Building Fictional Worlds

I will never forget the first time a book transported me into an alternate world. I was no longer a child reading in an abandoned field, but instead I was battling monsters in an icy land. Aware of the creatures’ hot breath on my neck. Fingers frozen to the hilt of my sword.

I had slipped through reality by the turn of a page.

How do we recreate this magic of being there in our stories?

  1. Research, research, research. So many writers make the mistake of writing fantasy and alternative-world stories because they don’t “have” to research, at least, not the way they would for a real-life story. Wrong. If anything, your research workload has doubled. We all know real-world basics: how gravity works, how transportation works, where we can find food. In fantasy, everything is up for debate. If your fantasy is medieval-themed, research the Dark Ages. How did knights move in their armor? For that fact, how did they mount their horses when encased in that metal monstrosity? Readers are smarter than we give them credit for. They may excuse your first few mistakes, but once your knight jumps off his horse and starts pursuing a foe on foot while locked in his suit of armor, the book will become a comedy. Or, worse, the reader may simply put it down. Respect your readers. Research.
  2. Set boundaries. What is not possible in your world? If your fantasy is set in the tropics, there better be a good reason if penguins are hanging around. Decide what doesn’t fit in this world and then begin building within that structure.
  3. Borrow from history. In love with a specific era? Change it up and set it in an alternate world. Basing characters on historical figures can also help you create intricate, fascinating characters. Joss Whedon gleaned the idea for Firefly from reading The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. George R. R. Martin drew from the English  War of the Roses to create the complex world and characters of his bestselling Game of Thrones. Take advantage of things that have been forgotten.
  4. View the world through the protagonist’s eyes. What smells and senses are common in their world? Remember, their perspective differs according to their station. Are they peasants who make their home in a muddy hut? Surfs who spend their days sweating in the fields? Royalty who plan wars from the cold glamor of their castle? Again, glean from history and research until their world is solid and real.
  5. Break past cliches. Don’t settle for overused plots — and certainly don’t borrow ideas from other novels. Inspiration is one thing, but plot-and-setting robbery will destroy a writer’s credibility and, perhaps, their career. Be strong enough to create something that is uniquely yours.
  6. Be consistent. However you establish the rules, they must remain constant. Break them only for impact — i.e., a girl who wants to become knight in a culture where women can’t be warriors. Let it be the exception, not a sign of inconsistency.
  7. Most importantly, have fun. This is your world, and I applaud you for taking this step of creation. Make this story a living, breathing adventure your readers will never forget.

Happy writing!

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