I’ve been doing a lot of world building these past few weeks with my writing students. These are older students, so I’m really pushing them to think about and develop all of those little details that go towards creating unique and distinctive societies.
I can’t emphasize how important world building is to me. I spend months (and often years) on this aspect of writing! I’m amazed when people say to me (many of them writers): “Oh, you’re a fantasy writer. That’s easy. You just make it all up.”
My response? “Actually, writing fantasy is terribly difficult. Because you have to make it all up.”
When it comes to teaching world building to my students, I usually break it down into five key areas. In this post, I thought I would tackle the first of these areas: Setting. I believe you have to ask yourself these questions if you are writing any fictional story, but they particularly apply to fantasy writing. The key questions are:
Where is the world?
What are the borders and boundaries?
How do you get there (if you can)?
What are the important landmarks?
How are places named?
How does the setting effect the people? (For example, people who can fly don’t live under the sea!)
The number-one technique I encourage my students to use is mapping—not only of an entire world, but of specific locations. First of all, it can serve as brainstorming, helping you come up with details that you might not normally realize until you see it visualized on paper.
Here’s my rough map of the Land of Een, the central setting in my Kendra Kandlestar series:
When I show students this, they laugh. Of course, this wasn’t meant to be shown to anyone. It was meant just for me, so that I could get a feel of my own world. I ended up fleshing out this world even more, and did a final version that is included in the final books.
I have a little story for pretty much every town, grove, and corner in this world. While those stories are not a part of my actual published books, I like to think that by writing them they helped me create a well-rounded world.
Drawing a map can also help you plot out a journey (and thus give you ideas for complications). But, most importantly, I think it really helps the author gain a different perspective of an environment and helps us avoid major flaws in logic.
Last year, I was on a work trip with my colleague, author and editor Kallie George. She has a new series coming out with Disney/Hyperion about a magical animal adoption agency. The key location, of course, is the agency. But one of the comments she received from her editor while we were traveling was that the agency itself didn’t seem to make any logical sense. When Kallie reviewed her own manuscript, she realized that the way she wrote it actually had characters bumping into (or walking through) walls! Most readers wouldn’t discern such details, but, of course, these are the things an author should know top to bottom.
So Kallie sat down and I made some rough scribbles of the layout:
It doesn’t look like much! But it was a starting point. Afterwards, I made a more formalized diagram of the agency for Kallie. Here it is, with some of Kallie’s notes:
The above wasn’t the final version. We went through several iterations. And, of course, this diagram won’t be used in the final book—it was just to help Kallie get a sense of the physical space in her own setting so that she could realistically and accurately put it into words.
To end off this post, I thought I’d post the map that one of my students is working on. I adore her lettering!
Next post, I’ll talk about another important element of world building: Culture.