Fantasy World Building

I’m currently working on book two of my Tree of Ages series, switching gears from Urban Fantasy to Epic. This series so far has taken so much more planning, note-taking, map drawing, and research than anything else I’ve ever attempted. I find that there’s a HUGE learning curve, so I figured I’d share what I’ve learned about planning out and writing Epic Fantasy thus far. Please feel free to chime in with thoughts, advice, or any other comments!

 

1) World Build. Okay, so I’m sure most of you are like, “Duh. Of course you have to world build. It’s fantasy,” but it really does need to be mentioned in every “How to Write Epic Fantasy” guide. World-building takes place in any sort of fiction, but not to this extent. With my Urban Fantasy books, I created magic systems, perhaps a bit of lore, and a few magical settings, but for the most part they take place in our world. I don’t have to make up politics, geography, history, etc. In Epic Fantasy (for the most part), you have to make up EVERYTHING. The point of this bullet point, is to tell you that you should make it all up in advance. Please, just do it. It will save you so much time. When I wrote Tree of Ages, I really wasn’t sure where I was going with it. I had a basic premise, and I knew that it would be medieval fantasy in a fantasy world resembling ancient Scotland. I knew it would be multiple POV, and I knew what my main character’s relation to magic would be. That was it. Everything else I made up as I went along.

It all ended up okay, and I was happy with the final book, but, and this is a very big BUT, it took me an entire year to write. For those of you in the world of indie publishing, you know that a year is a lot of time to commit to a book. We don’t have the luxury of putting something out every two or three years. The real kicker is that the book is only 82,000 words long (so pretty short for epic fantasy). Still, since I didn’t plan things out before-hand, I had to rewrite the darn thing around ten or twelve times. I’m aiming to end book two at around 120,000 words, but you know what? I sat down and planned EVERYTHING in advance. Luckily I already have the basic world built from book one, but there was still a ton more to plan. Taking the time to lay it all out means I will be able to write the book in two months, rather than twelve.

2) Pay Attention to Personality. Not all Epic Fantasy is multiple POV…but a lot of it is. You’re going to be jumping into the head of at least a few characters, perhaps more. At some point you will need to establish who those characters are as people. They are going to have different motives, desires, and reactions. Their pasts have shaped them. Their cultures have shaped them. Make sure you know all of this backstory going in. Place three characters in the same situation, and they should all react differently, but for very good reason. They must all have flaws to overcome, and they must all have goals. If a character doesn’t have those things, well, they’re kind of useless. People do not exist simply to further plots.

3) Stay Away from Perfect Heroes, and Perfectly Evil Villains. I think many of us have the tendency to create all-powerful heroes. After all, they’re the hero! They have to win! Yet it doesn’t make for a good story, or a character that readers will empathize with. If the hero is an epic swordsman who can fight his/her way out of any scenario, then every scene involving sword fights becomes boring. We all know that they’ll just slash their way out of it. On the other hand, we might create characters so moral that they can do no wrong. We think that if our hero lies, cheats, or steals, that the readers will no longer like him/her. But guess what! There isn’t a person alive that hasn’t done at least one of those things. If your character is going to be a real person, they need to do them too. They need to be too afraid to tell someone the truth, too desperate to ignore the money on the table, or too prideful to play fair. Trust me. They’ll still be a hero in the end.

Just as heroes shouldn’t be perfectly good, villains should not be perfectly evil. What are the most common villain motives? Power and Revenge, and that’s okay. The question is why do they want those things. Perhaps the person they love was taken from them, and they seek revenge because they’re not capable of dealing with the pain. Perhaps they were abused when they were young. They had their power taken away, and now they’re on a blind mission to get it back in some way. You don’t have to expose any of this backstory initially, let the reader be blind to their motive. As long as you know it, your character will react consistently.

4) Have a Timeline. If you’re writing Epic, chances are things are happening on a grand scale all over the place. Because of this, it’s helpful to have a timeline of events so you can organize your scenes accordingly. On the small scale, you probably don’t want to play out a huge scene with your MC, then hop backwards for another point of view. If things are happening simultaneously then fine. If something is an explanation (say your character falls through a floor, then we flashback to the night before where the villain crept into the basement and weakened said floor) then fine, but you probably don’t want a scene of character A traveling along the road, followed by a scene of character B traveling on it three days earlier. Multiple POVs are confusing enough as it is.

5) Create a Whole Bunch of Series Bibles. Create a character reference with appearance, clothes, personality traits, likes and dislikes, and anything else you can think of. Create a list of common slang, made up words, historically accurate terms and item names, etc. Create a list of places, noting architecture, weather, culture, fashion, etc. Create a list of who knows who and how they get along. Create a list for everything else. Basically create one hundred billion lists. Referencing back within the actual book is no fun.

6) Focus on both the Microcosm, and the Macrocosm. It’s easy to just focus on your characters, and how they deal with things happening directly to them, but it’s important to know what’s going on in your world. Is there a war? Well then your characters will probably be affected by it. The towns they visit might be crowded with refugees. Food might be scarce. There might be racial, cultural, or religious tension. On the other hand, your world might be in the midst of an industrial revolution. Perhaps there’s an air of excitement for new inventions, more wealthy areas might become more extravagant, etc. Your characters might become directly involved with these events, or maybe they’ll just be part of the scenery. Either way, know what’s going on in your world.

