Aug 27, 2011

World Building for Fantasy Novels

You've got the whole world in your hands...
Wow. Another amazing writers workshop.

This time the workshop was held in Canberra and it was run by the extremely talented and popular author, Fiona McIntosh.

World building for fantasy novels was the focus of this workshop, and my head is still spinning from all the great advice Fiona generously shared. I have pages and pages of notes on this topic now, but here are just a few points Fiona got across about world building:
  • You need to introduce your fantasy world in the first chapter. Readers are impatient now and want immediate satisfaction, so along with the hook, character and inciting incident, they want a sense of setting. In my story THE COSTUME MAKER, my characters are sent from this world to the fantasy world. I can get around this by using a prologue that occurs in that world.
  • Don't get hung up on the details of your world. Yes you should know your world and love it, but ultimately readers purchase books because of the characters and story. In some of the best Fantasy novels you barely notice the world because you are so lost in the story.
  • Read novels in the genre and the sub genre you wish to write in. Focus on the way they set up their world.
  • Don't over-describe everything in your world. Assume your reader is intelligent and imaginative and can fill in the gaps. They've seen a blue sky before, don't spend five pages on it.
  • Culture is part of the world. Think about food sources, language, authority, etc.
Okay there was loads and loads more, but you'll have to attend one of Fiona's amazing workshops to learn it all. I can tell you she has inspired me to take a more professional approach to my writing. Fiona shared with us her schedule for a great balance between writing as a profession, family and life in general. I'm keen to get productive!

And to brush up on my reading I've got The Whisperer on my bookshelf:

Plus I've just ordered Royal Exile, the first in the Valisar trilogy - what amazing cover art!


  1. Thanks for more great reperting from the frontlines.


  2. This is a great post! I shelved a story I was writing and what you described here is exactly what I do. I get too hung up on details that the story suffers! I may have to go back and see if I can make any headway. Thank You!
    Blessings, Joanne

  3. An introduction to the world you've created is not just for certain genres. Last autumn, I pitched a novel with an adolescent narrator set in 1988 and one very helpful agent made one of the few substantive suggestions I got from the lot. She said she was intrigued by my concept from the query letter but when she read the first ten pages, she feared that I would alienate young adult audiences with all of my time-bound references and that I needed to focus on a way to 'introduce them' to the world I was inviting them to.

    It was very simple counsel but it just made a ton of sense.

  4. I critique a lot of stories where the fantasy writers spends pages on description and nothing happens or nothing exciting happens. While the writers should have all the details of the world, the writers shouldn't know much more than necessary. Very good post. I love the covers.

  5. Thanks for the helpful post. Can you share how she balances her life. This week knocked me off my balance beam.

  6. Hi Shelly, Fiona is a full time writer, so her schedule is slightly different to us with day jobs, but she works out how many words she needs for a novel (maybe 150,000 for a fantasy novel) she works out how many days a week she wants to work and how many hours per day she can write before she becomes unproductive.
    You work out how long you have to write this draft - 2 months, longer?
    You can work out the total number of days you have and then work out what your daily word count needs to be (make sure you give yourself days off each week or you'll go nuts).
    I guess it's a bit like NaNoWriMo. But treating your writing like a business and sitting down to WORK on those days is the key.
    Every now and then we fall off, get back on!

  7. The whisperer sounds like something I would enjoy. Great advice for writing anything. I hear you: you need to know it inside out but not necessary shove it down the reader's throats. :O)

  8. nice and informative post, Charmaine!
    The depiction and description of world in fantasy and historical novels is what I love reading most! That's when writer's really show if they have imagination or not :)

  9. Great advice! World building is tough - but it's so much fun! :)

  10. You've been going to some fantastic workshops lately. I'm impressed.
    Thanks for the great advice.

  11. I agree that too much description can really kill a world. I want to know about the new world, but I don't need to know everything right away in the first few pages. Great post!

  12. Fellow campaigner stopping by. I have to agree that I hate when authors spend pages upon pages describing their world - Tolkien, anyone? Yuck. Sooo boring. Thanks for the great post and it's wonderful to meet you!

  13. Hi Charmaine - I'm a fellow campaigner in your PB/ER/CB/MG/YA group and new follower. Love your blog, and your books sound terrific! Good luck with your queries!

  14. Super advice. Just wanted to say that I look forward to connecting and campaigning with you :) Good luck querying.

  15. Sounds like you got good advice there.

    However I did have a reaction to one of your observations --
    In my story THE COSTUME MAKER, my characters are sent from this world to the fantasy world. I can get around this by using a prologue that occurs in that world.

    I don't think you necessarily have to include a prologue of the Other World. Especially not if you are going to use main characters that come from Our World and that we will be following throughout. Use their experiences to introduce us to the Other World. They can ask questions and react.

    But don't make the explainations "encyclopedic" ones. Because remember, although the Our World characters are new to everything, the Other World characters deal with things every day. If there is something that is "ordinary" to them, they're going to view the newbies as idiots for not knowing what something is for (like the details of a horse-bridle, if none of the Our World characters have ever ridden).

    Introduce the new world to your readers with characters you want the readers to care about.

    Good luck!