Throwback Thursday: The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Originally published 19/06/2016

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.


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Monday Motivation


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Musings on Fiction in the World of COVID-19

Remember what life was like this time last year? Most of us had probably never even heard of COVID-19. Terms like lockdowns, facemasks, social distancing, track & trace, shielding and self-isolation have all become so central to our daily lives from the youngest to the oldest in a very, very short space of time. Not only has the world changed in the blink of an eye, but it is continuing to change rapidly. Will we go back to lockdown? Will there ever be a vaccine? A cure? Will life ever return to normal? Will COVID-19 still be here in a years time? Ten years? Ten thousand years?

We writers (especially those of us who indulge in speculative fiction) love to think we can anticipate the future. There’s a reason so much sci-fi is set in a future dystopia; it’s there to warn us of potential disaster that could occur if we go down a particular path in the present. Even utopia’s like those imagined in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek are there to show us one writer’s vision of how the world could be if the right conditions were met. If that’s the kind of thing you write, you’ll have a hard time ignoring the events of the last year, unless of course you decide to imagine a miracle vaccine which makes the whole situation disappear overnight. I doubt serious authors of hard sci-fi would choose such a course.

Writer’s of non-speculative contemporary fiction have it even tougher. Can you write a cosy locked room mystery with social distancing? How do romance novels work when you’re not allowed within more than 2 meters of people who don’t live in your house? Can Barry Trotter go back to Pigboils School of Magic* after the summer holidays even if he has a bit of a cold? Do we avoid writing a story set in 2020 altogether or can we find a way to deal with these issues head on?

Honestly, it depends what kind of story you want to write. It may well be more appropriate to set your story in the spring of 2019 when we were all still blissfully ignorant, but with COVID-19 ravaging so much of our lives, you may well be wise to face it head on, in which case the tried and true principles of good story writing still apply.

First and foremost good story writing is about good characters, their goals and the forces that prevent them from realising their goals. The world may change in sudden and extreme ways, but people will always be people, with general motives feeding into specific goals. These are the things readers care about, far more than deadly plagues, dashing rogues, post-apocalyptic world-building or wizards learning to do magic.

Who are your characters and what matters to them? This is at the heart of telling a good story, no matter what is going on in the world you have created. Start with your character’s motive. Do they want true love? COVID-19 and lockdown could be an obstacle to that if they aren’t able to go out and meet new people. That’s a potential story in itself (one I’m curious to read the ending of!).

Of course, COVID-19 need not be central to your plot (what a boring world it would be if every novel from now till doomsday featured the same central conflict!) and it may be appropriate to set your novel in a time without COVID-19 in order to tell your story well, but don’t be afraid to face it either. Tell your story as truthfully as you know how. No one really knows how long this is going to go on for or how much worse it will get before it gets better, but what makes for a good story remains the same. And now more than ever, we need good, meaty, meaningful stories.

Footnotes

*Do not write a story about Barry Trotter going to Pigboils School of Magic. You’ll get the pants sued off you quicker than you can expellibraccas.


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Monday Motivation


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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Book Review: The Alloy of Law

If there is one series of fantasy novel I absolutely loved, it was the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, so I felt I was on pretty safe ground picking up this spin-off novel set some 300 years after the events of the original Mistborn trilogy.

This book follows the story of Lord Waxillium ‘Wax’ Ladrian, a lawman and Twinborn who spent most of his life trying to establish law and order in the aptly named Roughs until he is forced to return to the city of Elendel to fulfil his duties as head of a noble house. However when a spate of train robberies and kidnappings leave the local constabulary baffled and Wax’s intended fiancee is also kidnapped, Wax teams up once again with his old partner Wayne (I know…) to save the day with a whole lot of gun slinging and, of course, Sanderson’s trademark magic systems.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And you’re right, it was pretty good.

Let’s start, as we always must, with the most important factor of any good story: characters. As was the case in the original trilogy, The Allow of Law boasts a stellar cast of larger-than-life characters whom you can’t help but fall in love with, especially the four main players: Wax (protagonist), Wayne (sidekick), Marasi (love interest) and, to a lesser extent, Miles (antagonist). All of these speak with their own distinctive voice, have well established and consistent traits which makes them stand out from one another and are reasonably well established in their goals and motives. I really can’t say anything bad about the characters and that alone makes a book worth reading.