 

I hope this list is useful to some of you! Once again, please feel free to chime in! Oh and for those of you who don’t know, Tree of Ages is available in paperback, and on all major digital platforms *nudge nudge, wink wink*

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“The seasons are changing. The lines are faltering, undoing the old and bringing life to the new. Trees will fall, and changed earth will be left in their place. A storm is coming.”

Finn doesn’t remember much about her previous life, and in a world that has been changed by the wars of the Tuatha De, where trust is hard to come by, answers are even more difficult to find. Epic legends of fantasy are beginning to re-emerge, including the leaders of the Fae and other Fairies. Little does Finn know, an unknown evil tugs on the strings of fate, and the answers she so desperately seeks may be more important than she could have ever imagined.

 

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25 thoughts on “Fantasy World Building

  1. This is great. I always love reading about how people tackle world building. I’m currently building my world and blogging about all the different things to consider when creating a big fantasy world.

    I think there’s definitely a tendency to focus on the big things like maps and magic, which is what draws us to the genre in the first place, but there are hundreds of other little details that can really stitch the world together. What I love about world building is that everything affects everything else and you can never be too detailed. Topics like climate and raw materials may not be particularly interesting to many people but is to me because then you can determine how characters farm, make weapons, build, eat, dress, find entertainment, travel and trade and so on. While I might not ever mention half this stuff in the actual novel, it’s good to know it anyway. It makes the world feel more real.

    I’ll probably feel like the world building stage is never finished. There will always be something I’ve not thought of but I agree that it’s best to work as much out as possible before writing the story itself. 🙂

  2. I read the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel. I loved the series, but the number of years between books just about drove me to distraction! I know why it was so long…the series is historical fiction set in the period where Neanderthal Man was phasing out and Cro-Magnon Man was phasing in so she had to do a tonne of research so the parts she had as historical were as accurate as she could possibly make them.
    I may not have liked the long wait between books (a total of 21 years for 6 books) but the time and effort she put into her research made the series that much better and I enjoyed them far more than most series BECAUSE she did so.
    All that to say: it may take a long time to get to the final product but it is very much worth it in the end because you put the effort in so we could have the best possible product you could possibly produce.

    1. I’ll have to look that series up, it sounds awesome! I agree, I’m glad I spent that entire year working on it. I wish I could realistically take a year or two working on every book!

      1. The first book is Clan Of the Cave Bear, then Valley Of the Horses, Mammoth Hunters, Plains Of Passage, Shelters Of Stone and Land Of Painted Caves :D. They are very long but well worth the read and time/money invested in them. I think my math was wrong, it was 31 years from Cave Bear to Painted Caves instead of 21.
        http://www.jeanauel.com/books.php is the link to her site.

      2. Wheel Of Time. I liked the first few books but each books was way too long and I found my interest waning and my concentration almost non-existent by the time I reached the 5th book. I love discussing books with folks though :), especially if they bring back my interest in them.

      3. Haha I can see that. I just got too attached to some of the characters to quit! Though I haven’t caught up on the ones Sanderson wrote after R.J. passed away.

      4. My boyfriend read the whole series up to the first one Sanderson wrote but he said the writing was just too different, he hasn’t finished it since he can’t read Sa
        nderson

  3. I think your advice can be used in all genres, not only fantasy. Paying attention to all those details makes a difference between a good book and a great book.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Great post! I think it’s interesting that you talk about both the world and the characters who are going to appear in it. The world of a book is often given through the narrator’s/narrators’ eyes, so it makes a lot of sense to talk about them together rather than separately, as I’ve seen done a lot of times in the past. I also really like your idea of microcosm vs. macrocosm. I love settings that have a lot of dynamic to them. I think it makes them more believable since real-world settings have different problems in different geographical locations. My favorite thing about this post is probably your mention of lists. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Scrivener, but that’s what I use to write and keep everything organized nowadays, and after doing a first draft of the third book in what I plan to be a four book series, I am literally kicking myself for not keeping better track of the details like this, especially for the minor characters.

    Guess I need to reread my manuscripts thus far and gather all the information in one place…

  5. I think it is very important when creating series bibles that you store your notes in a very organized system (Notes won’t do you any good if you don’t know where to find them.).
    I personally use OneNote to organize notes for my stories, but Evernote, Scrivener, or a three ring binder will also work well.

  6. This is honestly very insightful. I really like the points that you made but the one I didn’t really think about( but it’s so crucial) is the one about having a series bible for characters. I’d reckon it must be fun but also alot of work to come up with all the accents and idiosyncracies of your characters. Hope you did well with your novel!! I see the making of a great writer here 🙂

  7. Yeah, the villain of “Shards” and “Ravels” got a whole lot interesting to write (and, I hope, to read) after I rearranged his motivations — plus I got to create an even bigger villain in the process … 😀

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