Welcome to the second part of my worldbuilding project. If you missed the first post, you can find it here. If you’re up to speed, then let’s get started!
So, cosmology. This stage of the top-down worldbuilding process focuses on our world’s place in a wider universe. If you’re writing planet-spanning science fiction, you need to decide the shape and scope of your universe; if you’re writing a more unorthodox setting, you may have other questions and challenges, like the nature of different dimensional planes, or the rules which govern the continents floating in an empty sky. We’re focusing on a traditional fantasy world in this project, so we’re less interested in the broader shape of the universe — a world much like our own, in orbit around a star much like our own, filled with geography, flora, fauna and people which we would recognize — than we are in the philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings of our world. Gods. Magic. Prophecy. Destiny. We need to understand, at least at the highest level, how such things work. We need universal constants, and Powers Unimaginable. On a narrative level, it’s also important to remember that fantasy as a genre exists, in part, to explore Big Ideas. While it isn’t strictly necessary to reflect the themes of our eventual story in the fundamental building blocks of the universe, it’s generally something that will result in more complete and satisfying stories.
Consider, for example, a classic fantasy story: the farmboy hero with the magical sword is destined to kill the dark wizard and free the land from his tyrannical rule. No problem: we need a world that allows magic and prophecy, and we’re also saying something about the indefatigable strength of capital-G Good, or dedication to the principles of liberty, or a dozen other possible thematic interpretations. Now, let’s suppose that we populate this world with two gods: one is male, and the embodiment of external, physical strength, and the other is female, the embodiment of internal, mental strength. On a first pass, those gods — along with their followers and churches and so forth — add nothing to the resonance of the story. There’s no sense in which masculine vs. feminine complements farmboy vs. wizard. We can, of course, twist ourselves into pretzels to find a thematic connection — the physical vs. intellectual schism could map to our central conflict — and there’s no absolute requirement that everything in our world be thematically interconnected, but we’re missing an opportunity if we ignore those connections.
So, when we’re working top-down, we should consider what types of story we want to tell in this world. If we’re looking at stories of subtle politics, economics and power, we might consider a pantheon of gods, each of whom rule over a small domain, and each with their own loyalties, ties, deceptions and betrayals. If we’re interested in looking at themes of good and evil, we might go for an opposed pair of gods, or even two opposed panthea, perhaps reflecting classical divisions like life and death, light and dark, masculine and feminine. If we’re interested in questions of faith itself, we might look at a monotheistic religion that has been suppressed or superseded; alternatively, we might look at tolerance and inclusivity by using an older, pantheistic traditional that has now been outlawed in the name of a single, all-powerful deity. If we’re looking at a world where technology and science matter more than faith, we may well decide on an atheistic model. It all depends on what we want.
Remember that we aren’t exactly describing the various faiths of our fictional world; right now, we’re talking about the absolute reality of this universe, not how those truths are perceived, reported, shared or celebrated. How we interact with these truths, and the degree to which they are even evident in our stories, will only become clear later.
I’m looking for something fairly simple, high-concept, and something that provides opportunities for conflict without being ultimately resolvable. That leads me to thoughts of the classical elements, and I think there’s something there: fire and water, earth and air. In fact, let’s add in a fifth element: aether, or the unknowable, or magic.
This is beginning to take shape. In this fictional world, there are five gods — five elements, five essences, five basic principles. They each have a myriad of “faces”, depending on the facet of that element which is most important to the worshippers in question. For example, the doughty hill-folk of the far north have the greatest respect for Ent-Thul, the Stone-Shaper, the Face of Earth who directly governs deep rock and precious minerals. Far to the south, the peaceful farmers of the plains primarily worship Shantir, the Enricher, the Face of Earth who governs fertile soil and ripe fruit. In the storm-tossed isles in the west, the locals offer fearful supplication to Nurembor, the Vicious Lash, the fickle Face of Water who sends bitter storms in the dead of winter. In the deepest heart of the great deserts, no-one will speak the name of Arwa, the Sweet Kiss, the shy and flighty Face of Water who will vanish if startled.
Hm. This works. It gives us the flexibility to look at these elemental forces in different ways, but they remain unified. Scholars understand that the Faces belong to the five gods — in fact, it might be fun if we limit the idea of Faces to the four elemental gods, and have the fifth unknowable deity of magic and time and death remain Faceless.
There’s more to building this world, though, that simply naming our gods. We have to understand their role in the events that will unfold. Let’s assume, then, that the five gods are fairly hands-off, but their blessings can be made manifest by priests of the various Faces. They are a source of magic, but not generally of direct influence; Arwa may grant a fall of rain in the desert if her priests are dedicated enough, but she won’t simply decide to do it on her own. In that sense, they are more like pure elemental forces than personalities, but their Faces, imbued with belief over hundreds and thousands of years, are not entirely different from their worshippers.
It should also be understood that the gods are generally kind, and exist (broadly) in harmony. Sailors and pirates may be most dedicated to the Faces of Water, but they also offer due respect to the other gods too. Blacksmiths prioritize the Faces of Earth (particularly those Faces which relate to metals) and the Faces of Fire, but also visits shrines or churches dedicated to the other gods. Conflict has arisen between the followers of different Faces, both of the same god and of others, but it is generally an affair of politics and power, rather than force of arms.
The Faceless God is different from the others. He is respected and offered small prayers by most people, but he is only worshipped directly by mages, those who have been blessed to hear his voice, or feel his influence. Invoking his name or drawing his attention is generally considered to be a bad idea, which may mean that mages are viewed with some small suspicion. We’ll return to that in due course, when we begin looking at the difference between priests and mages, and their different magics, but it serves as a placeholder for now.
And, in fact, it gives us an opening for our creation myth. The four elemental gods were born at the beginning of time, and after growing weary of the nothingness around them, joined their forces to create the world. The Faces of Fire kindled the stars and the sun; the Faces of Earth crafted the globe; the Faces of Air breathed upon it and wreathed it in mist; the Faces of Water filled the oceans and lakes and rivers. They were satisfied with what they had done, but soon saw that the world remained still and silent. Then, the Faceless God turned his gaze upon the world, and life emerged.
I like this. There’s conflict on a number of different scales — rivalry between the Faces of a single god and between the Faces of different gods, along with a subtle distrust of the Faceless God and those that follow him — and there are lots of opportunities for telling interesting stories.
Well, that gives us a good starting point, and a fine place to pause. Next week, we’re going to break open our cartographic tools and look at the surface of the world itself. Please jump in and share your thoughts and comments below!
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