Raymond E. Feist on Building a World From Scratch


Photo by Matt Zhou on Unsplash

The folks at Unbound Worlds asked what it was like to transition from Midkemia to a whole new world. The answer is not at all what I thought it would be when I started King of Ashes. I played in Midkemia for almost four years before I started writing in it, and while a gaming environment is only loosely analogous to a literary one, there was enough extant social context and history that filling in the blanks was relatively simple.

With Garn I was staring at a blank page, metaphorically as it was a computer screen, with no idea where to start. I had forgotten over more than thirty years of writing in one world how much work went into that world building, history, and social conventions. I only created the Far Coast in The Kingdom (which I later named The Kingdom of the Isles) and Novindus, the latter benefiting from being a lose collection of city states, so I could pretty much put anything there without fretting nagging consistency.

World building is something that seems easy if you’ve never done it, and if all you want is a pretty map with random cities, towns, rivers, and mountains, it is. Get out a big piece of paper and start scribbling. However, if you want to make sense of things, a little knowledge of how people evolved and migrated is required. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to understand a few things about human behavior, a requisite for writing about them.

People live where there is food and water, for a start. Many thousand years of hunting and gathering gets tedious, so as soon as humans figured out beasts of burden and basic agriculture, they put down roots, in both senses. It saved a lot of walking. It was also the start of the concept of “after work,” which history teaches us is a thing most humans strive to increase in any way possible. That is, leisure, time off, vacations and every other use of time that isn’t working, hunting, fighting, and of course sleeping.

When trade sprang up, then they found ways to get stuff from one place to another as easily as possible, creating trade routes, and the rest of how civilizations and empires sprang up is sort of self evident. History is your friend.

When building a fictional world there’s an interaction between environment and story. When I wrote Magician the maps were already partially finished. So when Lord Borric had to go warn the King, oh, there are two mountain ranges, a small sea, a really long ride, and an ocean between him and the King. Every aspect of the first part of Magician from the discovery of the Tsurani invaders to reaching King Rodcric was influenced by the exiting geography, as well having neighbors, like the dark elves and the dwarves. So in that sense, the existing environment depended I create story elements that fit.

With King of Ashes I had none of that, so starting from scratch I came up with the twin continents, the five—soon to be four—great Kingdoms, the independent baron and the rest. I chose not to have other intelligent races, so no elves, dwarves giants, etc. Some supernatural beings, but not rival nations of intelligent critters trying to kill humans on sight. Magic was going to be different as well, so no quick and easy ways to get from one place to another.

And with “nations” smaller on Garn than the sprawling Kingdom and Empire of Kesh, politics would be different, as would relationships between rulers. So, where would I begin?

As I plotted and wrote, I wadded up and threw away a lot of pages—metaphorically speaking as I was using a word processor—so hitting the delete file button a lot. In that process I found myself going back and forth, changing environment to fit the story and changing story to fit the environment. It was a totally different process than anything I had done before.

Even with Kelewan I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the environment. It was relatively simply because it was a ancient culture, thousands of years old, like Egypt which had gone through 30 or so Dynasties over 3,000 years before the Romans showed up. That long history meant whatever problems of geography impacting trade had been dealt with by the Tsurani by the time my characters got there. With a more or less homogeneous culture, and only one pesky set of neighbors, all the politics and struggle was inward, in The Game of the Council.

Kelewan was a bit like a movie studio backlot—-you can still see one if you take the Universal Studio tour in Los Angeles. Lots of false fronts saying, “Saloon,” “General Store,” and “Blacksmith,” while Midkemia had been a game environment for a while before I started writing, so Garn was going to be a lot more like Kelewan than Midkemia, but with other problems. Those problems were it wasn’t “one big place,” like the Empire of Tsuranuanni, rather it was going to be a bit like 13th or 14th Century Europe, with kingdoms and baronies slugging it out for supremacy, borders shifting all the time, old rulers deposed by new ones. In short, an environment in constant flux.

Which was an early trigger for my creation of The Church of the One. In the Riftwar Cycle, faith is very different than what we think of it on Earth, or in my new book. As Stephen Abrams, co-creator of Midkemia, observed, “There are no atheists on Midkemia.” Too many people have bumped into this god or that along the way. Garn is a lot more like Earth, questions of faith are more political than spiritual at times, quite a bit when King of Ashes begins.

So I guess the best way to compare the experiences of working in the same world more than thirty years and a new one is that, both are puzzles with similar elements, character, conflict, plot, and the rest, but the sizes, shapes, and colors of the puzzle pieces are very different. As a result, I didn’t realize how much I took for granted about creating environment until I finished the first book of The Firemane Saga. This was a big part of why it took me much longer to get this series underway than I had anticipated. Still, the first act is done, the part where I say, “Here we are, these are the characters, let’s see what sort of problems we can dream up for them.” And of course, I hope the readers enjoy it.