Everyone loves a good mystery. I'm not talking about the classic whodunnit, but the less common mysteries you find in fantasy worlds - the abandoned city, the ancient statues, the strange carvings lining the face of a cliff in the middle of nowhere. Who made them, when, and why? This is something that's often overlooked in fantasy stories.
Take our world, for example. Angkor Wat, the Nazca Lines, Macchu Picchu, the Cahokia Mounds, the Easter Island moai, Stonehenge... all of these are remnants of previous cultures and civilizations that left their mark. In some cases, we don't know who made them, how, or why, but they continue to excite our imagination. On the less tangible side, you have the myths and legends. Did you know that almost every culture on Earth has some variation of the Flood myth?
Sadly, many fantasy worlds are lacking in this respect. Sure, they might have long, detailed timelines with thousands of years of history, but they lack the evidence of all that history. Low fantasy is rife with them: Robert E. Howard's Conan series is a great example of ancient cultures - you can't walk ten miles without tripping over an abandoned ruin, old statue, or a tomb. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire also features lots of things that will never apepar in the books, or be explained - there's an entire continent (Sothoros) that is largely unexplored and has abandoned cities, old ruins, and strange creatures. Another way to go is Jordan's Wheel of Time series: back in the Age of Legends, people had much more advanced technology, the knowledge of which was lost during the war; now all that exist are scattered examples like the Tower of Genji, the Choedan Kal, and mentions of ancient wonders.
Of course, doing this is something like walking a tightrope. Look at the TV show Lost: it's rather infamous for tossing all kinds of random phenomena into the show, but in the end most of it was either poorly justified, or not explained at all. (FYI: "Magic!" is not an adequate explanation.) On the other hand, a good magician never reveals all his secrets: keep a few things hidden behind the curtain, and leave the readers always wanting more.
So you've created a world and populated it with various cultures. You've probably already decided long before now whether or not to add non-human races, and which ones they'll be, so let's take a moment to think this over. In the 80s and 90s, it seemed like elves, dwarves, orcs and such were pretty much required to appear in any fantasy world, thanks to the influences of D&D and similar RPGs. In the last 10 years or so, though, fantasy is becoming more human-centric, with the other races appearing less and less frequently. This can be a good thing - in the sea of human-centric worlds, one with multiple races will stand out. It's just a matter of whether or not readers will show interest in it.
Does the world really need non-humans? I.e., are you including them just because you think they're necessary, or do they serve a purpose? I'm not talking a purpose like allegory or metaphor, although those are fine. What I mean is, do they fill a niche? Nearly every creature on Earth today is here because it fulfills a role - from the smallest bacterium to the largest whale, they've evolved over millions of years to be where they are, and those whose roles are no longer important or who can't adapt go extinct.
Where did they come from? This is a huge question, and one that is often ignored. Granted, it doesn't usually have a bearing on the story, but it can shape a race's history - how it interacts with other races, its myths and culture, and even how members view themselves. Did they evolve from some lower life form, like humans did from the apes? If not, you should know how and why they came about. Did the gods put them down on the earth, fully-formed? Did they come through a portal to this world from another? Were they created by another race, or a single being?
How do they interact with other races? Are they open and welcoming, interbreeding with others (more on this later), or closed and xenophobic, attacking outsiders? Are they territorial, nomadic, content to settle in other races' lands, or something else entirely?
There are a lot more, like actual biology, but let's stick with this for now. In Earth's prehistory, there were dozens of different species of humans, most of which interacted with each other in some form - some were wiped out by competing races (either deliberately or through communicable diseases), and others died out because they were less adaptable, or because of environmental factors (climate change). And yes, there is evidence that our ancestors interbred - I'm sure you've heard that most non-African humans carry 1-4% Neanderthal DNA; scholars also agree that we interbred with the Denisovans, a group that lived in what is now middle Asia (Pakistan, up into Siberia), and another, as-yet-unknown group. So: Any time two races or cultures come into contact, they'll interact; if their biology is compatible, they'll mate, and if the genetics are close enough, they'll produce offspring. Which, of course, begs the question:
Are humans and these races in your world genetically compatible? If so, what do their offspring look like, what abilities (if any) do they have, are they sterile, and how do their parent races view them? How common are they, and where do they live (this leads back to how they're viewed/treated by their parent races)? Aside from RPG worlds, half-breeds, crossbreeds, and hybrids are seldom mentioned or dealt with. Sure, you could just say "they're all incompatible"; that's great, as long as you know *why*.
