|Griffin sleeping on a manuscript|
“Writing fantasy is easy; you just make it all up.”
It’s something I hear all the time in my travels as an author and educator. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a slight about my chosen genre, but my response is always the same:
Writing fantasy is hard.
Because you have to make it all up.
As they say, the devil is in the details, and that’s where I think a lot of us stumble. In fact, I find that a lot of creators approach world building like they’re riverboat gamblers. They just go all-in without a lot of planning, hoping it will all just work out by the end.
It might. But I doubt it.
So, when it comes to world building, where to start? There are so many aspects to consider: language, fashion, transportation, geography . . . the list goes on. But I think the three below offer the most immediate (and fun) entry into a new world.
Drawing a map may seem obvious, but it has to be done right. It’s not just about mapping out where your characters go, but where they don’t go.
If you can figure out the boundaries of your world and force yourself to fill in all empty spaces with towns and landscape features, then you will begin to give your world some history.
Personally, when I invent a town, I invent a story to go with it, about how that name came to be. I’ve written stories for the towns such as Glum Puddle, Owl’s Hoot, and Hag’s Claw—places where none of my characters will ever go in my Kendra Kandlestar books.
Most readers want to read fantasy because they want to escape reality. And food is one thing everyone can relate to—so it seems to me that it’s an essential ingredient (pun intended!) for building a unique and imaginative environment.
The characters I have created for the Land of Een are all vegetarians, so this informs their way of life. They have a variety of foods: some quite pedestrian like carrot soup (Kendra’s favorite meal), and some that sound a bit more fun: fudgery pie, squibbles and pip, and glum pudding.
I don’t think it’s necessary to launch into an in-depth description of invented dishes (after all, you don’t want to slow down the story), but I do think that readers relish in these sort of details.
After all, you don’t need to look much further than Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans in Harry Potter for proof of that.
This is something that can really give a world weight. It’s about building history, culture, and symbolism. Essentially, it makes the world feel real. I write many legends and myths for my imagined worlds. The key here is that they usually don’t often make it word-for-word into my actual books (if at all). There are no prologues in my books (personally, I’m not sure how readers care about a myth until they understand how it connects to the protagonist). My own approach is to let the myths inform my characters along the way.
One great technique I use to help writers develop myths for their worlds is to ask them to design a crest, a flag, or coat of arms. This activity naturally prompts them to think about symbols and myths—once these things are in place, they have a platform on which to begin building a world.
In my own books, stars, braids, and owls all serve as important cultural touchstones for the characters.
Essentially, I think world building comes down to making up a series of “rules”—and then living by them. Taking the time to construct the logic of a world can take some time—but it ultimately makes the overall writing process flow more smoothly. And in the meantime, it’s just plain fun.