Excuse me, you’re in my sandbox.

“Fantasy is totally wide open; all you really have to do is follow the rules you’ve set.”

Octavia Butler

“Fantasy is the only canvas large enough for me to paint on.”

Terry Brooks

     Another post about fantasy?  Yeah.

     In popular fiction, many authors create a “series” in an attempt to establish themselves.  This usually involves creating a single character who becomes the spine for the series (think Alex Cross, or the Lincoln Lawyer) – each consecutive book is about what happens or has happened to this character.  For fantasy novelists, our world is our character.

     For a fantasy author, the ideal approach – both based on what works best for your own prolific writing within the genre, and what is expected of authors by avid fans of the genre – is to create a world that is real.  Fantastical, but real.  That means fully developing as much of this world as humanly possible without simultaneously developing a caffeine addiction (little late for that, maybe?).  The first place to start, obviously, is creating the map.  While others might suggest detail, detail, detail – I personally suggest a very rough version of the map to start with.  You don’t want to spend 40 hours on a map only to discover that you actually want the Troll Munchkins to live on the Apalgasia Archipelago instead of the Corinthian Mountains.

     After you’ve completed a rough draft of your map, the next best step is to flesh out your various civilizations that populate your make-believe world.  Remember, you want these to be as diverse as in our own world, or your fantasy world will be rather boring.  There are no real rules to creating nations.  Just do what feels right.

     After you create your nations, most fantasy world builders will create languages.  This is probably the most difficult part of the process.  There are hundreds of thousands of words to make up if you want to truly create an entire, usable language.  And then put them all together as compounds, with prefixes, suffixes, plurals, singular, present tense, past tense, etc.  I’m not even going to touch this one.  You’re on your own, kid.

     After the languages come the myths.  The legends, the histories.  The lore.  Talk of adventures and great deeds – eras of nobility and eras of cruelty.  Honor, deception, valor, disgrace.  I strongly suggest studying our own world’s history for inspiration.  You don’t have to copy it, just get an understanding of how empires rise and empires fall.  Besides, it’s much better to copy our world’s history than, say, J. R. R. Tolkien’s…

     But ultimately, I’m not here to tell you in detail how to create a fantasy world.  I’ve simply touched on the basics, and it’s your duty to fill in the blanks.  Heck, I’m not even sure I gave you blanks.  What I do want to discuss is the idea of fantasy worlds that fantasy novelists can write dozens of books in.  Consider Tolkien, the paragon of fantasists, who spent decades developing and fleshing out the world of Middle-Earth.  While he only wrote a few actual narrative works set in Middle-Earth, his world was so fully developed and replete with histories that they were themselves published as separate works.

     It interests me to think of these worlds that fantasy authors create.  Their own private sandboxes to play in for decades to come.  Some of them even invite other authors to come play in their sandbox.  If there can be one central point to this random, short and probably altogether pointless blog post, it’s this: spend time building your sandbox.  Get to know every detail, every corner.  Learn its depth, its width, length, texture.  If your intention is to simply write one story, maybe two, in this world you’ve created, then write away.  If you want to develop a world that you can revisit time and again, and bring new readers to with each new novel, short story, poem that you set in this world, take the time to develop your sandbox.

     You’ll thank me two decades from now.

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3 thoughts on “Excuse me, you’re in my sandbox.

  1. Ugh, stop convicting me! World-building is my worst area. I usually write standalones; what’s worse, I have a very “in the present” mentality in real life, which manifests itself in my fiction. Most of my world-building is done as I write; I only develop what is essential to my story. History, especially, is an area in which I lack.

    I’m trying to break my comfort zone in this area, though, and I started a novel with the specific intent of forcing myself to world-build. It’s a parallel-universe story, so I’m building my little sphere from scratch. You saw the start of the series of world-building posts on my blog. I won’t have anything near the detail of Middle-Earth (and frankly, I don’t want anything with that detail), but it will stretch my brain and go beyond my comfort zone.

  2. Personally, if I have to do world-building (and I’m like Aubrey… My worst area), I will never create other languages. In my opinion, fantasy languages are overused. Just write, “The creature muttered something Jordan didn’t understand,” and if the language is ever learned by the POV character, translate for the reader. No need to fill your story with “brisnger”s and “vglyck”s that nobody (including the author) understands in the first place. (And I’ll let you figure out which of those words I stole and which I created on the spot.)

    Unless, of course, you are like Tolkien and you are a linguist. Then, by all means, dazzle us with your fantasy tongue and let us learn it.

    Actually, my favorite example of a fantasy language is in the Myst series of computer games. The creators invented the D’ni language and they have characters use it in the later games, but it began with just writing inscriptions on objects throughout the games in the foreign language.

    This spawned an entire niche of fans whose goal was to translate every inscription in the games. Online dictionaries were started, people started speaking phrases, and the creators responded by filling sequels with even more. But it was never a requirement to understand the story, unlike, say, Eragon, where one must frequently consult a huge glossary in the back to even follow what is going on in places.

    • Brisingr, obviously, but my favorite was always “Jierda.” *grin*

      I kind of see it both ways. I haven’t bothered with languages for at least two years, but the idea still fascinates me. When I was heavy into Eragon, all I would do is study the language, but there wasn’t really enough available to study. I did have a time of mixing what bits I knew and memorizing them for use against my brother. He never saw it coming… usually.

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