Monday, October 14, 2013

A Quick Guide to Fantasy World Building

by Joanne Hall

Fantasy author Joanne Hall
  Often you’ll hear people, when talking about fantasy writing in particular, go on about world building. Fantasy authors will often design whole worlds, sometimes even an entire galaxy, from scratch. Bad world building sticks out like a multi-storey car park in a woodland glade. Good world building, when it’s done skillfully, fits so seamlessly into the plot that you can read for hundreds of pages without really noticing it – yet it adds rich detail at the edge of the story that really enhances it for the readers. It’s what Juliet E McKenna refers to as “writing the wider world.”  But looking at the amount of work, for example, that George RR Martin has put into Westeros, and it’s daunting (and a little intimidating!) When you’re building a world, where do you even start?

 World building is the art of designing a functional, logical and above all believable secondary world. If the world doesn’t work, neither will your story. The reader needs to be able to suspend their disbelief, and if some flaw in the world building pulls them out of the story with a squeal like the needle scraping across a record, you will have lost them, and it’s hard to get them back.

You have to be more than an author. You have to be an astronomer, a navigator, a volcanologist, a geologist, a zoologist, and probably a whole bunch of other professions ending in –ist. And yet, at the same time, you don’t want to bombard your reader with so much research that they get bored or irritated. It’s not that important to them whether the rocks your hero is riding over are igneous or sedimentary, but it’s something you should know.

In fantasy, probably more than any other genre, landscape can play a vital role. In some novels it’s pretty much a supporting character. You need to make the landscape of your world viable, convincing and detailed. It has to work – where do your rivers run? Where are the fault lines that cause volcanoes and earthquakes? Where does the grassland become desert? What times are the tides? These are all things that might come up in your plot that you will need to think about.

If you can’t come up with a world that functions according to logical laws (even if they’re not the same logical laws as our own world), your readers are unlikely to immerse themselves fully in your story.  

It’s important to remember that people shape the landscape as much as they are shaped by it, and in a low-tech fantasy setting, the environment has an even greater importance, as it’s often beyond the character’s ability to do any more than just live in it or travel through it. Introducing grazing animals, for example, will mean you lose a lot of forest cover. The Highlands of Scotland, which are an inspirational fantasy landscape if ever I saw that one, look that way because of hundreds of years of intensive grazing by sheep – before the sheep were introduced the area was mainly pine forest. In “The Art of Forgetting”, the Atrathene tribes are nomadic because much of the soil is too poor for agriculture, and they have to keep their horses on the move to constantly find fresh grazing. The poor soil has led to an entirely nomadic culture, which means no cities, no central government, no single religion or way of life, with all the complexities that entails.  

Your characters are just as much a product of their environment as they are of your imagination. So many times, the enthusiastic fantasy writer has a giant living in the barren wastes beyond the enchanted forest, a convenient obstacle for the hero to overcome before he gets the sword, the princess, or the kingdom.  In brutal reality, any large predator living in such a barren waste would starve to death long before the hero arrives, leaving him with nothing to fight but a pile of old bones. Giants need food. Even the food needs food. Without a viable ecosystem, the giant either goes hungry, or needs to relocate to the nearest snack-filled village.

  When you’re building a world from scratch, the mass of factors to consider can be so vast that a lot of potential authors get bogged down in the process and forget about writing their story.  If this becomes a problem, start small, with a squiggly line and, next to it, a dot.

  The wiggly line is a river, the dot is a town.  From there you can work outwards.  Are there roads around the town?  Farms to supply food?  How about an inn, or ferry port?  Where does the river go, and how are the people in the next town different?  A dotted line becomes a border between one country and the next, with all the differences that implies.  These are all questions to ask yourself as you scribble your map, and it doesn’t matter at this point of you have the drawing skills of a hedgehog. This is For Your Eyes Only.
 Draw more towns, dots of different sizes, a coastline, because the river has to end up somewhere.  What goes up and down the rivers?  Contraband?  Trade goods?  Maybe refugees, or people looking for work.  Who lives on the other side of that border?  What scary creatures lurk in that massive lake?  Don’t want a lake there?  Scribble it out, move it ten miles down the road.  Nothing is set in stone, as long as it makes sense.
 The act of just drawing a map won’t magically give you a novel that will sell, but it can spark off endless ideas.  Here’s a port. What can happen here? Well, all manner of stories, from shipwrecks to smuggling.

  As well as being a fun way to procrastinate, a map is an excellent tool for visual guidance, to be able to pinpoint where characters are at any given time.  Maps do not need to be Tolkien quality.  There are no bonus points for artistry, and geography need not be fixed until the final draft – sometimes I’ve moved whole mountain ranges for the sake of convenience.

  A believable setting and vaguely-accurate mapping will give your story extra credibility, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right.  It’s the little details, the ones people might not even notice, the colouring in around the edges, which make a convincing world. 

Joanne's fantasy novel, The Art of Forgetting, is available on Amazon.

Read an interview with Joanne here:

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