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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Five points about creating a fantasy world

1. Start with something reasonable and then elaborate on it

The world we live in is frikken amazing, and yet so many fantasy stories start with white guys from somewhere sort of like England or some European country. Which was fine when Tolkein was writing, but now we've had so much of that, it's starting to be predictable and boring, unless you're a phenomenal writer. 

So why not start somewhere else? Base your culture on the reality of, say, the Middle East like Saladin Ahmad does--and does fantastically. Or start with, like, Nepal or mountainous Peru, or the nomadic cultures in desert Africa, or an island culture in the South Pacific. Read up a whole lot of how the societies are structured, how their social group songs work, what their history and religion and mythology is like.

And then elaborate. Change the planet they're on, or their place in the world, or their mythology. Graft your own ideas on that already fascinating foundation. 

Some considerations, though:
- the closer you are to the recognizable world, the more accurate you'll have to be, or you're walking right into that appropriation / imperialist / Noble Savage problem that 1) is insulting, and 2) ruins a story by being uninformed and unrealistic. The weirder your story is, the more it has to seem believable.

- if you start with, say, modern America or one of the Typical Fantasy Starting Points, you'll have to be more creative than the piles of others that are Basically England, But With Magic. If you have a really fascinating idea, though, setting it in a world that is so familiar you don't have to figure it out could do wonders for that idea by not distracting from it.

2. Take interplay into account

Societies don't exist as lists of attributes that don't have anything to do with each other. You can keep those lists for yourself, but don't make the story read like a list. Remember that everything in a world and te societies that grow on it bounce off each other. When you're writing, think about how weather and climate change what it's like to be traveling cross country. Think about how te tech level of the world affects how quickly information travels. Think aboutthe  basic education level of your characters, and how that would affect their possibilities and what they're capable of understanding. Think about how the environment has shaped how the cities look--and whether there even are cities, and where it's possible to build them--and how that affects movement, gossip, interference, the ability to keep secrets or have somewhere to hide, and what the different seasons do to change that.

Think about what happens in different levels of society and how what they each do affects the others.

Think about how te different societies living in the area overlap and clash and work together and stay apart, and how that affects what your characters can and will do.

Basically, think about the world as a world, not a list of details. All those details need reasons and ties and purposes, or why are they there?

3. Don't forget consequences

Human history is a story about consequences. A plot, basically, is also. When you're building a world, there has to be consequences. If this character breaks this law or social contract or magical ward, what happens? Why? This plot point--this law or structure or organization--that stands in their way, what was it formed as a consequence of? If the hero changes how things work, or defies what people think is possible, how will doing that thing ripple out? Who will be inspired? Who will take it further? Who will push back and get in the way?

Hell, what is the hero a consequence of? What happened before the story starts that set them off on this path to begin with?

4. Give your plot points really good reasons

Okay, say you really want your heroes to face a specific spell, or challenge, or person, and it's going to be flipping awesome. But it's also sort of out of left field and you haven't seen anything like it in other books, and it's exciting because of that. That's great! Fantasy sometimes beats dead horses until there's nothing left at all, and that's so eye-rolly it's hardly even worth reading, so bright new ideas are exactly what we need.

The thing, though, is that it has to make so much sense that no one bats an eye, and instead they're all "that is SO COOL."

You do that by having fantastic set up. Foreshadow it ahead of time. Have other smaller plot points that build up to it. And this one is the most important: Whatever it is, make sure it has a reason to be there.

Don't just drop it in because it's neat. Don't just get through it and move on without ever talking about it again. What about the world makes this thing exist--is it a logical growth of what we've already seen, or a logical perversion of what we've seen? Are the motivations of the people the heroes the people are facing off against as clear as those of the heroes? Did the story and the world up to this point allow something like this to happen, and if it didn't, did it really, but the heroes weren't aware of it or were focusing on the wrong stuff and so were surprised? When they get through, do they come out changed, or did someone die, or did they pick up something that will help or hinder them later? Did someone do something wrong or reveal some secret that changes everything? Did someone find new strength or purpose? Or lose the strength and purpose they had before?

Remember to make sure everything happens for a reason other than it looks cool!

5. Don't forget the effect of environment

Weather, most obviously. But like I said above, also climate and location. What sort of building materials do they have? How does that different from other nearby cultures? What are the seasons like and how do they change and how long do they last--think of the double-season system in Game of Thrones; winter is like yet another enemy, and darkness is, and they spur a lot of the movement and actions of people AND reveal the White Walkers.

Think about how people who were raised in a cold, snowy place will have trouble in a hot, humid one. 

Think about how much sun they get and how hard it is, and whether there will be any cultural celebrations or coping mechanisms that amount of sun will create-- solstice celebrations, say, or bonfires to hold back the dark, or everyone goes underground at noon because the sun kills, or whatever. Make it interesting for the characters to move around in.

Think about farming and herding and hunting--that determines what they eat and how they prepare it. A fish eating culture will be different from a goat eating one--and one culture might have both, depending.

Think about how rain blocks distance viewing and slows progress. How wide oceans make land precious. About how mistiness changes the edges of things, and how strange mist would be in a place that never has it--or a person who has never seen it. Think about how mountains are vertical and plains are horizontal and how that changes how you move or see across things or build or think about escape. Think about how woodsmen know a forest and others wouldn't. 

Think about how all of that shapes a world and the people shaped by it.

Now, don't spend a million pages talking about the weather. But when characters need to get somewhere, that's when you set a scene. Don't have someone lecturing on the full history of the kingdom, but when someone needs to pass as royal or as peasant, or go to enemy territory, or rebel against oppression? That's when someone comments on historical bias or defends historical norms. 

So just think, expand, and keep that big wide world on hand, and when your characters move through it, especially if try come from different places or training or religions or cultures, they'll know what's going on so the reader can know.


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