Why Build Your Own World, When You Can Steal One?

October 1, 2012 | Writing Craft, By Genre, Fantasy, Worldbuilding

No, this is not a post about fan fiction or making a living as a copyright thief. It’s really more of a “write what you know” post or what you can research post. It’s a build-your-own-world post based on what is already established or accepted.

I’ve had two series that required some decent world-building. The first, my Unbound series for Harlequin Nocturne (since republished as the Nine Worlds series), started with the idea that I wanted a hellhound hero.

I had an idea.

That was it. That was all I had.

I knew that he would be strong and sexy and alpha shapeshifter. I also knew I wanted the story set in a modern basically human world because I was targeting Harlequin Nocturne and that is the type of book they were publishing.

So, I had a sexy alpha hellhound shapeshifter in a modern human world and nothing much more.

build your own world mythology worldbuilding

Want to build your own world? Find a world.

But the world couldn’t be just like the world we know. It did have hellhounds in it after all. So I have some world-building to do. The first question was how much and for who.

There are two basic set-ups for paranormal books. One, the paranormal characters are “out.” In others, the reality of what these paranormal beings are is a closely guarded secret. Humans don’t even know creatures like these exist.

I went with secret. This meant the world humans saw and expected would be different from what my hero knew to be true.

This also made half of my world simple. It’s the world we all live in with the same rules of gravity, language, traditions, and problems finding a parking place at the mall.

But the second half? The secret/different half? It could be anything.

Want to build your own world? Cheat (aka research).

Hellhounds have been used in a number of mythologies from various times and cultures, but Norse mythology spoke to me.

Norse myth, if you are familiar with it, is quite complicated. There is a world structure, built around Yggdrasil, a world tree, and there are stories, lots of stories.

Want to build your own world? Pillage.

build your own world worldbuilding world buildingI drew my own map, based on Yggdrasil. Then I added to it, putting in new places that fit the stories I was going to write. I also looked at the characters and creatures that had been used in actual myth and gave them my own twist.

Garm, a particular dog associated with Hel’s gate, became a race of wolf shapeshifters. I gave the garm one set of characteristics (protective, think herd dog) and the hellhounds another (attack dog).

I used my knowledge of those types of dogs to guide what the different characters did and my research of Norse myth to give my world structure.

This gave me rules that were clear in my mind and that, since they were based on an ancient mythos, had a built-in “trueness.”

It also gave me a plethora of unusual creatures to explore and reinvent.

I am, of course, not the only writer to do this. Tolkien drew on Norse myth too. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the world rests on the backs of four elephants that are standing on the back of a gigantic turtle. You find a similar set up in Hindu mythology.  And, while supposedly not something C.S. Lewis planned when originally writing The Chronicles of Narnia, the Narnia books use many Christian themes and concepts.

What other examples can you think of?

Ready to build your own world? Ready to pillage?

What myth or belief system could you use for the basis of your next world?