For the love of all that's holy, if you're going to add new races, please don't use the same tired old tropes. Elves, dwarves, orcs, gnomes... boooring. Give us something new - a race of lizard-like beings that live in the swamps; sentient spiders that inhabit the deep forest reaches; aquatic fish-men or cetaceans living in the oceans. Don't limit yourself to humanoids: dolphins and whales are generally accepted to be nearly as smart as humans (if not more so), and you're creating a fantasy world - the sky's the limit. If you really must use one of the tropes, give it a new spin - cannibal elves, desert dwarves, swamp orcs... or combine attributes of two or more races into something new. Be original. Have fun with it, as long as it all makes sense in the end.
What's in a name? Quite a lot, actually. You probably know the saying "the clothing makes the man"... well, it's the same with names. Unlike real people, characters can get any name you wish to give them, so you should make the effort to give them something that fits - both the person and the story. You don't want to call your fantasy knight Joebob Bumblethorpe III, unless you're writing a parody, in which case it's perfect.
As I mentioned before, I write fantasy, and it's tough for me to come up with names. I kept a list of them, back when I wrote stories in my first world - people, towns, inns, etc. - for when I needed them. They were all right, but they lacked character. If you want to evince a certain culture, a time, a feel for your story, your names need character. Even if you think it doesn't matter, it does. Every world, every city, every setting, no matter where it is, is unique and should have its own names.
For people like me, random name generators are a godsend. YMMV, of course; some people prefer to do their own heavy lifting, and that's great - I tip my hat to you, who are creative enough to do that. My absolute favorite is fantasynamegenerators.com. Over 900 gens, everything from real-world names to fantasy and sci-fi; people, places, things, groups, and even some description generators - you name it, it's either there or in the queue to be made. It takes a huge load off to be able to flip through a few pages of names and pick something you like (and possibly modifying it), rather than have to take the time to think up something yourself. (As a side note, Emily, the site owner, is a really nice lady - if you go over there, drop her a line and say hi - she loves to hear from the people who use her site.)
The great thing about such a huge variety (besides the huge variety, of course) is that you can mix and match names and cultures and races with a lot less effort. Let's take my world, for instance: one of my races, the Vargrim, use dwarven names for their cities, but I use Mongolian names for their people - as it turns out, Mongolian and FNG's dwarven have a lot in common, as far as construction. Both languages work really well because the Vargrim are sonorous - they have large chests, deep voices, and are excellent singers, so their language is rich with deep sounds, long vowels, and rolling consonants.
Likewise, the Ma'jaat, another race, are largely based on Arabic culture. For them, I went with Elder Scrolls Khajiit - their language has Persian and Hindi influences. It evokes the Middle Eastern feel without actually being (overtly) Middle Eastern. Of course, I couldn't use Khajiit names for the cities and nations, so I had to go with Middle Eastern names there, but again - I can pick and choose names that fit the overall theme I've created.
This leads into my final point: If you want to use something that's "close but not quite", there are dozens of pop culture generators that are based on real-world cultures - French, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Oriental, Russian, English, and about a dozen each of elves and dwarves. Go dig through them, and you can find all kinds of cool stuff.
Edit: I forgot something: naming conventions. 99% of the names you see in fantasy are either (first name last name) or (single name), because that's what you see in western culture. The real world isn't like that, though, and neither should fantasy worlds. Besides the "normal" names, you have:
* Surname-given name (common in Oriental cultures).
* Given Name-clan name
* Given Name-son/daughter of-(last name) - Scandinavian and Scots-Irish (-son/dottir, O', Mc, Mac, and nic')
* Given Name-surname-patronymic (Russian)
And of course, you can make all kinds of variations thereof. The Ma'jaat, for example, use <given name> <son/daughter of> <clan name>.
Honorifics (polite forms of address) are also something that can add color to a culture. Eastern cultures are big on honorifics - Japan has a ton of them - but they appear in almost every culture - Mr., Ms., and Mrs., Dr., Esquire... those are all honorifics. Instead of going with the same tired old "master" and "mistress", toss out a <last name>-sen or eare-<last name> (that's "honored" in Frisian, a term that could be used for someone of great age or learning, or simply respect. Google Translate is a great resource.)
* Fantasy Name Generators: 900 generators and counting (despite the title, it covers real-world and sci-fi names too).
