Hello. My Name is Kira Morgana and I’m a Writing Fanatic. I’ve been writing things down for sixteen years now and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of cure or medication that can help me.
So I’ve decided to talk about writing in an effort to calm down my muse (he’s a dragon) and shut the voices in my head up for long enough to get some sanity… where should I start?
The beginning? Wasn’t that when there was this big bang and… no? Oh you mean where I start when I‘m creating a new story. Well, okay then.
I write in various different genres, but the one that I come back to and enjoy writing the most, is Fantasy in all its forms. My current set of Work-In-Progress files involve a world called Quargard and the stories that come out of it tend to be High Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery. So I do a lot research about various things, including weaponry, fighting styles and spectacular ways to die / kill something.
My approach to writing a new book starts with building the world I am going to be writing about. World Building boils down to two things: Environment and People. I suppose that’s a little too simple an explanation though, so let’s take the two subjects and pull them apart a little.
An Author’s Guide to playing God and Influencing People
The Physical World
This is essentially the actual world you are going to put your characters in. This can be our world (Earth) or it can be a made up one (Other World). It wouldn’t be much of a story without terrain for them to travel through, so the best way to work this out is to draw a map. As David Eddings says in “The Rivan Codex”:
Do the map first. If you don’t, you’ll get lost, and picky readers with nothing better to do will gleefully point out your blunders.”
Of course, if you’re basing your story on Earth, you don’t have to do this step. You just have to know the area you are writing about like the back of your hand; this is where Google Maps comes into its own – especially the street view function.
So I get out my pencil and some paper and draw a squiggle or two. Sometimes it comes out okay straight away, sometimes it needs adjusting as you write, so keep it in pencil until you are certain that you’re not going to change it anymore; then you can have the fun of colouring it in.
Weather and Water
Once you have your general outline, you can put in mountains, forests, plains… all those adorable geographical features that influence the weather.
Yes, weather is as important as the ground it falls on. It makes life for your characters just that little bit more entertaining; slogging through the mud during a rain storm or baking under the sun in a desert.
Bear in mind that water doesn’t just plonk itself down in the middle of nowhere. I’m lucky that I have an ex-Hydrologist for a partner; he can look at my maps and tell me where the rivers will flow and how lakes will form, for anyone else, you’re going to have to do a little research. Go back to those geography textbooks you have lurking on the shelf or ask our friend Google.
People tend to gravitate toward sources of water first, so most population centres are going to be near streams, rivers, lakes…
If you have a long river that reaches the coastline, then there will invariably be a town / city where they meet – boring I know, but rivers are a good source of fresh water and can be used for traveling along, bringing various goods from the inside of the country to the outside and vice versa.
Where you get congregations of people, you get politics. This is where you need to know who your people are. Obviously, you are going to get various classes, mostly tied to the amount of land or money they own / control. So you’ll get your Royalty / Politicians at the top, followed closely by Merchants / Corporations, Military, Tradesmen, Workers, all the way down to the petty criminals / poor at the bottom.
Depending on what sort of world you are writing about, the order might be rearranged a bit. For example, in Maria Snyder’s “Chronicles of Ixia” novels, there has been a military coup in Ixia and all the royalty were told to buckle under or die. It’s a Communist type of world where everything is regulated by the military and you advance in rank through hard work and talent, rather than wealth and birth status.
I always work on the religion / spirituality of a world separately. You can’t get a group of people together without the subject of belief cropping up – it’s a basic instinct to band together with those who believe in the same things as you for safety. I suppose it’s a form of herd instinct. It’s also a source of power and wealth; just look at the Catholic Church in England before the Reformation!
Exactly what your people believe in is up to you.
I’ve tried having a fantasy story with no religion and I’ve tried one with only one deity. They were so boring that I ripped them to shreds and started again. Polytheism (having more than one deity worshipped in a world) allows for conflict on a grand scale as well as on a personal one and conflict is what makes a story interesting.
This is the ingredient that takes a political drama/war story into the realms of Fantasy or Science Fiction.
Think about Game of Thrones; up until Daenerys climbs onto that pyre with the dragon eggs, the story had been about political machinations and war. The moment the dragons are born and she survives the flames, magic appears in the story, paving the way for Melisandre and her fire magic.
Magic is the ability to do the unusual with very little perceived effort. In a SF story it may be called ESP/telepathy/telekinesis/mind power. The person performing the magic waves a hand/concentrates/recites some words and something miraculous happens. If you are not careful you can create an unbeatable superman, so you have to have some kind of check on the magician’s power.
In the Belgariad, magic is called “The Will and The Word” and takes as much energy from the user as doing it physically would do. In RPG terms, this is a basic mage – they use their own energy (and the energy from objects / potions) to cause the effect they are looking for. Magic done by a religious figure is usually powered by the connection with the deity.
It is a tool to be used sparingly. Too many characters with magic make a story as boring as having too many fight scenes.
Race vs Species.
Stories set in contemporary worlds tend to have the races we see around us; Black, White, Asian, Aboriginal… and it’s a minefield for a writer; very easy to get accused of racism. Fantasy allows us to add more to our world than just colours of skin, we can add different species. As Terry Pratchett puts it:
Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because — what with trolls and dwarfs and so on — speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.”
— (Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad)
It increases the conflict in the same way that Polytheism does; personally and politically. The clichéd species for Fantasy include Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs and Goblins… basically any species that Tolkien used in LOTR. Dragons are a crossover creature; some people use them as a sentient species, others have them as mere animals. These species tend to appear in “other world” stories.
That’s not to say that you can’t have these creatures in a contemporary world; the Steampunk and Paranormal genres have lots of species popping up. PC Grant in Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers of London” has to deal with Vampires, Fae and Deities.
So there you have it. That is how a writer plays god. Or at least that is how this writer plays god – how you do it when you build your world is up to you.
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A very nice summary of the basic elements of word-building! It pretty much replicates what I do myself, though I don’t always draw a physical map. In the earlier stages at least, I keep it in my head which allows for more flexibility. And introducing a supernatural element – but sparingly! – is one of the most crucial things about a good fantasy. Perhaps the best example of it that I know is in ‘Mordant’s Need’ by Stephen Donaldson. His brilliantly created world has just one supernatural element – the Mirrors – and he weaves his story round that one… Read more »