I wisely started the map and made the story fit.
The above words, spoken by none other than J.R.R Tolkien, have been taken as sage advice by many an accomplished – or budding – fantasy writer who felt inspired to create their own world. While Tolkien, like many others, has been lauded for his incredible imagination in bringing places like Middle-Earth to life, it’s worth noting that the creation of these worlds is not something done from scratch. At least, not exactly.
What I mean by this is that there is a – let’s call it a tethering – of the fantasy world to the real world. For instance, if you have a look at some of Tolkien’s hand-annotated maps of Middle-Earth, you will see he has made reference to things like The Shire being on the same latitude as Oxford. You can see the logic of doing this, as it puts in the mind of the author as to what the weather, geography, etc., would be like in that region. That helps you better imagine your surroundings when you are writing.
Feist built cities based on Europe and elsewhere
While Tolkien had only marginal links from places in Middle-Earth to the real world, other authors have taken the idea a lot further. Raymond E. Feist, an author who created the world of Midkemia (among others), tended to create different cities and regions as reflections of the real (medieval) world.
So, with Feist’s region of The Kingdom of the Isles, where most of the action in his novels takes place, the author has used a backdrop of Medieval Europe as a format for his world. He portrayed cities like Rodez as being Spanish, Krondor as being English (specifically, London), and Bas-Tyra as being French. The inhabitants of a city like Rodez would have Spanish-sounding names, customs, and so on. It wasn’t always exact, of course. So, places like Novindus – a continent on the far side of Midkemia – blends elements of Indian and Australian cultures.
You can, of course, see this idea of tethering one creation to another as a fundamental part of creating any product. It provides the reader/viewer/player with a logical pathway to follow. This is true of almost any book, movie, or game, and we can even reverse it – tethering the fantasy world to the modern one. For example, if you played Thunderstruck II slot in the United Kingdom, you would see it is based on the tales of Thor and the wider Norse Mythology. Even a casino game like that has a thematic logic that has allowed the game developers to place players into that realm of Norse gods!
But does this mean you must always base your fantasy world on the real one? Not necessarily. It is just easier to give certain geographical and social traits to your world based on places you know. That way, you will know what clothes to give your characters, what weapons they will carry, and what they like to eat if they are from a certain city.
Eddings gave his characters national traits
Some writers tend to eschew this idea altogether, though. David Eddings, who wrote the popular Belgariad and Mallorean series, did not make many linkages between the real world and his fantasy one. He did, however, come up with certain location-based rules for his characters. In the books, Tolnedrans are greedy and obsessed with money. Sendars are sensible and practical. Alorns are raucous and hardy. Murgos are pious and irascible.
Basing these national traits on where characters came from became a little bit repetitive, and some would suggest that it oversimplified matters: would an entire nation really act in a certain fashion? Still, Eddings got away with it because many of his characters were charming, and, indeed, there was a pulsating storyline to follow.
Perhaps the best advice for any aspiring fantasy writer is to find a middle ground for your characters. Feist’s model keeps track of regional differences between characters and places by giving them traits that he drew from the real world. Eddings’ way of creating cultural features from scratch means that he had to keep everything simple.
Beyond that, there is no right answer outside of what works for you. Beware, though, that a lack of consistency can confuse the reader, perhaps detracting from your overall story.