WORLD BUILDING TIPS by Erin Cashman
Recently, someone commented to me that writing fantasy must be easy, since I can just make up what I need to fit my plot. I wish! As Lloyd Alexander said, “Once committed to his imaginary kingdom, the writer is not a monarch but a subject”. I think world building is both the hardest and the most wonderful part of writing a fantasy novel. Here are some of the techniques that help me:
1. Give your imagination free reign!
Do not edit your thoughts or ideas. During brainstorming sessions let your imagination soar. Take chances and risks while you write – try outlandish ideas. Editing comes later. Fantasy, is by its nature, a leap of faith, suspended belief, so – dream big. Write big.
2. Description and Parameters of the World
What is the nature of the magic? Who has it and who doesn’t? What are the rules? What are the consequences of breaking the rules? What does it cost? What does the world look like? Beware the dreaded info-dump, however. No one walks down the street and thinks about the color of the buildings, the thickness of the sidewalk – nor should your character think about the blue floating bridge that connects two purple fluffy clouds. The details of the world need to be woven in artfully and naturally – in revision after revision after revision.
3. Important Objects/Mechanics
For example, in Lord of the Rings, there is the one ring and the lesser rings, the Wizard’s staffs, etc. Harry Potter has many as well: the sorcerer’s stone, the sorting hat, the Sword of Gryffindor, etc. If you have these objects, try to have them serve another purpose besides a plot device. Rae Carson does an excellent job of this in The Girl of Fire and Thorns. The Godstone is crucial to the plot, it connects history to the present and informs the reader about the people. These objects should not be a crutch, but should add richness to the novel.
4. Power/Abuse of Power
Who has power? Who wants power? In a fantasy world a central conflict often arises from the control, or the use and abuse of the magic. Why should magic be protected? Why would someone want to exploit it? Try to weave in good, evil and murky gray reasons and purposes for using/controlling/monopolizing the magic, and strong motivation.
Who is in charge of the fantasy world? What is their goal? Can those in power be believed and trusted?
6. History of The World
The history of my world often takes shape as my draft takes shape (I wish I was a plotter, but alas, I am a pantser). It comes to life through revision . . . after revision . . . after revision . . . you get the idea. I always draw (draw is a very grandiose word for what I do – it is more like scribble) a map. For The Exceptionals, a contemporary fantasy, I drew the school grounds, the tunnels, the tournament field, and the caves. My editor even asked me to send her a copy! If I’ve created a world, I make a map of the geography, and take notes on how it would have influenced the people and the government.
How do people get around in your world? Are there space ships like in Star Wars? Do they teleport? Is there a portal – like the wardrobe in Narnia? Do they use magical creatures? Back to #1 – let your imagination go wild!
Think of the magic/powers/creatures that you have in your world. What would be a game or a competition that would arise from it? What about rituals? Expressions? Always be on the lookout for ways to include more world building, such as in currency, recreation, clothes, food . . . this adds layers to your world, and makes it more real to the reader.
Revise, revise, revise. Make sure the rules that you have created are followed, or have a consequence if not followed. With each new draft, look for ways to take what you have created and use it for more than one purpose. For example, if you have a magical creature, perhaps it can be used in a competition, or as a plot twist or for barter.
10. Find a Critique Partner and/or Writing Group
I really can’t emphasize this enough. Your CP should be someone that you trust who is not afraid of hurting your feelings. Consider what he or she says – the places in your manuscript that are muddled or confusing, the world building that worked, and more importantly, the world building that needs work. And then – you guessed it – revise, revise, revise!