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First of all, excuse me if I make any grammatical mistake. Please feel free to correct me!
When creating the Universe for a fantasy story, science fiction or whichever genre you choose, the first thing you have to consider is that everything depends on organizing and planning ahead. In the minority of cases, the creative part is decesive; even though it's clearly necessary to have a good imagination and an active creativity, the truth is that your Fantasy World will rely on how properly you organize your work.
- Protip: regarding creativity, a group of people can be more imaginative when together than isolated. If everyone takes an active part on an initial brainstorming, you may come up with a lot of bright ideas to give the first impulse to the world's development.
Of course, it's possible to create said world as you move forward in the development of the story, meaning, improvising, but the more you settle everything beforehanded, the more easy will the work be in the future. Thanks to this, creating something in the moment (again, meaning, improvising!) will become an infinitely easier task, since you already have the foundations in which you can stand in order to build up.
Defining the Theme and the Context
A key action is to define the theme of the story, and pick a main topic to base on it.
- For example, a most important topic in the universe of Warhammer 40k is religion and dogmas.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for those who only watch the show), an important topic is the relevance of the Gods.
- In Dragon Age, we have all the thing with Blood Magic going on, that also works as a thread that links several storylines.
There are thousands of examples, but basically with "Topics" I mean the main linking threads of the story you are going to tell. In other words, it will help us prioritize the different aspects of the Universe you are building.
The context is generally really useful, since it orients both the content creator and the reader/player, and it helps to the general framework. It's very important to be loyal to said context; betraying it may lead the readers/players to feel uncomfortable. And this will bring bad reviews to your product.
Toolkit: Develop a Wiki
The idea here is to build some sort of a "Wiki" for your universe. And with this I mean to craft the world you imagined page by page, card by card. It is precisely to form kind of an encyclopedia of the universe. And take this into account: the wiki doesn't need to be published or anything like that. It's only for you to have your framework.
Basically, you will make a brief description of the characters, cities, factions, regions, etc. Warning! This descriptions don't have to be extremely detailed; some of them may even consist in a few words, just as a reference for the future. As I said earlier, the topic you choose will preset which card or page will have more information than the others. The important thing here is to build up our frame.
More specifically, the card is the development of a particular item within your wiki/encyclopedia/framework/universe. A few types of cards are: character cards, cities, regions, worlds, nations, factions, important places (such as ruins, temples, monasteries, castles, etc), religions, schools of magic, etc.
The card can contain all the information that you want it to have, and it can be organized however you think of, but it's always important to keep the same format for all of them. I generally organized them in the following way:
- Name or Title - names, for characters, cities, regions, etc; titles, for important events in the history, for instance (you know... something like "World War II"... you get the point!).
- Description - here you have to "describe" (duh...) what's the card about. The more important and/or relevant this card is to the main topic, the more detail you'll put into it. For example, you'll be more detailed with a key character to the story than what you would be with a secondary character.
- Story - You'll only write the story of this card depending on its relevance. It doesn't need to be a biography or a compendium; telling the crucial details is enough. If a character has a dark past, it will be useful for you to know it, even if you decide to never reveal it to the readers/players.
- Bonus: Character Cards. For characters, I always develop the three following aspects: phsyical description, background (including personality and relationship with other characters), and the story of said character.
It's always useful and exciting (specially exciting) to sketch pieces of artwork to go with the development of the universe. This sketches can be included in the cards if you want to (I recomend you do!). Personally, it fascinates me to see a character's drawing, as it makes everything more real.
Take this into account: you don't need to be an outstanding writer to make cards and you don't need to be a talented artist to draw sketches. There's the magic and the beauty of developing the context for your universe: since it's a tool for your own work, you don't need luxury of details. Later on you'll get into the polishing, enhancing and editing phase.
Getting inspiration from other universes is one of the most used resources out there, and at the same time, one of the trickiest. Specially because you risk plagiarism. Nevertheless, there are three great sources of inspiration that you can use:
Real Story - when creating fantasy universes, it's very common to base some elements on real life concepts. A few examples to further explain this:
- In Dragon Age, the nation of Orlais is clearly based on France: the language, the morphology of the names, the character's accent.
- In the Trading Card Game Magic: The Gathering, we have recently seen a lot of real life inspiration. The Plane of Amonkhet is based on Egypt, Theros is based on Greece, Kaladesh, on southeastern Asia, Tarkir, on northwest and central Asia, and more recently, Ixalan is based on the Aztec and Inca empires and the discovery of America.
Religions and Mythology - this is another of the most used inspiration sources, and maybe the most used in fantasy worlds. Many times, the deities from fantasy universes replicate Gods and mythological creatures from our own world. As an example:
- The universe of The Lord of the Rings is strongly based on norse mythology and catholic religion. The Valar and the Maiar that we find in the Silmarilion are inspired on the Norse Aesir and the Vanir, while Melkor (or Morgoth) is strongly based on the figure of Satan / Lucifer.
Other Game, Book, Shows or Movies Universes - so, here we have arrived to a very gray area, and it's here when we risk plagiarism. As long as you intend to pay tribute or homage to those other universes, you will be "safe" (sort of speaking...). But you have to be careful, since you don't want this homage to turn into a clumsy and grotesque copy. There are, of course, clear examples of good homages:
- For all of you who have played Warcraft 3, you may be familiar with Arthas' story. Well, this is strongly based in the story of King Arthur: the character's name is very similar (Arthas - Arthur), he finds the "Sword in the Stone", only that Frostmourne is encased in ice, and this very same sword as a profecy towards it. And eventually, Arthas ends up becoming King ... but the creators of Warcraft handled the references to the history of King Arthur in a very subtle way, giving origin to one of the most emotional and fascinating story arcs in the story of videogames (and I say this based on other people's opinions, it has nothing to do with me being a big fan of Warcraft, of course not...)
- Another good example is the Plane of Innistrad and the Eldrazi in Magic: The Gathering, which are strongly inspired by HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.
As a reference....
Role playing games manuals are an outstanding example of this sort of encyclopedia that you are groing to create for your universe. Besides, this very same manuals sometimes have excellent guidelines to create Worlds, Cities and/or characters.
If you can, and if you want to, you can check the manuals of games like Dungeons & Dragons, Seventh Sea, Pathfinder, Runquest, etc. You'll see they are an amazing guide to craft the foundations of your own fantasy world!