Today’s Workshop Wednesday guest is Rowena Cory Daniells, sharing her top tips on fantasy worldbuilding.
Rowena is the author of the best selling King Rolen’s Kin trilogy. Her new fantasy trilogy The Outcast Chronicles has just been released. And she has a gritty crime-noir also just released, The Price of Fame.
Rowena has an impressive publication list of fantasy titles, and once you begin reading it’s hard to stop. They’re addictive stories!
Readers adore her worldbuilding, and we’re lucky to have her here sharing her insights into the process:
World Building and the Flypaper-mind
Building secondary/created worlds gives you the chance to put your characters through experiences that force them to grow and adapt. Your readers go along with your characters on this journey, but only so long as your world building hangs together. If, at any time, the reader spots an inconsistency, they’ll stop reading to think about it. The moment they do this, you’ve broken the ‘Willing Suspension of Disbelief’. Once you’ve lost them, it’s twice as hard to win the reader back. So world building is important.
World Building requires a broad knowledge of societies throughout history. In fact…
What you need is a mind that works like flypaper. When I was a kid we didn’t have fly screens on our windows and in summer you couldn’t keep the windows shut so flies were a problem. My grandmother would hang a flypaper strip in the kitchen. It was coated with something that flies thought smelled nice so they would land on it and get stuck. (I was going to include picture but it would probably put you off your dinner).
When I say you need a ‘flypaper mind’, you need the kind of mind that remembers interesting/quirky/worrying things. For instance, in some New Guinea tribes it was the custom for female members of the family to mourn for dead relatives by cutting off part of a finger from the joint up. By the time they become old women, their fingers are just knubs. I don’t remember where I read this, but it stuck with me. I haven’t used it in a story, but when I do, I’ll give it a slight twist. The underlying theme will be the same — the high price of ritualised mourning — but it will be consistent the world and society I create.
To create interesting secondary worlds you need to have a broad general knowledge, packed with all the weird, wonderful and worrying things human beings have done over the years. This means that while you are writing, things will spring from your subconscious contributing towards a richer world.
Your created world must be logical, but not too logical. As a species we aren’t particularly logical. It’s only in the last hundred years that half the population could vote and get an education, only in the last fifty years that equal pay for equal work was made law. (And this is only in first world countries). It is those little illogical things that remind us ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’. Your characters will believe the way they live is normal because they have grown up in their society.
And it is hard for us as writers to step outside our society. If you read science fiction and fantasy books from the 1950s, you’ll find that attitudes of the characters often reflect society’s attitudes. Try reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K Dick. (The movie Bladerunner was based on this book). By researching history and other societies, you can glimpse how people have lived and are living even now.
Research is wonderful and a great place to start. If you are list-minded you can build your world from the ground up. There is no way I could do justice to the breadth of what must be considered to World Build in this short post. I recommend Patricia C. Wrede, who has done a brilliant job over on the SFWA site (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Here’s the link and from this page you can go through: The World, Physical and Historical Features, Magic and Magicians, Peoples and Customs, Social Organisation, Commerce, Trade and Public life and Daily life (All with subheadings of their own!).
When a reader comes to a fantasy trilogy, it is like taking an adventure holiday with the characters. They have to care about the characters and the world needs to be interesting, so take the time to work on your world building. Read about other times and other societies because you never know when you’re going to come across an interesting fact that sticks in your mind.
Louise: Thanks for fascinating perspective on World Building, Rowena. I’m sure beginner fantasy authors and experienced writers alike will have picked up ideas to help them create realistic fantasy worlds that stick in readers minds. If anyone has questions or insights of their own about World Building, please drop them as comments below and add onto the conversation. We’d love to hear what you think.
And if you’re interested in other Workshop Wednesday topics, the full list is here.