Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Building A Fantasy World

First, an announcement: I want to let everyone know about an incredible workshop possibility for MG/YA fantasy novelists. Highlights is sponsoring a week-long, mentoring workshop with established fantasy authors. They are only taking 8 authors. Check out the details here:

I've applied and am waiting anxiously! You never know what God will decide.

We talked about Character Arc for our heroes and villians - some secondary characters should have complete character arcs, too, but we don't need to talk about at this point.

Let's talk about building our worlds. Fantasy writers have somewhat of an advantage over contemporary writers in that we can do anything we want with our worlds. We don't have to obey the laws of nature or have a world that is like Earth. Of course, we want to make our worlds real so the reader feels part of the story. How do fantasy writers create fantasy worlds that seem real? What do we include? What should we avoid? I look forward to good discussion!


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  2. So, I looked at the website and the week costs $2,665. Two thousand, six hundred and sixty-five dollars. Twenty six hundred, sixty-five dollars.

    I hope you get chosen, Pam. But I need to go sit down now before I faint.



  3. Sorry, I'm over the shock now, I think. I get frustrated sometimes that it costs so much money to be a writer. I'm beginning to think that publishing is only for the rich, since all of the conferences and workshops are so expensive.

    But I also know that if anyone deserves a pampered getaway such as this one, it's you, Pam! Gourmet chef, private suite and all. It sounds like a very productive environment. I really hope you get to go.

  4. hahahahaha!!! I had the same reaction. But I've also applied for a grant. Even if I get picked, I can't afford it without that.

  5. Oh, I didn't know they had grants! Good for you. If I didn't have to work, I'd apply for it, then.

  6. Regarding the topic at hand, I think that it's important to be consistent with your character's environment. For example, my story is set in a mountainous region with long, cold winters and short, warm summers. The people don't have extensive trade outside of their kindgom. So they don't have access to any products from sub-tropical climates, such as tea, coffee, cotton, tobacco, oranges, lemons, sugar cane, rum (which comes from sugar cane) or even raisins. Instead their clothes are made of wool or leather, and they rely on berries, melons, currents, wheat, potatoes, carrots, etc. Even the berries are a little problematic, because cranberries and blueberries are native to North America, so using them instantly implies an American setting. Same goes for corn. I haven't used these things in my story so far.

    They can make herbal or root tea, and can make wine and brandy from fruit, and of course ale from grain. They don't have ocean fish, but catch lots of trout.

    I think that having unique idioms or speech patterns helps with world-building. Would your people say, "What the devil are you doing?" if they don't know who the devil is? Or do they have a concept of a devil or demon?

    You have to pay close attention to what things your characters would or wouldn't know about. One of my pet peeves is characters in less technological societies referring to things that are out of their ken, such as modern medical terms (like "bacteria," or "femur" - they would say "germ" or "leg bone") or using terms developed for a technological setting like "process" or "development." They would instead talk about something that "happens" or "becomes" something else.

    I had a really good example, but can't think of it right now. There was one story I read, set in a medieval time, that described a thick, plush rug covering the entire floor of a room. I found myself wondering where the machine was that made such a modern floor covering. Floors were covered with rushes in summer and small, woven rugs in winter to help hold in warmth. But large, hand-made rugs were very expensive, and used for decorations on walls or laid over beds, not to walk on and be ruined.

    So, that's my rant for today. I could go on and on, since I've spent so long thinking about this! There is a really funny article on writing fantasy that addresses some of these issues. Your comment editor won't let me paste the link for some reason. So, I'll post it on my blog instead.

  7. Actually, I have to correct myself. Medieval character wouldn't know what a germ was, either. They would just think that there was bad air or bad water, or poison, or a spell making people sick.

  8. ok, looks like Christine is hogging the comments... :) a dilemna i've run into in my world is that i didn't put any "God" figurehead into it and so now that my MCs have a crisis, there's no one to bargain with as they deal with their crisis (as in "If you help me with this, I promise to..."). it's made it hard to know how to handle that.

    also, since i'm writing a sequel and i've already built my world, i have to go back to the first book to see what i already built so there's consistency.

  9. Christine and Michelle are right ... we need to stay consistant to the world we created.

    I like an earth-bound world. One that is similar to ours. I draw a map of the area to keep everything straight, like where the dwarves live, where the elves live, where Akeela's village is, where Tzmet's castle is. I mark special locations and try to get the distance between them as close as I can. Especially when I have them traveling by foot or on horseback.

