as their belief system (people are inherently good/do whatever you want, damn the consequences/warriors are highly esteemed/children are sacred/etc.)?

This may not look the same across the world, or even across the society.

Think of your own society. Your neighbor may share your belief system, but differ in their principles. Your neighbor may have a different belief system altogether!

Differences can add more believability, because it’s more realistic!

How does their belief system impact their society? Their government? Their customs? Their social interactions?

Think about real societies in our world. Religion/belief has a massive impact on almost every culture in our world. People go to war over beliefs. Borders are set, kingdoms made and broken.

What did religion do to your story’s world?

Example:
Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin is set in a pretty believable world (and kinda familiar). There is the Chruch, which believes witches are evil, and there are witches, who believe magic is only as good or evil as its user.
The religious aspect of this book is so believable because it is so very familiar.
Two sides who each think they are wholly right. Governments and borders formed through the influence of these societies.
I could go on, but it’s a great example of strict religious culture in a story.

Another example (because I can’t help but love this story):
The Remnant Chronicles by Mary E Pearson has, in my humble opinion, some of the best world building I’ve ever seen.
This is a post-apocalyptic world where the religion seems to have formed out of the events and oral accountings of survivors.
I won’t spoil anything for you, but the way Pearson puts in excerpts of religious text really adds depth. And the way everyone’s ideas and practices are a bit different is a beautiful depiction of the way a religion would come to be in this situation.
Highly HIGHLY recommend this series for anyone looking to write a religion-heavy story!

A final question to ask yourself, when it comes to actually writing the story, is how does this belief system affect your character?

In the previous examples, the character’s belief had great power over them. They spoke of it often, even in every-day conversation.

But sometimes religion is more subtle than that.

Take Christianity in the real world: there are the people who pray every day and talk about their beliefs on social media. They wear tshirts and go to concerts. Then there are the “Sunday Christians” who, for all intents and purposes, no one can tell are even religious until they show up to church.

I’m not giving you a lecture on right and wrong in our world, I’m simply giving an example that is familiar to me.

Is your character devout? Or are they “situationally religious”?

Is their society strictly religious, or do they allow an ebb and flow depending on personal preference?

Social structure:

Basically, how do your people interact with each other?

Photo by Joy Anne Pura on Pexels.com

This may already be taking shape after your government and religion are in place. Excellent!

But let’s ask a few questions to make sure you’re solid.

Are there castes/classes that aren’t defined by government but by social interaction (rich vs. poor, religious vs. secular)?

How does this society treat its poor?

Its elderly?

Its women? Its men? Its non-binary?

What is the separation like between the working class and the aristocrats?

Is there a mixture of backgrounds/cultures/ethnicities, or is the society pretty closed off? On that note, how do they treat outsiders?

What are their relations to other nations in their world, and opinions of cultures that are not their own?

How does this society view gender? Sexual preference?

What are “taboos” that people can’t or don’t talk about (sex, religion, money, political views, background, job, etc.)?

Example:
In The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood, there are multiple worlds, each with a unique society.
You can tell the differences as the MC travels worlds, going from a soft-spoken, religious society, to tougher, louder societies focused on fighting, to more scholarly societies. These differences are cultural, and the people will act accordingly (to a certain extent).
You can see the differences in worlds simply by the descriptions of interactions. There are even differences in appearance, due to the different worlds they come from.

This is a lot of questions, I know! But thinking through these details is really important to your story. You need to have a working knowledge of how this society interacts with each other so that your characters act in a way that fits the culture you’ve created.

Language:

Is there another language in your story?

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

The fact of the matter is, unless there’s some magical or story-based reason, your world will have differences in language (among many other things) between societies.

The easiest way to go about this is to stick to one culture, so all your characters speak one language.

If there are multiple languages, you can let the reader know they’re speaking another language, then put the text in italics.

If you want to go down the rabbit trail of creating a fantasy language, my best advice would be to pick a real language, and twist it. I did this for one of my worlds, and it was tough! But it did add a layer of depth to the story.


All in all, when coming up with these pieces of your world, try to keep your character and your story in mind.

Think about your characters and the dynamic you want them to have.

Are they Poor/Rich? Extroverted/Introverted? Do they have jobs? Are they in the ruling class? Are they from another culture entirely?

In answering these questions, you should ask yourself how they interact with their world.

When you think about your character, ask yourself what about their culture, their society, shaped them to be this person? What circumstances or customs pushed them to be who they are today?

Example:
Inej Ghafa from Six Of Crows is reserved and quiet, religious, and fiercely protective of those she loves. She’s a trained acrobat and fighter, and uses her skills to navigate her world.
-She might be reserved and quiet because of her family of origin.
-Religious due to her Suli heritage and her family.
-Fiercely protective because of her traumatic past.
-Her family trained her as an acrobat. It gave her confidence.
-She learned to fight because a friend in her city gave her the opportunity to take her power back.

I suppose, the question for Leigh would be, “What came first, the culture that shaped Inej, or the culture Leigh created to explain how Inej came to be?”

My characters usually come to me fully formed. Physically, mentally, spiritually. So, after that, I shape the culture to fit them.

Sometimes my story changes a bit as I lay out the culture and the geography. Sometimes certain pieces of a character have to shift because they don’t fit, or they create a plot hole.

Truly, you’ll figure it out as you go along. I know that’s not helpful, but just dive in! Think about whether this culture could survive in real life, or if some pieces don’t fit/are missing.

Let’s take a pause here, friends!
You have a moral obligation to make sure your stories include all people, not just those like you.
Ethnicity, identity, beliefs, customs, preferences, abilities, and behaviors vary from person to person. Make sure that your story includes a beautiful variety of people that appropriately and respectfully include the beautiful variety of your readers.
That being said, certain stories are not yours to tell. Make sure you are respectful in your depiction of an experience that does not resemble your own.

I hope this guide helps some fellow authors out there!

Part 2 coming next Friday!

I’d love to hear about your WIP or see the beautiful cultures you create in the comments below, or in my inbox.

Don’t forget to write this week!

Sending love,

MK

If Linux practiced some world-building, he would make a land full of green grass and sunshine, where rivers of yogurt cascade over mountains of treats, and human slaves play fetch all day.