Which is to say, we’re on a trip, and we’re going to build our way there. Like they told you in the classic fantasies, you’ll need your compassion, your intelligence, and your courage, and quite possibly, a map.
For most fantasy writers (and readers) maps provide the foundation for understanding worlds of adventure and magic: the aerial views over Rhovanion and Gondor; the compass rose that points the way to Narnia and the north; the archipelago of Earthsea awash in a brightly shining ocean.
Fantasy fans love maps, and usually embark on personal world-building adventures by sketching their own: sow an irregular landmass with mountain ranges, throw a kingdom here and a forest there, add a few borderlines, toss your characters down in a farm hamlet or a kingdom ruled by a mad king, and hey, presto -- fantasy world!
The problem with world-building is that by the time you’re finished, what you have created is a grab-bag of fantasy tropes and clichés -- but nothing that looks or feels like a world that works.
Let’s consider geography. Fantasies set in medieval kingdoms and chateaux, or in dark forests and Celtic islands, are as common in fantasy literature as swords and sorcery; but the real world isn’t so uniform that all stories must take place in a location that “looks like Europe, but different.” Have you ever imagined the fantastic potential of salt-pans and geoglyphs? Or wizards who sew magic in the muck of an oyster bay? The geography (and even the planet) to which the story belongs can have a profound impact on the shape of the story.
Suppose your story is about a young noblewoman pulled from a life of luxury and stifling etiquette, and thrown into a plot involving magic, danger, and betrayal. It’s a standard plot; but what if, instead of a noblewoman in a shadowy metropolis, the character begins as the only daughter of a lighthouse-keeper? The plot can remain the same, but the character develops new traits, and makes different decisions, based on her environment. It’s not a question of writing an entirely new story, but of imagining what could happen if a fundamental element of the story changed.
That’s small magic, but it can open doors to worlds you never dreamt of -- and that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?
Some World-building Primers:
Eleanor is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Press, and Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over thinking, and coffee-drinking.