Friday, April 19, 2013

Finding the right worldbuilding plan for your fantasy story

Many fantasy writers struggle or worry about how to build their new worlds—how much detail, when to describe the settings, how characters should interact with the setting. To simplify the process, begin with an analysis of the story itself. Three basic relationships between plot and setting will help you more easily decide your direction with worldbuilding.

1) The Home Base

In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Hogwarts is a clear example of a setting that serves as a recurring home base. This type of story revolves around a recurring “there and back again” cycle. Readers can develop a sense of home that ultimately becomes a character in itself. The collective circus environment in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern becomes as vital as the individual characters themselves.

To write this type of fantasy, spend time developing your home base to make readers feel at home, in a place they will want to revisit.

2) Landmarks
In this type of fantasy, characters visit a series of known landmarks. These stories benefit from use of a map to aid the reader. An example of this relationship between story and setting is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The narrative is a linear journey, traveling from one landmark to the next.

To plan this world, the writer needs to determine what will be the landmarks. How will the geography of terrain traveled mirror the ups and downs of the quest or journey?

3) The Unknown
Characters may be led into unchartered territories. Many dystopian fantasies are structured this way. No one knows what is around the corner. Reader and main characters are in the same boat.

In this type of story, the writer should not world build in advance. Let the characters discover the new world along with you to make the element of surprise more natural and believable.

Which type of relationship between setting and story do you like in your fantasy fiction?  To read? To write?

I generally like a more grounded story with a home base, but also enjoy quests that take interesting journeys. I'm usually not drawn to read or write fantasies with worlds that are totally unknown to all the characters.


Photo credit:
Hogwarts:    This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) Email the author:  David R. Tribble Also see my personal gallery at Google Picasa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Marsha A. Moore is a writer of fantasy romance. The magic of art and nature spark life into her writing. Read her ENCHANTED BOOKSTORE LEGENDS for adventurous epic fantasy romance: Book One, SEEKING A SCRIBE, Book Two, HERITAGE AVENGED, Book Three, LOST VOLUMES, and Book Four, STAUROLITE. For a FREE ebook download, read her historic fantasy, LE CIRQUE DE MAGIE, available at Amazon and Smashwords.


Lexa Cain said...

I never really thought of having a home base; my characters are usually too busy adventuring or running. But I love the idea (and I must read Morgenstern's book!). I'm not sure I'd leave world-building to my characters though. I'm too anal for that!
Great post :-)

Marsha A. Moore said...

Hi Lexa! I'm a plotter and delving into the unknown feels a bit shaking to me too. Thanks for stopping by.

Rosalie Skinner said...

Great post. I think the landmarks are a great defining feature. For the 'there and back again' type story a map is essential.

Marsha A. Moore said...

I can understand that, Rosalie! Thanks for your comments.

Wayne Borean said...

That's about the most backwards way of world building I've ever heard of.

First, why would you have a Home Base in the first place? Some of the best fantasies I've read didn't have one. They didn't need it. Character and Plot were far more important. I'm not saying that setting isn't important - it is. Look at the disaster that Abrams created with the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Effectively he designed a future where it was considered a great idea to pollute and damage the planet for military reasons. It was also a future where security around an extremely dangerous (95 Megaton explosion if you overload the impulse engines) construction site - remember the young Jimmy Kirk riding his motorcycle up on the hill to look down on the Enterprise under construction? Yeah, right.

Landmarks - again, you don't need them. If Plot and Character are solid, landmarks don't matter. Take the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where YOU DON'T SEE THE SAME PLACE TWICE.

The Unknown - gee - didn't know Lord of the Rings was a dystopian fantasy. Didn't know that the Black Company series was a dystopian fantasy. Which doesn't mean that the Unknown can't be compelling, but it doesn't matter unless the Plot and Character can hold the readers imagination.

What if you start with the Character? You ask yourself a lot of questions. What sort of society would generate this sort of person? How would the Character interact with the environment? Why does the Character have an unneeded requirement (Frodo had to get rid of a ring, Bilbo got conned into being a thief).

What if you start with the Plot? Why is there a war going on? What conditions were the precursor to the war? How does society adapt to those conditions, and why doesn't society change those conditions so that there isn't a war in the first place?

From either of those two starting points you can build a setting. Be careful with what you do though, the setting has to logically interact with the Plot/Character.

Going back to the new Star Trek, we all know that the warp engines are powered by a matter/antimatter reaction. So you build the Enterprise on the surface of the Earth, and oops, the antimatter gets loose, and destroys Iowa. Sounds like a really smart move.

Then there's the consideration that most refined materials require ten to one hundred times the weight/volume of ore. You've got a 2.5 Million ton starship, which means that they had to dig between 25 million and 250 million tons worth of ore from the planetary surface. And then refine it. Talk about pollution problems.

Why not just build the ship in space, where if it explodes, it won't destroy Iowa, and where there's an enormous asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that you can use for raw materials? Just think, you don't have to pollute the planet to build the ship. Ships rather, since there was at least ten Federation ships named in the movie, and a lot more than that shown on screen...

Yes, Setting is important, but without knowing your Plot, your Character, or both, Setting is useless.


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