Episode 4: World building in Fantasy Novels

Here are the show notes from our fourth episode which aired live August 4, 2018 at 9 a.m. EDT on MakeThePointRadio.com and 100.7 The Point FM local to Columbia, S.C. 

Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, fiction writer, English instructor

Theme for the day

Worldbuilding in Fantasy Novels


  • Who we are and why we’re here

  • Get to know Rex Hurst — brief bio, published work, and current projects

  • The topic for the week: Worldbuilding

  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic

  • Craft book discussion — The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Segment 1

All about Rex Hurst.

What made you start writing? What’s your preferred genre? What kind of education have you gotten for writing?

Published work:

Segment 2

Worldbuilding — stories that take place in our “reality” don’t require worldbuilding. There are some givens in our reality:

  • People live in houses, city or suburbs or rural can all be established pretty quickly

  • People are born, age, and die; there’s a finite lifespan and people exist without magic or super powers

  • We travel from place to place in cars, buses, trains, or planes.

  • We understand people work to earn money, that there is such a thing as school and employment.

  • There is a government that oversees the public good, makes laws, and maintains peace.

In fantasy novels, many of these things remain. The author gets to decide what reality looks like in a fantasy novel. Can people fly? Are their jobs determined by their heritage or special skills they’re born with? Is the government overly invasive? Illegitimate? Absent?

Fantasy novels, therefore, have to “world build” which is they have to establish the rules that govern the reality in which the story takes place.

Let’s talk about the basics of world building, then we’ll talk rules and infractions. Lastly, we’ll talk about publishing fantasy novels and some of the things book buyers can and should look for when reading fantasy novels.

There is a debate about how much time should be spent in world building and some of that debate claims that the world itself is a character — a force that shapes the plot irrevocably. Here are some tips on worldbuilding from a blog called the NYBookEditors.com:

Time — we have a bias against magic in our existing time so many fantasy novels take place in the past and many sci fi novels take place in the distant future. So consider what time your story should or does take place in.

  • My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares plays with time by imagining we’re all reincarnated and that only certain people retain the memory of their previous lives

Location — where does the story take place? A parallel universe? Another planet? A separate plane of existence?

  • The Untold Story by J.M. Frey took place on a “book plane” in that the characters were all existing inside the pages of book created by The Creator — or the author.

  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman does something similar with the book-world of Fillory proving its own existence.

  • Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen imagines a post-apocalyptic world where refugees from the industrial apocalypse have established their own utopia in a parallel dimension.

Population — who lives there? Are they aliens? Magical creatures? Ancient Gods?

  • Circe by Madeline Miller does this by creating a novel around the goddess Circe who figures as a sub-character in everything from the Odyssey to Icarus

  • The Cruel Prince and The Darkest Part of the Forest are books I recently finished that take place in Faerie — the parallel world inhabited by Fair Folk.

Society — how do the people in the world relate to one another? Who has power? What are the manners, rituals, and cultural norms that govern their interactions?

  • Sarah Maas who created the wildly popular Throne of Glass series took on the Fey, or Fair Folk, in her Courts series and the books are all political intrigue

  • Game of Thrones is another good example of how people relate to one another and it’s boiled down to one of four ways:

    • Enemies

    • Allies

    • Respected but not trusted separate entities

    • Lovers, mates, family

Other categories on the list:

  • History
  • Governance
  • Magic
  • Daily life
  • Sentiment
  • Religion
  • Physical attributes

Rules and Infractions

7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding — blog post by Charlie Jane Anders of io9 (founded on the belief that science fiction belongs to everyone)

  1. Not thinking about basic infrastructure — How do they eat? What do they eat? Who takes away the garbage?

  2. Not explaining why things are happening now as opposed to 20 years ago or 20 years from now; pay specific attention to the “history is written by the victors” fallacy which focuses an entire world’s existing condition on just what the nobility, or the ruling class has been doing for the last few centuries. Ready Player One — the eccentric billionaire creator of Oasis has died.

  3. Fictional versions of real-life human ethnic groups that never go beyond one dimension: if you’re basing an ethnic group in your world on one people would recognize — the French, for example — “make sure that any cultural or ethnic group you create has multiple dimensions and a sense that its members have their own subjectivity, and a believable culture.”

  4. Monolithic ethnic, social, political, cultural and religious groups — everyone agrees on everything, they all have the same faith and world view and agree all the time; of course, that means there’s no tension, so duh. But there are differences even among the ruling class in nuanced, historically-informed ways.

  5. An entirely logical history that progressed in an ideal way — history is full of quirks, people who didn’t have descendents leave power vacuums, territories get divided up in arbitrary ways.

  6. Not giving a real sense of place — be specific and sensory about the experience of being in this world; there need to be familiar sights and sounds to help the reader fully engage, pair those with imaginary details that will seem just as real.

  7. Introducing some super power like magic or technology without fully examining how that will disrupt society; for example, what happens if everyone knows vampires exist and live among us? How does society deal with the constant threat of violent death? Of predatory beings masquerading as benign?

The Rules of Quick-and-Dirty worldbuilding by Annalee Newitz

  • Research similar worlds and adopt their characteristics — Jaqueline Carey did this with Kushiel’s Dart and the subsequent books she wrote in that world; she adopted some of the social and political norms of 15th century Italy, France, and Spain.

  • Have a few rules — “If you die in this dimension, you die in reality” some things that ground the fantasy world so that we know there are stakes.

  • Worry about the right consistencies — not all of the consistencies; don’t get so bogged down with defining every element that you beat the reader to death with exposition.

  • Consider what’s good and what’s bad in your world — it can’t all be bad, if it is, no one’s going to stick around to see how the story unfolds.

  • Have characters that make sense as products of your world — computer genius doesn’t also ride horseback.

Segment 3:

What we’re reading now

Ready Player One is about a global society some 40 years from where kids who grew up in the 80s are all senior citizens and the digital revolution rode the tsunami of an energy crisis; “real life” is hard and violent and over crowded and filled with despair; the Oasis, though, offers a normalized digital existence that most prefer to the hardship of real life. The Oasis’s creator, an eccentric billionaire has died and left a challenge — a game — to locate something of value belonging to him. The winner inherits his fortune and control of the Oasis.

I’m listening to it on Audible and it’s read by Wil Wheaton which is awesome because the book is 1) chock full of sci-fi nerdiness everything from Star Wars and Star Trek to War Games and vintage coin-operated game coding; and 2) the billionaire creator was an 80s fanatic and so there are a ton of 80s references like John Hughes, Family Ties, and Ladyhawk.

Rex is reading all of the H.P. Lovecraft books again.

Segment 4:

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

We’re in August now, so while last month we worked through Stephen King’s On Writing, this month we’re taking on The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker.

This is a great examination of the seven basic plots and he makes a good argument that all novels can find themselves in one of these. So here they are and each week we’ll talk about one or two in depth:

  1. Overcoming the monster

  2. The monster and the thrilling escape from death

  3. Rags to riches

  4. The Quest

  5. The voyage and return

  6. Comedy — characters donning disguises and swapping identities, cross-dressing, secret assignations where the “wrong person” shows up, the unrelenting father, general chaos and misunderstanding persist

  7. Comedy II: the plot disguised — War and Peace as an example of the typical shenanigans of a comedy being employed in a serious or dramatic rendering

  8. Tragedy: the five stages — two possible endings only – a pair of lovers united, or someone dead.

  9. Tragedy II: the divided self — life transforms in some way so that the end does not resemble the beginning; we’re not convinced the character should move forward, follow the lead, or make the choices he or she makes.

  10. Tragedy III: the hero as monster — ambition, treachery, fear and suspicion and an inevitable tragic end for the hero even as much as we want to root for him. Imagine David and Goliath from Goliath’s point of view.

  11. Rebirth — a hero or heroine falls under a state which traps them in incontinuity with the rest of the world (think Sleeping Beauty); a miraculous act of redemption occurs, the person is liberated and must adjust

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