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World Building in a Fantasy Novel

Updated on March 30, 2011

Some Things to Think About

The novel I am currently working on is firmly placed in the genre of fantasy. Part of the story takes place in what we might loosely term 'our world', and the rest in a faerie realm plucked right out of my head, with characters based somewhat on old myth and legend.

I won't give you a step by step guide to building a world, because I am not qualified. I can't pretend to know anything about the history of fantasy, as I'm not even particularly widely read in the genre. My favourites include books that every self respecting fantasy fan read years ago: The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, anything by Terry Pratchett. Some of these are in a class of their own, and life would be the less rich without them. But I have also discovered some less well talked of gems in Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire, and Alison Croggon's Books of Pellinor - all actually very successful, but I personally know of no other person who has read them.

My first ever venture into a fantasy world was with the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Until I saw these books in my local bookshop yesterday, I was not even sure if they were still in print, but they were wonderful to me when I was in my early teens. For the first time I read about sword fighting, sorcery and sexy costumes made of strips of leather and studs. I experienced that need to read on in order to reach a nice point in the story at which it would be safe to put the book down and go to sleep without the fear of nightmares. Those Dragonlance dragons and orcs (draconians, if I remember correctly) were scary!

Initially, when you begin to build your own world, you may well have a million ideas bouncing around. This can be intimidating, but it's really nothing to fret about. For a while it is probably a good idea to make notes of everything you think of. But you cannot keep doing this indefinitely, and at some point you will need to stop, reign it all in a bit and start to refine. You will not use everything you think of, but it is best to have notes for as many ideas as possible, just as aides-memoires - if you do not write it down, you are guaranteed to forget it and curse yourself for not scribbling it somewhere, anywhere. It is one of the laws of sod that this will happen.

Conversely, you may have no ideas at all. In which case, you need to do some mind searching, some deep thinking, some imagination freeing. It is not for everyone, but meditation can be good for freeing creativity, especially if you are not very good at it. One of the key targets of meditation is the clearing of the mind. Some unfortunate people are unlucky enough to keep an empty mind almost all of the time. Gifted and practised meditators can empty their minds at will, and do so daily. And other ordinary people like me cannot empty their minds at all. I do try, really I do, for a good two minutes, but my mind always ends up falling asleep and straight into a dream. Aha, and there's the point of this paragraph - when you're searching for ideas for your fantasy world such free mind wandering can be very useful, and I find that when I'm trying to think of nothing at all I can often come up with some of my best ideas. I believe that there's a slightly different state of consciousness that exists half way between being asleep and being awake - it's that land that you want to try to access. Have a go. See if you can not meditate.

Now, I don't know about you, but I am aware that what's in my head is strongly influenced by books I have read, and films I have seen (often of the books I have read), and perhaps preconceived ideas of what fantasy should be like. I suppose I am talking about originality here. As writers, we do strive as much as we are able to write with originality. But when we have chosen a genre we begin to write, often, within a group of parameters. So, for example, and very stereotypically, in a fantasy story we might start to plan out something epic, involving big landscapes, mountains, rivers and other such geological obstacles. We will certainly need to include a long journey, involving camping out under the stars with rocks for pillows and elf-woven cloaks for blankets. Real fires will be built (or not, if there is a risk of attracting strange outlandish and fantastical beasts), and training for one of our characters will be an ongoing process: training in the art of magic or of swordplay, or even both. You get the picture. We are inclined to think that if these are the ideas we are having, then our story will be severely lacking in originality.

But so what? If everyone stopped writing this beloved if formulaic form of high fantasy then my life would be a little less bright. I do not really care whether or not the book I am reading is original, as long as I am enjoying it. I do not like literary critics telling me what I should or should not read, which works are worthy of my notice and which are not. Originality never enters my head when I am enslaved by a new author's beautiful wordsmithery. I enjoyed Paolini's Inheritance Cycle enormously, despite reading many accounts of the material being unoriginal. But I don't find that kind of review very useful. So the formula may have been used before (discovery - fleeing danger - finding mentor - training for important destiny - never meeting the Bad Guy until the very end), but there are only so many plot lines available apparently, so it stands to reason that they will be used over and over again. That is just fine by me. I am interested in characters (and I actually include the setting as a character, because a city or a mountainscape can add flavour to a story in much the same way a character can.) Your plot can be as original as you like, but if your characters do not interest me then I will not finish your book. (Incidentally, I found Paolini's work to be original enough - I'd certainly never read anything quite like it before.)

