Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome a well-loved author and a long-time blog friend, David Powers King, who writes about world-building in fantasy novels.
World-building, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy realm, is an oft-discussed topic—plenty of authors have given their thoughts on the matter. I’ll throw mine into the mix and share my experiment in world-building through discovery writing.
I don’t normally write discovery (making it up as I go along). I’m very much a planner (map it all out before I really get going). In my experience, world-building often calls for heaps of planning through responses to a string of questions early on, such as:
- What kind of world is my story set in?
- What kind of story am I going to tell?
- How long will it be? Who is my audience?
- Will this be the first book in a series (if the answer is yes, the world-building just got a whole lot bigger and intricate!)?
Then there are the basic “elements” of the story, a foundation if you will, that the author would need to consider before creating their characters:
|Arctic||Hunting||Race/Gender/Identity||Common or Not?|
Once these basic aspects are established, imagine how ALL of these factors influence each other. What about the manner in which people speak in your story? How will this influence the names of places and people (the way names sound are important, as they have the potential to shape one’s psychology, known as phenome-personality)? Would you go so far as to create a totally new language? Once the world is fleshed out, it may be a good idea to grab some paper and draw a rough map, to keep track of the journey and the incidents around characters. This can be given to an artist later for a cool map to go along with the book, unless you have the chops to do it yourself.
Another fascinating factor to consider while world-building is any contrasts that may exist, differences from one land or nation to another that adds dimension to the world. Rich vs poor, thriving vs famished, advanced vs primeval? The Hunger Games does a great job of this through its 12 districts.
I could go on (because we’re only limited by our imagination), but I want to point out the keystone that brings all of these factors together. How do these elements play into the story? Characters?
Everything from how often it rains to how often the dark lord eats his favorite dish matters. Think of the details. The five senses. Think of the Butterfly Effect.
You could fall into the trap of planning so much that no writing gets done, or you may be so enamored by this world that you want the reader to know everything about it, which can drag down the story’s pacing.
So what is important to reveal? Well, let’s head back inside that tavern for a second! This place is part of this world, but in this moment, that’s where the character is. Now that I’m here, I would love to know:
- What does it look like (rustic, elegant, dilapidated)?
- What does it smell like (drinks, smoke, food, odors)?
- What does it feel like (warm, cold, cozy, uncomfortable)?
- What does it sound like (music, laughter, deathly silent)?
- And if you can throw tastes in, by all means, go for it!
These are the kinds of questions that will lead to details that make the world come alive in the reader’s mind, and really, readers are looking to be transported to another place anyway. So make it happen! Characters can also reveal their world to the reader through dialogue, or by shedding light on other aspects of the world when the environment bears them into attention. It’s important for the author to have a firm grasp of their world, but the story is burdened when the reader is being told everything. Focus on the immediate area first, and build on that.
I usually leave out a lot of information as I get going. The writing feels more authentic when these systems are in place, and they’re a bonus should I decide to include them the next time around, in another story.
My new book The Dragon’s Heart: A LaVondian Fairytale was my first fantasy/discovery novel, and with it, I wanted to see what I could invent without the conventional planning that I would usually employ. First, I drew inspiration from my immediate area—where I live. If you look up Utah Valley and check out some pictures of its geography, I based the whole land of LaVondia on it. Not too far away is Yellowstone national park, and after a family trip, I took what I saw there and added it in.
Since I would be writing about magical creatures, I drew upon their stereotypes and turned them on their heads. Oftentimes it helped keep the writing fresh and exciting. I wanted puzzles as well, but only created the riddles when the occasion called for them.
One risk of discovery-writing while world-building is the editing, backtracking, and rewriting—but for one who is more concerned about getting words on the page, at least initially, this method may be the keeper (The Dragon’s Heart used to be about 130K words, but I cut it down to 95K). For me at least, true magic happens in the editing phase. It allows me to fill the holes and provide additional details I hadn’t thought about (or remove burdensome, overused parts that didn’t advance the story), even if I had planned it out. It is helpful to keep a journal for this, because these new additions may need to find their way into the story later on, or in the next revision.
Be it planning first or starting to write now, the best part of world-building is the absence of limitations. Go where your imagination takes you!
David was born in beautiful downtown Burbank, California where his love for film inspired him to write. His works include the internationally published YA Fantasy Woven and The Undead Road: My Zombie Summer. An avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, David also has a soft spot for zombies and the paranormal. He now lives in the mountain West with his wife and four children.
If you’re an author, do you agree or disagree with David? Do you have questions for him on world-building, or other aspects of writing fantasy? What are your thoughts on the world of a novel, while reading it? What sort of novels do you read, and are the worlds important in them?
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