I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold…for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read…I have hardly been more than a wandering explorer in the land, full of wonder but not information. (On Fairy Stories, 2)
Ever since I could hold a book and stare, wide-eyed and enchanted, at its illustrations and prose, I have loved stories – especially fantastic stories. As a child, I believed that authors possessed some sort of magic that enabled them to, like the sorcerers and magicians they wrote about, conjure up fantastic tales of wonder that I spent many happy hours getting lost in. As I grew older, I realized that I, too, wanted to be a purveyor of that magic. So, I embarked on a journey to the land of story as a writer. But as Tolkien alludes to in his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” I have found that journey perilous, fraught with many false starts and unfinished stories. From my youth, I thought that writing a good story was something that, “just happened” for those fortunate enough to have a knack for writing. When my stories didn’t work, I feared it was because I lacked “the knack.”
For well over a year, I have been working very hard on a novel set in a secondary world. My world has distinct cultures, a big, bad villain, and characters that run around in it. Within one semester, I managed to write over one hundred pages of the novel. But the plot was going nowhere because I had written myself into a corner. After stepping back from the project for a while, I thought all I needed to do to “fix” the novel was tweak my characters a bit and clarify the stakes. So, after making those changes, I decided to rewrite my novel from the beginning. The first chapter of rewriting went along beautifully. Then I got stuck–again. Once more, I internalized my failure. The story was failing because I lacked enough talent to pull it off.
What I didn’t realize was that sometimes a novel’s problem is systemic and to fix it the author must go back to the novel’s foundation. What my novel needed was better world-building.
So, I put the novel aside and developed my own worldbuilding process. The first phase is planning. During this phase, the writer researches and develops the information she needs to construct a fictional world. This information may take the form of character sketches, map making, fictional histories and folklore, Q&As, etc.
Here are my steps:
- Begin with a concept, picture, or mood that you want to explore.
- Brainstorm a list of what could happen in your fictional world. This is the time to create cultures, folklore, factions, religions, etc.–the how’s and why’s of magic and history.
- Build your world based on the major events you want to happen. Create a map(s) because geography can play a huge role in your fiction.
- Design characters and factions that can challenge/change/overcome the obstacles that the major events pose for your characters.
- Explore how the setting can create complications for your characters. As complications arise, resist the urge to change your setting. Think of ways the characters can overcome the obstacles and create new ones.
At the end of the planning phase, the fictional world exists solely as a pile of disjointed information. In the next phase, construction and integration, the writer begins to transfer that information to the reader in the form of story. The author uses craft to devise ways to reveal the world to the reader while also advancing the plot and developing characters.
One of the easiest ways to integrate worldbuilding into a novel is through the strategic placement of details. The details the writer uses to construct her world determine how the reader encounters the characters and feels about the story. For example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, the faun’s cave feels real because Lewis is an expert at using details, such as the books on Mr. Tumnus’s shelf and the picture of his father on the wall (15). Lewis doesn’t underutilize these details–they also answer questions in readers’ heads. How does the faun know about humans? He’s been reading about them–the faun’s bookshelf is full of titles that refer to humans. What is the role of right and wrong in this world? Well, the picture of the faun’s father convicts Mr. Tumnus of his treachery. From this, the reader learns that the faun has a moral compass much like our own–flawed, but capable of self-correction. From these scant details, the reader knows the faun is not only curious but good at heart. Lewis’s use of details serves a dual purpose–worldbuilding and character–building.
Mood and history also play key roles in worldbuilding. They create instant problems in the guise of events and backstories that raise the stakes for the characters.
Looking back on my own work, it’s plain to see that a lot of the pitfalls I encountered along my journey stemmed from not understanding how using a deliberate system for worldbuilding could improve my work. My childhood belief, that writing stories ‘just happened’ for those with a special knack, was false, but not too far off base. Learning how to worldbuild is a talent. But it’s one that can be studied and developed.
Worldbuilding in not simply about giving your story a place to happen. It’s about creating an integrated world that is truly alive. The challenge for the writer is to put that world on the page so that it is both memorable and enjoyable for the reader. By developing a worldbuilding process, writers can successfully plan and construct such a world.
Baptiste, Tracey. The Jumbies. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2015. Print.
Lewis. C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Trophy. 1950. Print.
Lichen, Michen. “Against Worldbuilding.” Electric Lit. Electric Lit. n.d. Web. 10 May. 2018.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Random House. 1993. Print.
Martin. Philip. The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon’s Lair to Hero’s Quest. Waukesha, WI.: Kalmback Publishing Co.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2018. Web. 21 May. 2018
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur Levine Books. 1997. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” New York. Harper Collins. 2014. Print.
Vandemeer, Jeff. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. New York: Abrams Image. 2013. Print.
Wendig, Chuck. “25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding.” TerribleMinds. n.d. Web. 21 May 2018.
Kesha Grant is a fourth semester MFAC student. Her current writing projects include a middle grade fantasy novel, a middle grade biography about the African American abolitionist, James Forten, and a picture book. In addition to her own writing, she also works as a freelance sensitivity reader. When not writing, she enjoys cooking and spending time with her family. She resides in Atlanta, GA.