So I would say, when thinking about your world, do not give a second thought to its originality. Just write what you need to write, what pleases you, and what you yourself would like to read. I used to worry about originality, but it's a fruitless exercise. I would pen something that I thought was highly unique, only to see my idea recreated in a movie a few months later. I would swear that DiTerlizzi and Black plucked the Spiderwick Chronicles right out of my head! (Disclaimer: obviously I am not seriously suggesting that they committed intellectual theft!) I had a book in my story that contained secrets of a faerie world. I had one of my characters disappear and need rescuing. I had helpful faeries, and bad ones. I had a family moving to a new home in the country. I was a little devastated when the movie of Spiderwick came out and brought the books to my attention, because I assumed it meant that I could no longer continue with my story. I put it aside for a few months. But then I realised that my story was really very different. I suppose many of us will have a kind of dread about our work looking as though it's been outright copied from something else. But just be honest with yourself, and if you know that every word has come out of your head then be true to it.

Copying ideas is one thing, but being influenced by another author is very different. We are all influenced by plenty of things, daily, and this is absolutely fine. I do not think it is something we even need to dwell on, because it happens somewhere in the deeper recesses of the mind, and we have very little, if any, control over the process. Our influences are part of our make up, and we can't really do anything about them once they're there. Of course, if you've added a scene in which your character steals a dragon to escape from a bank vault, then perhaps you might acknowledge that you've been too heavily influenced by J.K. Rowling, and edit that part out. Find another way of allowing your character to get out of that bank; there are infinite possibilities.

We all write in different ways, truly. But the way I deal with geography in my novel is to let it have its own way. I don't really plan what a landscape/town/house will look like. I just write it when it appears in my head. If a character walks into a glade I will know what that glade looks like when he gets there, and probably not before. But others will work in the opposite way to me and will need to plan every stage of the journey before they set off, so that they know what they're dealing with and where they're headed.

I will be looking forward to drawing maps when I am further into my story. As yet, I do not really know where the story is going in terms of geography, so my story would be rather empty, a barren plain; maybe that would be fine though. It may seem as though an actual map is a necessity in any worthy fantasy novel. Indeed, many contain several! But if you do not want to include one, you don't have to. Most fantasy readers should have enough imagination to be able to visualise what you tell them, enough to get along just fine without the aid of a chart. And really, whether your characters are travelling East or West is not so important as what happens to them on the way, or when they get there.

Quite possibly you may be setting your fantasy on present-day Earth. Many do: Herbie Brennan's Faerie Wars, Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant (all for children, yes, I know - nothing wrong with children's fantasy, the vast majority of it is excellent.) If you are going to do that, you are still building a new world, because you are either hiding the fantastical elements from the general public and allowing them to go about their business in blissful ignorance, or you are turning their lives upside down and skewing their world and notions of reality forever. Which is it going to be? You decide. With the first option you will be needing rules, and you will be needing to stick to them. You will need to find ways of using magic to repel 'muggles' if you're going with the Harry Potter approach of glamour and confusion (glamour in the sense of illusory magic, not in the sense of Joan Collins.) Or you will need to come up with convincing ways of disguising characters if you want them to remain anonymous without the use of magic. If you are not hiding your world from the non-magic community then quite possibly, anything will go in your story. Rule book: out the window - let the humans deal with the white witch however they like, such as they do in The Magician's Nephew (C.S. Lewis, of course). Humans are resilient, and they will get over it all, in their human way. Or not, if you don't want them to.

If you do want to have magic in your world (I have magic, there's no shame in it!) then do not let yourself get bogged down with worries about it all being too obvious and too easy, too clichéd, or too far-fetched. Fantasy is as much about wish fulfillment for the author (and thus for the reader) as it is about anything. We get to achieve our deepest desires in fantasy: exams cancelled, and abundant food for midnight feasts at wizarding school; flying and telekinesis in Alagaësia; living forever in any number of stories. Personally, I am trying a slightly different approach to the way magic works, but I'm not going to tell you about it, because I don't want you to steal it.

Basically, and in a nutshell, it is your world, and you are creating it primarily for you (particularly if you have never been published - if you have, then I would imagine that it's a little less for you, and more for your editor and then your readers.) Ultimately, you have to be happy and comfortable in your world; or unhappy and uncomfortable if the latest chapter calls for it. Have fun with it, and let your imagination run riot. World building is one of the most fun parts of writing fantasy, whether you build it all right from the start, or slowly add to it as you go along) and you can be as zany as you like. You can always reign it in later if it's gotten out of hand. But if you don't let it off the leash once in a while you will never know if you are missing out on some exciting possibilities.

An excellent mind-freer is a book in the Writing Handbooks series, called Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle. It is all quite basic, but I enjoyed it as a book to jog my memory about lots of aspects of fantasy that I was already aware of.


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