Worldbuilding, of course, is something Sanderson is famous for doing well and the worldbuilding in The Allow of Law is no exception. While still firmly rooted in the world he established in the original trilogy, three centuries have passed since the events of The Hero of Ages and the world has moved on into industry, science and all the challenges any society might face while it is on the brink of modernity. It is unsurprising then that an emphasis is placed on crime, law and civil order, however we also get a good flavour for how religion and culture has developed over the centuries in a world in which metal endows some people with magic.

My main criticism of this book is that the pacing was just a shade too fast without much respite. There were a lot of action and fighting scenes, which can be cumbersome at the best of times, and even more so when the reader has to pause to remember what happens when a Coinshot pushes steel or a Bloodmaker taps his goldmind. And let me tell you, there’s a lot of that in this book.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Mistborn world might want to read the original trilogy first. While the story is distinct enough from the original that it can stand alone, it is nevertheless deeply grounded in Sanderson’s original creation and tends to assume a certain level of knowledge from the reader about the world the story is set in (especially the magic system).

All in all, a fantastic little book. I’m not convinced it’s Sanderson’s finest work (he has set his standards so high) but it’s a good read and a strong successor to his earlier masterpiece.

⭐⭐⭐⭐


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Writing a Killer Hook

First impressions are everything. No matter how wonderful the rest of your story may be in every way, if you turn your audience off in the first few pages you may never fully win them back. You might even get consigned to the dreaded DNF pile. That’s why writing a strong hook is absolutely vital.

I don’t know much about fishing, but I know the trick is to get that little metal hook inside a fish’s mouth. Once you’ve got him hooked, he’s yours. Just reel him in and it’s kippers for tea. It’s the same with readers. Your hook is the very first thing that happens in your novel and it should grab the audience from the very first sentence. If they’ve just opened up your book for the first time, they will be approaching it with a neutral attitude at best. If you want to reel them in and throw them in your bucket (your Bucket O’ Fans) you’d better have an inescapable hook. Here’s a few tips.

Do Not Info-dump

I know you’ve worked hard on your world-building and have also created a backstory for every character that’s so detailed you could probably write a separate prequel trilogy but please, I beg of you, do not open your novel with a history lesson, whether it be the history of your fictional world or the life and times of your protagonist until this point. That is boring, boring, boring. Not only is it boring bubbling away in a pot of liquid boring, but the chances of the reader remembering it all are zero to none. And they’ll be so bored.

Just start the story! All the backstory of your characters and world can be easily interwoven throughout the rest of the novel but in chapter one, paragraph one, start the actual story.

Make it Striking

Just like a hook through the mouth, your opening line should grab the audience with a certain violence and not let go. That means writing an opening line which stabs the reader straight through the heart. A weather report or showing us the protagonist waking up on a seemingly normal day simply won’t do. Show us something happening which makes the audience sit up and say, ‘Oh?’

For instance:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Iain Banks, The Crow Road

This is a great opening line. Irrespective of whether it turns out granny literally blew up or not, the imagery is so striking. We can’t help but imagine that gruesome image of some kindly old lady bursting into a million bloody pieces with a loud bang and a lingering stench of sulphur. We can’t let granny die in vain. We need to read on.

Make Us Ask Questions

Another approach is to open with a statement which may at first seem a little more cryptic yet loaded with significance. This is, without a doubt, far trickier than simply blowing up granny, but can yield excellent results if done properly. For instance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens’ opening gambit in A Tale of Two Cities is probably one of the most famous hooks in all literature. The language is clear yet the meaning is cryptic, inviting the audience to read on for explanation (and anyone who has read this book knows it carries on in this vein for a bit longer). You probably won’t write one as good as that (sorry). But what about:

All children, except one, grow up.

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

This is a very simple and clear statement but it fills the reader’s mind with questions. Who is the author talking up? In what sense can a child not grow up? Is he dead? Is he physically grown with the mind of a child? Is he immortal? There’s only one way to find out…


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here: