Random Superstition/Belief: Supposedly, of all the animals he named in Eden, Adam named the unicorn first. When Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, the unicorn was the only animal who chose to follow them into the world and share their joys and sorrows.
Once again, feel free to disagree with me on this. This is even more personal than the others.
In the course of looking around for advice about fantasy, thoughts about fantasy, and some way of seeing what other unpublished fantasy authors say, I find lots of webpages about fantasy worlds. I'd venture to say it's a ten-to-one ratio. The one is the number of people who have started writing, either including excerpts of the stories on their webpages or detailing the progress of their ideas into story form.
The ten are the ones who are still in the planning stages: creating myths, writing up character sketches and histories, suffering random attacks of neat ideas while forging the world, and so on.
I understand the need to plan a fantasy world; it wouldn't make sense to jump into a project as big as many fantasy series are without planning. But I think at some point, planning starts substituting for everything else, and many people never start writing, because they think they have to have every single detail sketched out.
Not true. Details will change in the telling of the story anyway, assuming the story is alive and not as dead as a mounted butterfly.
This is my evaluation of various world-building tools, how much I think they help or hinder, and at what point they become an excuse for not writing the story.
Character profiles. Whether these help or not depends on two things:
1) How seriously the author takes what she writes in them.
2) The format they use.
If the author thinks that every bit of information in the character profile is sacred and belongs in the story, then she's going to have problems. It may very well matter that the assassin Serai has lost her adored younger brother and now is trying to find him. It's less likely to matter that she once tried to train in the sword-breaker as a weapon and hated it. It's even less likely to matter that her favorite scent is oranges. Yet many fantasy authors crowd the useless information on the page along with the useful, because if it's in the profile, it is True, and True things belong in the story. Or they may really think it matters that Serai's favorite color is blue, and interrupt the all-important chase sequence to tell their readers so.
Avoid this. If you're not sure yet what information belongs in the story and what doesn't, there's a simple test. Ask yourself what it would change if the audience didn't know this particular bit of information about the character. Perhaps it really does matter that the audience knows Serai's favorite color is blue, because the final test the Dark Lord gives her will involve color. But if it doesn't, then remove it. In particular, remove it if it's in the middle of a scene that should rightfully belong to another trait, such as Serai's trait to beat up people who won't tell her where her brother is.
The formatting of character profiles is another enormous problem, particularly the splitting up of strengths and weaknesses. If you're going to use one at all, I would crowd all the "personality" traits together in one section. This will stop such nonsense as Serai having the strengths of being polite, calm in stressful situations, well-educated and compassionate, and the weaknesses of being insolent to the powerful, a quick temper, a tendency to bullshit her way through problems and arrogance. If you don't see why these weaknesses and strengths are a problem, please read the two lists again and tell me how they would work together.
If you use an integrated personality section, at least you might get away without invoking such blatant inconsistencies.
If you find yourself doing character profiles and detailed backstories for every single character who crosses your mind, even if they're just shopkeepers who will not appear in any story ever again, then you'll know that the character profiles are an excuse for not writing.
Histories/concordances. These fill out the background history of the world and the myths, sometimes acting more like a dictionary or encyclopedia than a timeline. And they're also time-wasters.
Face it: You can't document every single idea, character, place, magical concept, weapon, historical event, and so on in your world. If it's a living place, then every idea will sprout seven others, and those will sprout smaller branches. Even if you just start out with the hero, you'll have to explain his parents and the place he lives. Then comes the physical dimensions of that place, and the mountains behind it, and the river that flows from them. Add in the glacier that's the source of the river, and the dimensions of the iron mines, and the tendency for the characters in that place to give their children names reminiscent of the mountains, and you have another dozen entries in seconds.
I'd say that only the most essential information needs to go in the concordance- say, names of characters and gods- and even then, the information doesn't need to be complete. That's what holds up many authors, I suspect. They think they have to fill out all the entries in their encyclopedia before they go on. Even if you keep only the "most important entries," filling them out can take enormous amounts of time, especially if you work mostly on inspiration and can't go all the way through at once.
There's another very good way to fill out those gaps in your concordance, you know.
Writing, say, the prologue or first chapter of your book should tell you in a hurry what information you need to have and what you don't. Perhaps you find yourself groping after the name of the village's main goddess, and you know it would work best if you came up with a definite identity for her. On the other hand, perhaps you began the prologue thinking that you had to have the complete backstory of the hero's dead father, and the story promptly changes itself into one where both parents are still alive, making the dramatic battle that led up to the father's death totally irrelevant.
Fantasy stories are adaptable, kudzu things if you give them a chance. The problem is, many times they don't get the chance at all, and the writer is still filling out entries in the timeline long after she could have had a complete novel, or at least half a novel.
Plot outlines. It's very tempting to spend a lot of time writing outlines for chapters or plots or books. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you finish, and for many people, it helps them make the decision that they would rather be writing this story than another one.
That feeling of accomplishment, alas, keeps a lot of stories from being written.
Always remember that the outline, though important if you're not a writer who likes leaping wildly into the unknown, isn't the finished product. It's not even a brilliant beginning. It's just an outline, and all you have is the bare essentials. You don't know the nuances that make it a story yet. You don't really know your characters. You don't know the sudden and unexpected twists that will surprise you in the midst of writing.
If you feel proud and happy of the outline, and you can't wait to write the story that comes with it, then by all means write the story. Don't spend months tweaking the outline and dreaming of the book you'll write someday. Dreaming, wonderful as it is, can't substitute for the fire of creation.
Creation myths/character sketches. These are other tools that work wonderfully as long as the author doesn't take them as substitutes for the real thing. If you do plan to make the creation myths and the character sketches into short stories, then may the gods breathe luck on you. You'll have taken a step towards transforming the visions into reality.
If the creation myths are just background, though, and the character sketches only scattered bits of a novel (as most of the sketches I've seen are; otherwise, they're called short stories), this is just more advanced dreaming. Sooner or later, you have to meet more people than gods and the characters you choose for your sketches. You have to start walking down the road instead of standing helplessly at the beginning. A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but it's the second step that counts.
I don't think it's even really that necessary to have a creation myth. Too many fantasy stories begin with one, particularly one that has nothing to do with the story that follows it. So you have a god and goddess who mated, and their children were the gods, and the world and humans were made of the placenta and the afterbirth. Must you put it at the beginning of the story? Will it really change the whole course of the novel if it's only in your head and not written out before you begin?
With character sketches, keep track of them. Add them up sometime, and look at the wordcount. Then ask yourself if you are content that these are character sketches, or if you would rather have them as fully developed chapters of a novel.
Then try to match the character sketches in wordcount with part of a novel.
It's all very well to want to flap before you can fly, but it's incredibly frustrating how many people I've seen- or known, personally- who can't get past the "buildup" stage. I've also had several friends who started writing novels or short stories, and then decided they had to go back and detail the history and the creation myths. They never continued the main story.
Fantasy fiction is a wonderful genre for tinkering, but unless your ultimate goal is just tinkering and world-building and not writing fiction, don't stop there.