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Building a World Without a Clue of Where You're Going

So, looked at in one way, I didn't have to do any world building. I just inherited a world. But I quickly found out that I had to do all kinds of inventing, or at least improvising from existing material. It's like Earth was a classic song and I was tasking myself with doing a jazz improv on it.
I've taken the opposite approach, and I don't have the same problems, but at the same time I kinda do. For me it becomes how would a planet of people who evolved with this renewable, non-polluting source of magic energy progress technologically? Look at the ways that humans in real life got passed an obstacle, and decide how these people would get it done instead. Like microscopy, I was thinking the other day about how my people might discover that there are organisms so small that they can't be seen with the naked eye with magic? My leading idea so far is someone was just playing around with a spell that zooms in their vision, a spell that could have all sorts of real life applications, and accidentally zoomed in so far that they could see tiny little things floating in the air or in the water around them.

One is, when I invent something--for example, that dwarves don't have a formal religion but instead practice a kind of ancestor veneration--I do this in the context of a specific story. It gets invented on the spot. Even that topic of ancestor veneration is very big, so I invented only pieces of it for that story. Then, later, I chew on that and try to fill it out because, oops, I wrote it into a story so now it's part of the world.
This is why I want to make sure all of my magic logic and my world logic all fits together before I start writing too much, and especially before I start to publish anything. I wanna make sure that I never break my own rules, in obvious or not so obvious ways.
 

JBCrowson

Troubadour
I agree about a hard magic system's potential to ruin a story. I prefer it to be mysterious. I don't want to understand too much; just some glimpses of what's happening.
In my world there are multiple types of magic - elemental based around 8 elements which is most common.
in addition some races have specific types eg a race of sentient spiders can spin webs that hide things / shield against elemental damage. Centaurs have tattoos that offer specific buffs like heat / cold resistance. A race of sentient bees brew magic honey based potions for healing, have a waggledance that enables teleportation. I took aspects of the animal and imagined how they could evolve in a world where magic exists.
 
In my world there are multiple types of magic - elemental based around 8 elements which is most common.
in addition some races have specific types eg a race of sentient spiders can spin webs that hide things / shield against elemental damage. Centaurs have tattoos that offer specific buffs like heat / cold resistance. A race of sentient bees brew magic honey based potions for healing, have a waggledance that enables teleportation. I took aspects of the animal and imagined how they could evolve in a world where magic exists.
I love your magic bees!
 

JBCrowson

Troubadour
I love your magic bees!
Had a lot of fun with them. They have a social structure where the collective is more important than the individual, self sacrifice and loyalty to the queen is everything. Because they can fly and have 6 limbs they tend to be awesome melee warriors who can wield multiple weapons simultaneously. With compound eyes they also have 360 vision.
 

Ned Marcus

Maester
In my world there are multiple types of magic - elemental based around 8 elements which is most common.
in addition some races have specific types eg a race of sentient spiders can spin webs that hide things / shield against elemental damage. Centaurs have tattoos that offer specific buffs like heat / cold resistance. A race of sentient bees brew magic honey based potions for healing, have a waggledance that enables teleportation. I took aspects of the animal and imagined how they could evolve in a world where magic exists.
I like the idea of the spider's webs.
 
Does anyone build new fantasy (or SF) worlds by just jumping in without a clue about where they're going?

I've always planned some aspects of the world in advance: more in some stories, less in others. But I've always planned parts of the world. I've read that C.S. Lewis had no idea where he was going when he started the Narnia books, and the ideas just came to him as he went along. I feel like copying this approach—and probably will whatever anyone says. Still, I'm interested in the thoughts of others.

Have you tried anything like this?

Edit: I've done this with short stories. I'm thinking about novellas or novels here.
I kind of do this, as in, i created a cast of characters, themes, emotional beats and even planned certain scenes without really world building, then tried to build the world those things either make the most sense in or would have the most impact if they took place in.
 
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