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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best creativity magazine in the UK“, author of YA fantasy novel Fireheart, Vanessa Lanang, shares her top tips on world building for other writers.
Written by Vanessa Lanang
Before I wrote my first fantasy novel, I’d thought, ‘How hard could it be?’ I’d read enough books in my genre that I felt comfortable creating my own world with its own set of rules and its own magical system. Or so I thought.
When it came to the blank page, I found myself staring at the blinking cursor. I wanted to describe a landscape that didn’t exist in the real world, how magic was derived from dragons, where a sky was so blue because of two moons in the sky, and words unknown to modern language existed only in this world. But how did I describe it all without dumping pages and pages of backstory onto a page and keeping it consistent throughout the entire book? Did I have to explain every item in detail—was a cup just a cup in this new world? Would I miss important details and leave my reader grasping to make sense of it all?
Like many overwhelmed by the prospect of extracting a world that lived in my head and converting it into the written word, I took to the internet for advice for my world-building concerns. What I ended up with was a twenty-seven-page document of forms, lists, and questions detailing every aspect of worldbuilding possible. As thorough as that was, this document felt daunting. I wanted to create—not what made me feel like I was applying for a non-profit organization. So, I decided to pick the items that I felt were most important and build as I drafted Fireheart while throwing in a few of my own.
No matter what your approach is to defining your fantasy world, background and setting are important. As readers, we want to know the history and how it informs your story. Does it contain the origin of the problems that will later affect your main characters? And so we can visualize what this world looks like, we need clear explanations of the landscape and the creatures that inhabit it.
- History – In my YA fantasy, Fireheart, the story takes place at a point in history where an ongoing war wages for the control of magic. Though this is happening, the story centers around the main character, Kaliyah’s story arc.
I wrote pages of notes on how the people of Tarsus live in a divided world that includes those who live their lives as dragon slayers while the other half (those of magical lineage) believe that magic should be used freely and that by respecting that, the tainted magic would cleanse and restore the dragons to their more harmonious selves.
- Landscape & Setting – I love visual descriptions in writing; descriptions where you can picture what the main character sees, you can smell what’s in the air, and hear what’s happening in the atmosphere. In addition to pictures (which I’ll cover in a section later in this post), I also made a rudimentary map of where the mountains versus the sea versus the desert and other natural landmarks exist in this world.
- Creatures – In an earlier draft of Fireheart, I had detailed scientific elements about my dragons. There were different breeds, and I explained some of the anatomy. It didn’t make it to the final draft, but those earlier descriptions helped me categorize the types of dragons as well as describe them better and what their actions were in the actual prose of the novel.
Like doing a character sheet, fleshing out the finer details of the animals or creatures that inhabit your world can add to a fuller, more robust world, especially if they play a large role.
When pertaining to worldbuilding, rules often apply to a magic system or what everyone perceives to be true. For example, like in Harry Potter, it is common knowledge that wizards exist. In your world, can people fly, or how is it determined that some people have magical powers and others don’t? Whatever the rules you’ve created that your characters must abide by, they must be consistent and not negate another rule.
That’s the beauty of creating your own magical system; characters can do incredible things as long as there are limitations and there are no loopholes in how it works.
Character sheets are a valuable asset, not only in worldbuilding but also when writing any genre of fiction. Many examples can be found online, and they can help you flesh out characters from their basic motivations down to their favorite kind of shoes to wear. When it comes to worldbuilding, I find it especially helpful because of the unusual details and characteristics they take on.
In addition to having skills like combat training or magical abilities that might have to be described in detail, your character may also have an appearance that is different than a character that lives in the modern day. My characters of magical lineage in Fireheart were tattooed with markings that designated their magical history. I didn’t put everything I wrote about the subject in the book, but it did help me shape the characters based on what they grew up with.
Using a mood board was one of my favorite methods of organizing my book. Images are a great way to not only keep track of physical descriptions but also to inspire other aspects of the world you’re building. I would suggest using Pinterest. I kept one main board to organize my entire book, but if you wanted, you could do separate boards for characters, locations, animals, etc.
During the process of writing, I’d often go back and review my pins if I forgot what something looked like or if I couldn’t remember if a character had blue or brown eyes. When you do a search for what you’re looking for, it’s amazing what other images pop up that can spur some inspiration.
I saved this one for last because it was one of my favorite parts of worldbuilding that I thought was a little different. I tried not to use too many made-up words so I could avoid having a glossary, but for the words I chose, I did research on their origins.
For example, in the first chapter of Fireheart, a sortis offers a bracelet to Kaliyah. A sortis is similar to a fortune teller and may have some powers of a sorceress. One of the origins of the word in Spanish is sortero; I manipulated the word so it carried some of its original meaning but was still unique to my story. Readers will find several words like this throughout the book that may come from various origins, like French, Latin, and Greek.
Fun fact: when sharing with my critique years ago, a member actually picked up on several words with Latin origin.
These are just a few quick techniques of how to build out what you’ve created, whether its fantasy, science fiction, or another unknown world. There are dozens of approaches you can take to creating a place that is robust, believable, and unique. Find which ones speak to you, and best fits your story.
Find more from Vanessa Lanang now:
Vanessa Lanang is a Fil-Am author who writes YA fantasy sprinkled with romance. When she isn’t baking or playing tennis, she spends her days helping authors craft their own stories. Usually armed with copious amounts of coffee and her two cats (they do most of the typing).
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