Worldbuilding! The bane, or blessing, of any genre author. Countless articles have been written about it, how to do it, what to look for. I’m not out to make an assertive guide on it or anything. Mainly, I want this to touch upon how I’m handling it for my dark fantasy setting, as this is the first time I’ve really been doing fantasy worldbuilding in general.
As I’m writing this, I’m noticing that I’ve got way more to say on the subject than I thought. So, in the interests of letting myself ramble for as long as possible, I’ll split this up into a bunch of posts, as long as I feel like talking. This one is mainly the foundations, some of my inspirations, what I want this setting to accomplish.
Future posts will detail the magic system, the languages and writing systems, the various cultures, the government, the state religion, the mythology, and the War that’s mucking everything up.
There’s a lot to say, is what I mean here.
To give some backstory on where I’m coming from, I first created Salazarre in 2013, I think, as a vague backdrop to the story I was writing at the time, a little forest fairy tale. The world wasn’t much at all, just a name I thought of off the top of my head, its only real significance being an apocalyptic war the main characters escaped from.
At this point in my life, I’d never really built a detailed setting before. The most worldbuilding I’d done was for writing my first novel, Airless. Set in a seemingly-endless series of underground tunnels, without atmosphere. I’d decided on a few things, where people lived, how they got around in the Void, as they called the space between cities, what their society was like, but it wasn’t that much. I didn’t really research anything apart from hydroponics and spacesuit designs. I made everything pretty much from my own perceptions and experiences, and it was all right for the novel, but I think the setting ended up flat.
As I was writing The Witch and the Snake, way back when it was originally just a short story, I found that I needed to expand Salazarre more than just a set piece. I couldn’t add things as the opportunity arose, I needed set ideas that I could expand as I saw fit. Which, I suppose, is something a lot of first-time worldbuilders realize.
As I made the short story into a novel, then a two-novel short series, this need grew. Salazarre needed some kind of presence, its own verisimilitude apart from the exposition of one story. Being that the main characters are supposed to exist on the outskirts of civilization, I kind of needed to know what that civilization was.
I wanted to keep the setting as vague as possible, giving it this weird, otherworldly vibe. A big inspiration there is my favorite video game, Dark Souls, this old, decrepit fantasy world that has its own internal consistency, but feels so strange and…slippery, almost, as if it was just a kind of dream. Everything has a purpose in the narrative, it’s tied together intricately, if subtly, but the whole thing just feels too strange to be real. Except it is, people live here, there are countries and currencies and belief systems, but it’s just so out of our realm of reality.
To me, that’s really the strongest point of fantasy fiction. You have the opportunity to create, well, anything. Not just a civilization that might have existed on Earth, at some point, but a place that could never exist, a world that stretches the imagination, but that has its own internal logic, that is a place human life as we know it could exist. Brandon Sanderson does this really well, with the setting of his Stormlight Archive series, Roshar. The world is an absolute clusterfuck, but still full of people and a civilization we can recognize as being, well, human.
(Well, not entirely. I don’t like how Sanderson writes his characters, it’s my biggest gripe about his style. That’s for another post, though)
One of the ways I wanted to accomplish this was to make the size of Salazarre not wholly defined. I played around with how I wanted to handle that, even thinking about making it a Pangaea, the only supercontinent on its planet, but there comes a point when it just becomes ridiculous. You can’t justify having people of a certain tech level keeping a cohesive society together on something so large, at least, I can’t. Besides, crossing this huge continent in any real frame of time is just ridiculous, and unless I build my story in a specific way, it kills narrative tension if they have to be somewhere in a set timeframe.
But all the same, Salazarre is supposed to be a big place. The spaces between the cities are full of boundless plains and steppes, full of nothing, and while people can travel between cities in a few days, as in our world, there’s still the matter of, well, it doesn’t entirely feel like just days. If you’re not careful, you start to lose time somewhere along the way, it gets away from you, and when you do come back into civilization, you found that it was a shorter trip than you’d thought. Time stretches into infinity in Salazarre, but only if you let it.
Screws with the mind that way, I think, but not in such a way that it totally destabilizes human civilization. Hopefully.
My main inspiration for this idea of uncertain narrative scale is Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He does it to incredible effect, it feels like it takes forever just to get anywhere, that the distances between cities are way farther than they should be, and getting bigger. The only explanation we get is that ever-mysterious arc-phrase, ‘the world has moved on.’ We get no sense of where anything is, only the vaguest idea that it sorta adheres to Earth’s geography (the country of Mejis basically being Mexico, who knows where Gilead’s supposed to be). The only direction we get is the Dark Tower, the nexus of the multiverse, and that’s only ever forward.
Time itself doesn’t matter in Mid-World. I read somewhere, I think in the books themselves, that the main character’s quest lasts a thousand years. No explanation is ever given why Roland lived that long, he isn’t inherently magical or anything. It’s just thrown out there, and exists to add to the mystery of the setting.
King has said that one of his main inspirations for Mid-World was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. How it imagined the scale of the Old West, and how Sergio Leone pretty much had no idea how America looked as a country. He had the West, the South, and parts of the North and Midwest all vaguely arranged through dialogue and scale, and it just sort of worked. Despite happening during the Civil War, the characters cross the deserts of the West, mingling in the affairs of the Union Army, nowhere near where they should be in a historical perspective. I didn’t even notice it until King pointed it out to me. It makes Leone’s Old West feel like more than just an area of 1860s America, it’s like an entire world unto itself, far more pervasive than the maps would lead you to believe.
That’s what I want Salazarre to be. I want it to be the kind of setting that could never exist in reality, a world that feels like a dreamscape, with a similar kind of internal consistency. It has the verisimilitude of reality, of something that’s just real enough to be believable and to have relatable people, but goes off the rails from there.
I’m just scratching the surface here, but there’s plenty more for me to say. Salazarre is a lot of things, and I’ve touched upon some here, but more than anything, it’s a feeling.
Everything I’ve built of the world is meant to support and expand that feeling, the loneliness of the wilderness, the hopelessness of its all-consuming war, the blind faith of the state religion. This overarching despair that hangs over everything, infusing it all, almost as if the Archangel that watches over the world exudes it Herself.
I never really know how to describe this to people, certainly not when it comes to in-person conversation. Text, though, makes things a bit easier. As I’ve said before, it’s tough trying to summarize everything in one go. I’m hoping that doing it piecemeal, over the course of weeks, can get my point across better. I hope it was interesting!