Although fantasy was my first literary love, I never tackled it as an adult, too distracted by contemporary thrillers and historical romances. Then, quite suddenly as I was reading Stephen King’s It, I was struck by an amazing idea for a YA dark fantasy. As I dig my teeth in deeper, here are some tips for creating worlds that immerse the reader.
Note: These tips are not isolated to fantasy and invented worlds. They would be useful for any writer to implement to flesh out their setting.
Make a unique environment
By “environment,” I mean natural environment. Imagine your world, and consider how it COULD differ from the real, current world. What kind of wildlife would it harbor? What kind of plants? What is the weather like?
Make sure all of these considerations are consistent. If your world has a tendency to rain fire, I’m sure the flora and fauna would look *very* different than the leafy greens and massive beasts of Earth.
This tip is brought you by Killjoys (season 1, episode 9 “Come the Rain”), where one planet has an acid rain called Black Rain that resembles tar due to the strip mining that consumed much of the natural resourced and polluted the air. (People are strapped down out in the rain for the death penalty.)
Give the world a rich history
Unless you’re starting at Genesis, the people and civilizations of your story will have a unique history (shaped, most likely, by the environment above) and various cultures. Consider the plot and/or characters you already have:
How advanced are the people in your story? Consider the various Ages of Earth (stone, bronze, iron, silicon) and find a comparable parallel. It’s OK to mix ages and civilizations, too! An android can encounter an indigenous South American tribe. That is literally possible today. Wow.
If the civilization is advanced, what drove its technological advances? If it’s not, what prevented them? (The Ancient Greeks literally forgot how to read due to a combination of natural disasters and war. A plan for the steam engine was burned up in the Library of Alexandria, etc.)
How do the characters behave? Does this buy into or reject the cultures of the people around them? Expand on those cultures. Find a reason for each of their values and traditions.
Remember, most cultures are shaped by violent means, whether man-made or natural.
OR you can go with a civilization like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, where the civilization is a very different type of dystopia: A stagnant culture, the complete lack of change or advancement. This is possible only due to Gormenghast being surrounded on all sides by impenetrable, hostile environments.
Create a unique manner of speaking
Consider the word OK (“okay”), allegedly the most widely-used phrase in the world. Although it’s origin is up for debate, the most common belief is that it was a nickname of Martin Van Buren, being from Old Kinderhook, NY.
But what is there was no Van Buren? No New York? Well, then your characters should not be saying “OK.”
The same goes for many other things: The days of the weeks, the months, AM/PM, BC(or BCE)/AD. All of these are tied exclusively to the history of a specific culture. If your fantasy world exists outside of these cultures, these phrases should not appear in your book.
But do you remember that fake culture and natural environment you considered above? You can use that environment and history you developed to determine new phrases, new manners of speaking. Rather than “Damn you!” your character may yell “A Shadow upon you!” (That’s from my book, please don’t steal it.)
Now, this is tricky, because if your invented manner of speaking is too widespread or not done with careful consideration, it could bog down your story or overwhelm your reader. It requires a careful hand. One writer who did this incredibly well was Richard Adams in Watership Down, where the rabbits, ignorant of human culture, have their own names for cars, foxes, and the times of day. The speaker, being a human, used the real phrases. This novel also used brief footnotes and a glossary.
Be advised: This is most likely not something to fret over during your first draft, but will require very careful edits and most likely another pair of eyes.
What are your favorite tips for creating a rich fictional world? What have you done or what do you wish to do in your own writing?
Like the examples Killjoys, Gormenghast, and Watership Down above, share a work in which an author did something with their worldbuilding that impressed you or that you enjoyed.
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What is Jette up to?
I am hard at work writing the YA dark fantasy mentioned above, currently called The Shadow Comes. I’m having fun with the first draft and fleshing out my characters, but I really can’t wait to rewrite it and try to capture the ominous, oppressive tone I’m looking for.
I have a new creepy captivity short releasing on Amazon in six days! Pick Housebreaking up for 99 cents as a Kindle eBook. (You can also read it here for free, but please leave a review!) OR begin the nightmare with Nails, the first creepy captivity short (read it here in exchange for a review).
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