On the Pleasures of World Building

Ask any fan of epic fantasy what they enjoy most about the epic fantasy, and they will almost certainly tell you that they love seeing the way that epic fantasy authors create their own secondary worlds,

Certain fantasy authors have become famous for their ability to craft secondary worlds that have a level of depth and sophistication that are truly the envy of all of those who write in epic fantasy. Tolkien, of course, tops the list, if for no other reason than that he even provided his fictional people with a language all their own (and, of course, there is the fact that he created a fictional history that’s literally thousands of years long). Other, more recent authors have become giants in their own right. Brandon Sanderson is famous for his ability to create worlds that are as delightfully complex as our own, and George RR Martin has shown again and again that he has a very firm grasp on the convoluted histories of his own fictional world (even if he doesn’t always have the same grasp of his primary narratives, but that’s a different blog post). And of course Terry Brooks, in his sprawling Shannara series, has shown the ways in which an epic fantasy can have impacts that echo through numerous generations of a single family.

As we’ve embarked on our own epic fantasy story, we’ve found that one of the things we’ve enjoyed the most (aside from crafting our story, of course) has been the ability to create a world that’s entirely our own. From cosmology to countries, from customs to conflicts, we’ve begun putting the flesh on the bones of this sprawling secondary world (a term from Tolkien, by the way). It’s a little like being able to create your very own toy chest, with all of the attendant joys and perils.

Part of the pleasure for us comes from our love of history. The advantage of writing epic fantasy rather than historical fiction means that we can draw upon historical reality, even while we don’t have to have the same level of fidelity that a true historical novelist does (we don’t have to worry, for example, that some reader is going to criticize us for not adhering to history). At a broader level, it’s also fascinating to watch the ways that events that happened in the distant past in our created world have effects and consequences that echo down through the generations. In that sense, writing a history of your world is a little like writing actually history in that you gain a more nuanced understanding of how events and choices in one particular period can echo down the ages, changing everything that comes after that.

Another enjoyable aspect of world building is the excitement of discovery. Though of course we have a pretty extensive set of histories already built, any author will tell you that there are times when you’re writing a narrative when you accidentally find out that something happened in the past–whether that of a character of your fictional world–that totally changes how you thought about things. Just as importantly, it can sometimes radically change how you conceived of your plot and, while this is certainly a good thing a lot of the time, it can also be quite a challenge.

I guess you might say that fantasy-world building is a bit like playing God. After all, it’s entirely up to you what your world is going to look like, how its people are going to worship (assuming that you pay attention to matters of religion), how magic works (and what its history looks like), and how all of this impacts the characters that, presumably, you’ve already created. And, of course, you’ve got to make sure that your story meshes with your fictional history in a way that makes logical, organic sense. It’s all quite a lot to keep straight in your mind.

Because, of course, there are some more challenging parts of the whole world-building process. It’s very easy–for us, at least–to just sort of tumble down the wormhole. Sometimes, we get so invested in the creation of our world and all of the things about it that we forget that there’s actually a story that we’re trying to tell that’s set in this world. It’s hard to really explain this to someone who doesn’t either read or write epic fantasy, but it really is difficult sometimes to give the stories that are set in the present the love that they deserve. On the other hand, spending so much time building up a secondary world does give us opportunities to explore more stories in the future, so there’s always an upside.

Overall, world building is definitely one of the most satisfying and challenging aspects of writing epic fantasy. Just as you often find yourself both falling in love with and getting frustrated with the characters that you create, you often find your world taking on a bit of a life of its own. Sure, you may start off creating a theocracy loosely modeled on the Byzantine Empire, but soon you find elements of the Crusaders and the Templars moving in and that, in turn, begins to inflect the entire way that you had conceived of the essential conflict at the heart of the story. Sure, you start out with an empire sort of like Rome, but then it becomes a little something different, far more permissive of female empowerment than its historical predecessor. These are the sorts of changes that make world building such a pleasurable part of writing epic fantasy.

As we move forward with our series, we look forward to continuing to discover more about this world and the peoples that inhabit it. Just as importantly, we’re also looking forward to thinking about not only the past of this world, but also the future. There are so many stories that we’ve already started developing in this world, and we look forward to sharing all of them with you.

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