    I think we should avoid having our fantasy world too different, otherwise it will look like sci-fi. My world, while like Earth, has three moons.

    The setting of a book is like a character in itself and we should spend some time building it and giving it life.

    Christine, about dialog, I totally agree. I just read biblical fiction where the author used contemporary phrases (wake up, sleepyhead!) and it jolted me. While the story was interesting and otherwise well written, those phrases ruined the world she worked so hard to build. What a shame.

    Anyone's world different from earth's? I'd love to hear about it.

  10. Pam, your example about dialog is a perfect case where a small change would have a big effect. If the author had written "Wake up, sleepy one!" instead of "Wake up, sleepyhead!" that would have changed the whole tone. Or perhaps, "Awaken, sleepy one!"

  11. Nice place you have here Pam. Thanks for the link Christine.

    I'm just starting on a fantasy novel. I've gotten about 2300 words. A good beginning, but now I have to really think about world building, and developing a plot. Everything is so - vague, right now. A MC, her familiar (a crow), a quest. That's about it so far.

    I know I need to start with a map of the world - empire, I think. And because of the research I started for the familiar, I think it will have Irish undertones. So that will help determine they type of terrain she travels through. Traveling; now there's another decision. How does she get around: walk, ride an animal, magical portals.

    So much more to think about. The contemporary world is looking quite attractive right now!

    My first time here, so I shouldn't disagree but, I'm a better fantasy reader than writer.

    I've read medieval fantasy novels where some of the terms and phrases seemed a bit modern. It only takes me out of the setting if it's obviously inappropriate. Sliding on a pair of Jeans instead of trousers or hose, for example Some terms (horses, wagons, bows, roots, body parts, seige engines, fire, snow, doctor, hunter, peasant, types of trees or growing foods) are all used in just about every setting - on or off world. Why wouldn't a doctor or midwife in Akeela's "village" know what a germ or femur is?

    And language is the same for me. The "wake up sleepyhead" type phrase is something I can imagine any culture coming up with. Unless your language is archaic or formal throughout the story, there's no reason to think fantasy settings - even medieval onces - have different concepts of humor than we do today. Some things are ever-lasting.

    Modern curse words, however, bug me when they are used in fantasy. I'm not opposed to swearing in a novel, but it needs to reflect the culture and setting and be unique to the characters.

    I have to disagree with the lack of machinery in a fantasy to. Why can't an expensive looking, large rug be made without a machine? Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids without machines, and we still can't duplicate the technique. So why is it hard to imagine "less technological societies" without their own types of machinery. (The wheel was invented long before the automobile and that was a form of technology - modern in its time.)

    Hmm, I think I'm the one ranting now. Invigorating post Pam.


  12. Welcome, Donna! I hope you'll participate often. Being a good fantasy reader is important for being a good fantasy writer. Somedays I think I'm a better reader, too. Writing is hard work!

    And, of course, we can have machinery in our fantasy worlds. One of the best series I read YEARS ago (borrowed it from my brother, so I can't remember the name right now) included an intricate, well-working machine that controlled most things in the world where the story was set. It was totally believable. And I think that's the point - we need to be believable. It's OUR world, we can put anything in it we want. But we need to do it well.

    Donna mentioned traveling and maybe using magic portals. That could be very interesting ... especially if the hero has to FIND the portal. And now that I typed that, I believe there's something like that in Harry Potter, so you'd have to make sure your portals are different somehow.

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  14. Pam, the "portals" in Harry Potter are common, everyday objects that have been enchanted, such as an old shoe. :o)

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  17. Sorry, those are "portkeys" not portals in H.P.

  18. C.S. Lewis's 'Perelandra' Is an awesome example of a world that is very different, yet extremely believable.

    Most of my worlds are, more or less, like earth, but then came a new idea. This story takes place in two -- actually three -- worlds. Earth, the dream world, and the line in-between. A good part of the book is in the dream world. This dream world has rules, but they are very different. Instead of gravity and such, there rules have to do with what you can 'flow against' and such. It's a little confusing to explain :)

    One way to explain the dream world is through a dream that I had. I was swimming against a tide, and the faster I swam the father I got away from the shore. This dream would always end with me floating away, and I dreamed it over and over. Finally, as I was swimming, I used 'dream logic'. "If I'm going backwards when I'm swimming forward, then I should go forward when I swim backwards." It worked, even though swimming backwards is not possible XD

    Sooo, yeah. That's going to be my most challenging world to write about.

  19. That's very cool, Danielle. Keep working on it.