I couldn't think of any clever titles this time. These two kind of go hand-in-hand, so I thought I'd deal with them in one post.
I've been working on cultures and nations for awhile now, and it's been coming along, slowly. One thing that helped me was to come up with a "continental archetype" - that is, what type of culture is predominant over a given continent. For example: Ivros, the continent housing the Creuzland Imperium, is largely European - Creuzland is Germanic; it rose to power a few centuries after the cataclysm, when most other parts of the world were still getting their act together. After its collapse, the nations that formed from the ruins would be semi-related - the UK, Denmark, Austria (English, Scots-Irish, Dutch, and German). Down south, where the Vargrim set up shop, their culture most resembles Japan's - a strict caste-based society where men stand above the women; they're very ritualistic and worship their ancestors. Nearby nations are also Oriental - Chinese, Mongolian, etc. The upper rim of the central continent is Mediterranean - French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Turkish. And so on.
Something I learned from Michael Stackpole's books - don't be afraid to mix and match cultural elements. In one of his novels, he had a nation whose people had French names, but the culture was Japanese. Creuzland, for example, uses Russian architecture (it just fit them somehow) and culture. Everyculture.com (link below) is a great resource for mixing and matching.
I didn't really feel like fleshing out every single culture if I didn't need to (I follow the maxim of "don't do more work than you have to"), so I came with the idea of primary, secondary, and tertiary cultures. Primary cultures are those where most, if not all, of the action takes place, or the nation/culture is important to the story. These are the most developed. Secondary cultures, obviously, are not as important - only some of the action (maybe a chapter or two) takes place there, or a supporting character is from this nation, so you'll need to know some minor details beyond the basics. Tertiary cultures are basically just window-dressing. They don't appear at all, or very briefly - someone's passing through, they're mentioned in a book or conversation, or a minor character is from there. These can also be lost or ancient cultures. They don't need more than the basic writeup - a name, location, language, and maybe a few cities.
Here's what I came up with for "cultures in a nutshell" (which can also be applied to races/nations):
* Description: A brief overview of the race/culture/nation - where/how they live, and other information of note that doesn't fall into the other categories.
* Appearance/dress - pretty self-explanatory.
* Names/address - Naming conventions (given name-surname, or vice-versa; given name only; given name + clan/family/city/ship name; given name + "son/daughter of xx").
* Language - name of the language(s) spoken there.
* Customs - births, deaths, special ceremonies (coming of age), how do they treat guests, holidays/observances
* Relations - How they get along with their neighbors/other races.
* Religion/beliefs - gods/no gods/something else entirely, maybe creation myths, if they're applicable
* History - any special events
This covers 90% of what you need for any culture.
When I'm working on this, sometimes I have an idea for a culture in a certain part of the world and come with the nation later, and sometimes it's the other way around. When I was reading through AllCultures, I noticed something - the less advanced a culture is, the less likely it is to identify itself as a "nation". This is not to say that they won't have some form of governance, or a territory with marked borders; it's just that they don't think "We belong to the nation of Ibristia." They'll identify with family or clan first, culture second (as in, they acknowledge that their family/clan belongs to a larger group of people of the same race/cultural inclination). A good example of this would be the Native Americans - all the tribes had names for themselves, they had leaders and rules and territories, but they didn't consider themselves to be sovereign nations, because what did it matter?
Even today, you find clan cultures in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, so don't be afraid to just have a territory marked as "clan lands for xxx", draw some rough borders, and leave it at that. Nomadic and farming cultures are generally going to far outweigh the more advanced cultures in any given fantasy world.
Leading off the above (and something I constantly have to remind myself): Not every square inch of the map has to belong to someone. In fact, it shouldn't. Any race will settle in places most conducive to its survival, leaving the more hostile ones for later, when there's not much else left. This means mountains, deserts, swamps, or even areas with little to no perceived value (plains and grasslands far from rivers or the sea, e.g.) will most likely not be heavily occupied, if at all (it's not to say that you can't have the odd culture somewhere, like the Incas or Sherpas, but it should be the exception, not the rule). Likewise, civilizations rise and fall - the empire that once covered ten thousand square miles once contained a large plain; no one else has the strength to claim and hold it, so it remains populated only by bands of nomads or the odd farming settlement.
Nations tend not to be too large, unless the people of your world have an easy way to communicate/travel over large distances (via magic, magical creatures, etc.). AS evidenced by our own history, however, empires can cover tens or even hundreds of thousands of square miles.
