How Not to World-Build

As you might have seen from my new “Classes” page and announcements on social media, I’ll be teaching a class in world-building through Angelella Editorial. To give you a taste of the kinds of things I’ll be talking about, I’ve adapted a post from my old blog, The Blathering. The original post was in response to reading a single fantasy novel, but it applies to a lot of genre fiction I’ve read and critiqued over the years. So here is a list of what not to do when you’re world-building:

1) Build your world, but don’t overwhelm the reader: Everyone who’s enjoyed a really good fantasy knows how much fun it is to submerge yourself in a completely different world. It’s great when an author has so thoroughly envisioned their creation that they can make you believe it’s real. It’s not so great when an author drops so many proper names into the first two chapters that you have to stop reading every few paragraphs to look at the map on the first page. It’s not that I have anything against maps in fantasy novels; I’ve created a couple of my own, and it’s nice to give the reader a general idea of the shape of your world. But if I have to repeatedly stop reading just to figure out what the hell you’re talking about, you’re giving me too much detail, too fast.

In contrast, look at how J. K. Rowling creates the world of the Harry Potter series. I’ve read she had notebooks and notebooks filled character names, family histories, spells, and other details of Harry’s universe. Yet she doesn’t overwhelm us with detail in this first chapter; we’re introduced to Hagrid and Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, and see two spells and one enchanted motorcycle. Even better, we are gradually shown Rowling’s wizarding world through the eyes of a novice, Harry himself, so any confusion is part of building his character. By giving us just enough details to make the world real, Rowling tantalizes us and draws us in, rather than confusing us. This is good advice for writers of any kind of fiction, actually. Whether you’ve done historical research or just know what kind of lunch box your main character used in third grade, you have to remember that there’s a difference—a huge difference, actually—between what you as the author need to know about your world and your characters, and what the reader needs to know.

2) Make your magic (or science, or society) clear and consistent: This is actually the cardinal rule for any fantasy: if your reader doesn’t understand how magic works in your world, or if you change how it works midway through—using some kind of magus ex machina you pull out of your hat to rescue your characters at the last minute—your readers will feel cheated, and you will undermine your big magical payoff. Or maybe—as in one book I read—your reader won’t realize there was a big magical payoff. In this book, a minor magic was portrayed very clearly, but when it came to the major magics—the earth-swallowing, impenetrable barrier-creating kind—I wasn’t sure how it was done, who could do it, or how you could battle it. So when the heroes finally had their big confrontation with major magic, I wasn’t clear how they were battling and what the effects were. I actually thought one of the characters had been left in a coma by the battle, when it turned out she’d only gone in a different direction from the hero. So I was left feeling confused, unmoved, and unimpressed.

On the other hand, consider Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic Earthsea series. Her magic is simple yet powerful: learn the true names of things and you can learn to control them. It’s a simple, understandable concept, yet she uses it build various magical confrontations that are clear to the reader. Because we understand how the magic works, these confrontations have more tension and more impact. Your magic doesn’t have to be original—think of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians or Artemis Fowl series, which make great use of Greek mythology and Celtic fairy legends, respectively—but the reader should be able to understand it.

3) Be aware of character archetypes: this can be a really big pitfall, especially if you aren’t straying far from the familiar in terms of plot. It can crop up in the work of the most devoted fantasy reader/writer, too; I remember reading the first volume of one debut series, written by an author who was a self-proclaimed fantasy fan, and about two-thirds of the way through saying, “This is Star Wars, but with magic!” The further I read, the more character archetypes I could identify: orphaned farmboy with a talent (Luke), spunky princess (Leia), secretive mentor (Obi Wan), mercenary with a heart of gold (Han Solo), oppressive ruler with some strange connection to the farmboy (Darth Vader) … I kept reading and kept drawing more parallels, because the plot was actually very close, and it got very distracting.*

*This is not to say your fantasy plot has to be the most original thing in the world. I attended a talk by Philip Pullman, author of my favorite fantasy His Dark Materials, and he claimed there are only 10 basic plots in fiction, and all of them are variations of the “Holy Grail” quest. But still, follow the most famous space fantasy film of all time event by event, and people will notice.

Even if your plot doesn’t follow a well-known movie beat by beat, abusing traditional archetypes can still detract from your story. In one book I read, the Talented Orphan Farmboy and Spunky Princess had a sparky love/hate thing going on throughout the book, so of course I knew they would end up together at the end. That’s not a bad thing (that’s why we love romantic comedies), but I guess I felt dissatisfied because I didn’t feel like the characters grew beyond the archetypes. For example, a big part of the ongoing love-hate thing was because Princess tricked TOF into rescuing someone, and he had lingering resentment from her “betrayal.” But if Princess knew anything about TOF, it would be that he had severe daddy issues, and all she needed to do was tell him that the someone in need of rescuing was his long-missing father, and he would have volunteered to go in without any trickery. Either avoid archetypes altogether, or use them and grow beyond them, but don’t use them and then ignore the major character attributes attached to them.

For a great way to rise above archetypes, just look at Lloyd Alexander’s five-volume “Chronicles of Prydain,” which I think I read 20 times by the time I graduated from high school. The series’ main character, Taran, is introduced to us as an orphaned assistant pig-keeper who goes on several quests. He encapsulates the TOF archetype perfectly: worried about his identity, striving to prove himself, overconfident and yet unsure, overly impressed by power and rank. Over the course of the series, however, Taran is exposed to different people and situations, and grows into a young man who values ability over nobility and comes to see war not as a chance to prove himself, but something to be avoided. I can read his story for the umpteenth time, even as an adult, and it never fails to affect me.

If you’re wanting a more in-depth exploration of step 1 (how to world-build without overwhelming the reader), check out my online class. I’ll be sharing techniques for developing your world without taking the reader out of the story, and written critiques are part of the class! For more info, check out my class page at Angelella Editorial.


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