A month or so ago I attended the Speculative Fiction Festival in Sydney. One of the key things the publishers said they were looking for was a ‘fully-realised world’. What does this mean? Worldbuilding! It’s imperative we get it right. I touched on the issue of world-building again this week in my Six Sentence Sunday post, particularly in relation to slang. 

And the week before last I did a tribute to Robert Jordan, discussing the genius that was Robert Jordan and what a loss the fantasy writing community suffered when he passed away. 

What is the connection between worldbuilding and Robert Jordan?

He got it right

Whatever quibbles you might have with Robert Jordan’s technical writing, his creative genius cannot be denied. His world is rich and varied. It is, in my opinion, a fully realised world. 

Wheel of Time Map
It comes with a map. A pretty coloured map in later volumes. A map, in my opinion, is a vital tool. I can’t work out where the characters are going without a map. That’s your characters and my characters. When I write, I need a map (drawn by yours truly in pencil and Artline with squiggly trees) so I can work out in which direction my characters are travelling and how long it will take them to get there by chosen mode of transport. Yes I can read a map. This kind, anyway. But I amdirectionally challenged. I can’t imagine where things are in relation to others without a map. I can Google how to get to New York. I cannot Google how to get to Saldaea (top left in the map).

More importantly, though, Robert Jordan’s countries are easily distinguishable. They have different political structures, different appearances, different accents, different clothing, different attitudes to magic… Funny, just like the real world. OK, except the magic part. Moving right along….

There is no good reason why all your countries should be feudal kingdoms who oppress women, who wear the same clothes and speak the same language, and are all white. Different religions are nice, too, but in fantasy there can be good reasons why everyone worships the same gods – for example, their gods regularly visit them. Yeah even I might convert for that trick. 

Robert Jordan was clearly paying attention for the worldbuilding lesson. His people range from fair to dark and everything in between. Light eyes to dark eyes. Blond to black hair. Religion is more or less universal, but yes we have different people putting different spins and interpretations on it (see the Whitecloaks for an extreme interpretation!) We have different political structures – kings, and queens, and councils, and both together. Different attitudes to magic – hate it, outlaw it, secretly embrace it, openly support it. Different trade items, different currency. Different fashions. Facial hair or none. Women’s hair braided or worn loose. The details are endless. Here’s a few examples to drive the point home:
Saldaean woman
  • Hair – Shienaran warriors wear their hair in topknots. Cairhien ladies wear theirs in elaborate piles. Arafellin men have braids with bells. Taraboner men have moustaches. Illianer men have beards but no moustaches;
  • Clothes – Tairen men wear coats and turned down boots. Cairhien dress in dark colours. Taraboners wear veils (both sexes). Domani women are known for dresses so thin they are barely opaque and leave nothing to the imagination. Ebou Dari wear dresses with deep, narrow necklines.
  • Skin colour – Tairens are dark, the Sea Folk are darker. Cairhien are very pale. Domani have coppery skin.
  • Hair – Andorans have dark hair, Taraboners are blond, Aiel are red or fair-haired;
  • Eyes – Saldaeans have dark tilted eyes, Aiel have light eyes, Taraboners are brown-eyed, Cairhien are dark-eyed;
  • Political structure – Andor is ruled by a queen, Illian by a king and a council, Tear by the High Lords, Tar Valon by the Amyrlin Seat, the Sea Folk by the Mistress of the Ships. Some roles are hereditary and some are not;
  • Political attitude – Cairhien are always playing politics, Borderlanders have no time for it because they are fighting off the Blight;
  • Attitude to magic – Andor openly has an Aes Sedai adviser, Mayene has one secretly, Aes Sedai are not permitted in Tear and in Amadicia they are burned as witches;
  •  Trade goods – Andor is known for tabac and steel, Saldaea for furs and ice peppers, Arad Doman for having the best merchants.
  •  Coinage – Andoran coins are the heaviest, Tairen the lightest;
  • Words and language – Myrdraal are also known as Halfmen, the Eyeless, Shadowmen, Lurks (in Tear), Fetches (in Illian) and Fades (in Andor). 
Myrdraal – also know as the Eyeless, Fades, Fetches, Halfmen among others.
A couple of other points:
  • Robert Jordan’s bad guy ‘The Dark One’ is a Sauron-type evil for the sake of evil bad guy. He is essentially the devil (his name is even an obscure name for Satan – you can think that’s lame or clever. I kind of liked it). Often this type of bad guy is not recommended because we can’t understand his motivations. In this case, however, I think it works because the Dark One has a horde of human minions, of varying degrees of power, who are really the key players on the board. And their motivations are very understandable.
  • Magic – Robert Jordan has created an entirely new system of magic. It’s not even called magic, although of course we recognise it is. He calls it ‘channelling’. Both men and women can do it, but in the present time men go mad because the Dark One has tainted the male half of the Power that men channel. I am so jealous. So far, despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to be so creative. Brent Weeks does something similar in his Prism series.
  • Don’t forget slang and profanity! Robert Jordan has created his own profanity (think about what your characters hold sacred, and that’s usually the basis for your profanity) though I don’t believe he has slang (unless you count some of the names for Myrdraal e.g. ‘Fade’ might be slang). A bit of invented slang can add to depth and colour to your world. See my example here.
As you can see, the variety of details you can use are endless. 

You may have come across the concept of ‘character sheets’ where you record key details about each main character. I do something very similar for each of my countries. 

First, I draw a map. I name each of the countries and identify key landmarks. Then I identify key features such as those outlined above. I might never use some of that information, but deciding it in advance means if I need those details I can just refer to my notes and slot in the appropriate specifics to avoid needing to make something up on the spot – or worse, just glossing over it because it’s ‘too hard’. It also helps to keep the details consistent. 

If you have trouble thinking up these details for every country you can use ancient cultures as inspiration. I discovered one ancient culture used square coins! Coins have always been round in my life and it never occurred to me to make them square. Another currency had a hole in the middle. So, by all means, use ancient cultures for inspiration. Why reinvent the wheel?

Details like this will truly bring your world alive.  

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