* World Culture Encyclopedia: A list of just about every modern culture on Earth. It's a bit outdated, but a fantastic resource if you just want to browse around for ideas.
Yes, it's another magic entry. Last time I just blathered on about my magic system; this time I want to talk about magic in general. For the purposes of this entry, those who use magic will be referred to as mages, the use of magic is casting, and the end effect is a spell.
There are dozens upon dozens of different types of magic. In her guide Magical World Building, Stephanie Cottrell Bryant describes four basic types:
Sorcery: Also called wizardry, this is the classical magic - chant a spell, draw upon some energy, and get the desired effect.
Divine: This is similar to sorcery, but the source of the caster's power comes from a greater being - divine, demonic, or something else.
Psychic: Psychic powers like telepathy and clairvoyance are generally not considered magical abilities, but there are some series that use mental powers that could be considered magic - Robin Hobb's Wit and Skill are good examples. The power is manifested straight from the user's mind and generally has a limited range of use.
Items: Magic can only be used through the use of specific items. R.A. Salvatore's Demon Wars Saga is a good example of this; casters harness the energy inherent in gemstones to achieve the desired effect. One book I read called Masks (E.C. Blake) had magic as a physical liquid; the only way mages could use magic was if they had some of it at hand, and it would be used up when the spell was cast. I've read a couple sources where magic was too unstable to use effectively without a refining focus (wand, staff, etc.) - and, of course, there are the ones like Harry Potter where you actually need a wand to cast magic.
How common are mages?
Is it like Avatar, where every third person is a Bender, or more like Conan, where magic is extremely rare? Is magic inherent, inborn, or learned? By that, I mean:
Is it endemic to one or more races? There should be a reason why those races are inherently magical.
Are some people born with the ability? If so, who, and how? Is it only passed down through bloodlines, is it random, or is there some other criteria entirely?
Can anyone learn to use it? This is often the case with wizardry - in Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind series, for example, people can be trained to learn the Names of things in order to control them or use their power.
Is your world high- or low-magic (or somewhere in between)? Avatar is a great example of a high-magic world - people have incorporated Bending into their everyday lives like we did with technology, using it to make things easier. Keep in mind two things, though:
1) The tech level for such worlds is likely to be higher than normal, as people will have invented things to take advantage of magic (it really depends on the type of magic here, but basically anything that makes work easier - everything from horseless carriages to communication devices to weapons.
2) Subsequent to the above: Many inventions that we take for granted might not exist, as they could be replicated by magic. I.e., why use planes when you can fly?
How does everyone view magic?
For starters, I'll to link to a blog post I found.
I'll just add my own thoughts: People's views of magic will be colored by how magic has been used in the past. Let's hie back Avatar yet again: Benders are common, but people view them differently depending on where they are (talking about Aang's version here): the Fire Nation was a bunch of power-hungry dicks, so people naturally feared them. Contrarily, Earth and Water Benders were well-liked and respected in their countries because they served the people.
In WoT, the Aes Sedai are not nearly as common, and they tend to hide their capabilities from the masses (not to mention they act high and mighty to boot), so the common folk hate and fear them.
Humans tend to fear that which they don't understand. This is why, in low-magic worlds where mages are rare, someone walking down the street with a glowing ball floating over his head would draw all kinds of attention - and not just the "Ooh look, pretty!" variety.
However, as Atsiko (yes, he's a guy) mentioned in his post, if mages in a low-magic world were open and helpful with their magic, people would better understand and come to appreciate them; likewise, if the mages in a high-magic world used their power to oppress the masses, use their powers for their own good, or simply avoided contact with the normals, people would still view magic and mages with distrust and/or fear. It's all in how you set things up.
Magical items. Do they exist?
How are they made (and how easily)? Can any old mage go down to the corner store, buy the components, and enchant a light wand to sell at the market, or are they incredibly rare because the formulae have been lost for centuries (cliche)? Can they only be created by greater beings (read: gods and demons)?
How common are they? Obviously, items that are easier to make are more likely to be more common, but that doesn't mean they have to be.
How powerful are they? Magic items can range from minor potions and glowstones to continent-levelling artifacts.
Who can use them? Are they restricted to those with magical ability, can anyone use them, or are they a mix of the two?
* Atsiko's blog on magic: Some interesting stuff here.
Separate names with a comma.