Fantasy worlds come in about as many shapes and sizes as there are fantasy authors. Some were created by magic. Some are populated by strange beings from mythology or from the author’s imagination. Some are flat (occasionally even carried on the back of a space-faring turtle), while Leiber’s Nehwon exists on the inside surface of a hollow sphere. Some have seven moons, or two purple suns. It all works.
It really depends what you want to do with your world. Although I’m not immune to magic and wonder, I essentially want a world that’s an environment for my characters to inhabit, so I’ve chosen one that’s really pretty much like our own in most respects – a rocky planet with active plate tectonics, a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere and abundant water, approximately 93 million miles from a yellow star and with a large moon. The same types of life have evolved, including homo sapiens.
Beyond that, however, all the details are different.
My world has been growing, somewhat haphazardly, for several decades now. It started off as a smallish region consisting of half a dozen countries, but now it consists of six continents, plus a number of major archipelagos – one is called the Thousand Isles (not much of an exaggeration) and could be regarded as an oceanic continent in its own right.
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a four-dimensional world. Usually – though there are exceptions – a fantasy world is like a picture. There’s a foreground representing the “present” (the time in which the main story is set) and a background representing the “past”, which is only ever seen as history or ancient tales. The “future” is outside the frame and is never seen.
My approach to time is more like one of those virtual tours. I can set a story at one period, looking back at tales from an age thousands of years earlier. Then I can move around and set another story in those times, where events are foreshadowed that were previously seen as ancient history. There’s no past, present and future, because every period a story can be set in is its own present.
Just as our world has two major zones of civilisation (the Old World and the New) mine has three. Two separated continents and the Thousand Isles formed the oldest civilisations, but this area suffered a long period of stagnation or decline, allowing the rest of the world to catch up with it. This is inhabited by a mixture of races – tawny skinned (somewhat like Native Americans) and a vaguely Polynesian type, with white-skinned peoples in the far north.
To the east lie two large continents, linked by an isthmus, which were still in their bronze age when the west had been using iron for a couple of millennia, but this is where much of the energy came from behind the later progress of civilisation. The races here go from white in the north to black in the south, with the dynamo of civilisation centred in the south. On the isthmus itself stands the ancient city of Errish, commanding a unique position that controls most practical routes between two continents and two oceans. A fabulously wealthy city with very little space to expand, Errish grew by means of towering skyscrapers and a vast undercity that make it one of the wonders of the world.
To the east, two continents are linked by a bridge of large islands. The islands and the nearer parts of both continents are inhabited by a yellow-skinned race, who have also spread across islands to the west coast of the first zone. Nevertheless, the two areas only knew of one another by vague legends, passed on by indirect trade, until increased globalisation opened up the whole world.
Further into the more southerly of these continents – which stretches all the way down into antarctic regions – live strange, green-skinned humans. Once ferocious raiders, they developed steam-based technology when the rest of the world was still using horse-drawn carts and sailing ships, but remained an aloof, isolated people, content to know they were superior.
All these peoples, of course, have their own languages. Now, I’m not Tolkien and I haven’t actually created the languages, but I know the general nature of many, enough to create names that belong to those languages. Why is one place called Assanara and another Dakh’el? Because of the sounds the languages use and the ways they form their words. (And, to clear up one widespread misunderstanding, the apostrophe is not “decoration” – it’s a standard way of representing the glottal stop, an important sound in many real-world languages which our alphabet doesn’t happen to include).
The stories I’ve written for this world cover more than five thousand years, from urban neolithic to computer age, by way of wars and trade and colonisation and inventions and idealism and betrayal and religion and rationalism and even steampunk. One of the latest tells of the formation of the World Union, a kind of United Nations that’s somewhat more successful than ours (because it’s my world, and I say so).
This is a world that contains politics, economics and warfare – the stuff of real history – but that isn’t all. It also has gods and evil powers vying for control. It has immortals building empires that last a thousand years or more. It has strange beings – the winged Eahui and the ethereal Mountain-Wraiths, terrible ghouls and ice-worms, and the mysterious Subatmiks. And it has plenty of magic, good and evil. It’s just that most people live their lives without seeing any of this – but those aren’t the people I’m writing about.
And through this world, in its various phases and areas, wanders the Traveller, the immortal wanderer on his enchanted ship, who wants to see everything but can’t resist trying to help the threatened and oppressed. He doesn’t appear in all the stories, but he’s a legend everywhere. In the absence of a name for my world (how could it have a single name, when it contains so many languages?) I’ve taken to referring to it as the Travellerverse. For now, at least.