What’s your favorite fantasy world?
I’ve had a few. McCaffrey’s Pern. Bradley’s Darkover. Zelazny’s Amber. Pratchett’s Discworld. Bujold’s World of the Five Gods.
What I love about these worlds is that they are, from the beginning, rock-solid. They are all backbone, underlying all the action and characters, keeping things in line, but they aren’t shouted about. There are no huge info dumps about cities or religions or how things work. As soon as you start reading, you are immersed in these worlds, and, right away, you believe them. You trust that they hold together, they work, they are just logical enough, just familiar enough to make sense as the place the characters live.
Great world building is like that. It all takes place under the surface. Yes, sometimes an author has to describe a city, or a road, or a town meeting, or government regulation. Sometimes we learn about the world through an outsider’s eyes, learning as he or she does. But all the heavy lifting of world building is out of sight.
I learned this painful lesson ten years ago when I first began developing Matthias’ world for The Heir of Time Series.
My idea for Matthias, Heir of Kavvana, came originally from a dream. A dream about a man walking through a snowstorm to a remote house. Once he arrived, he met his counterpart for a ritual exchange of power. Every thousand years or so, these two beings, opposites, enemies, traded off for control of the universe. This time, however, the one in power had usurped the other’s time, refused to let go.
Power struggle ensues.
That was it.
I started making notes. Figuring out how this confrontation came about. Who were these two characters? Were they immortal, or merely very, very long-lived? How? Why? What kind of world did they live in? Where? When in time? Did they have families? Were there governments under their control or did they influence reality some other way? Through religions, perhaps? Did they each have devoted followers, or did they remain in the shadows, elusive figures of mystery?
Immediately, I began writing Matthias’ story. Placed him in time, gave him a villain/nemesis, a found family because, nearly immortal, he’d outlive any blood family. (And, frankly, found family is my jam.) I gradually began developing his powers, what he could do, how his magic worked, what his goal was.
I sent a few chapters off to my wonderful and supportive Beta readers, all excited about Matthias and his story.
I got back questions.
They didn’t understand. How could he do this? Why did he act this way? Wouldn’t it be simpler if he did X instead of Y? If this one thing was true of the magic system, this other part didn’t make sense.
Bottom line? They didn’t even like Matthias. They were not rooting for him. They thought he was a jerk. Why? Because I hadn’t given him the right foundation, the right backstory, the right world to live in so that they could understand him.
Why did my magic system not make sense to my Betas? Because I didn’t understand it myself.
I had to go back to the beginning. To Matthias’ beginning. Instead of having a nebulous idea about how he became who he was, I had to build him from the ground up. And, in building my Main Character, his world took shape around him.
Everything, every geographical feature, every cultural reference, every rule of magic was created based on who Matthias was and who he was going to become. Why he would turn out to be that Main Character I had birthed. The man walking through the snow.
Even if I never shared this world-building with my readers, I had to write it for myself, so that I could understand Matthias’ life, his world, his needs, and desires. What happened to him in his childhood, as he grew, to become this man, the one with a problematic outlook on life that caused my first readers to not like him.
I discovered that my world building could only be character based.
So, I focused on Matthias. Where and when was he born? What was his family like? What culture raised him, set his morals and expectations, became the foundation for his mind and soul? In order to get Matthias to be the man who walked through the snow, I had to know what shaped him.
I asked myself questions. What color does he like? Why? Does he like animals? Do they like him? What race is he? Is that important? How did this religious system get started? Are there gods? Is he a god? If he’s nearly immortal, but still human, who are his parents? When did this religious system break down (and how) so that we get to the story of this confrontation? How did everything get so screwed up?
After a few years of this (Yes, years. It doesn’t have to be years for everyone, so don’t get anxious. I was slow for many real life reasons.) with research and writing and deleting and editing and writing again, I found I had built Matthias’ world. And that my story had changed. Now, instead of beginning at the ending, I began at Matthias’ beginning.
Yes, that seems obvious, but, hey, I’m a slow learner!
The Heir of Time Series now begins with Book I: Child of Scales in which Matthias is born in an Ancient Middle East a bit twisted from our own. To avoid confusion, readers follow along with him, learning about his world, his powers, and his religion as he does, one step at a time. I picked up the geography, the mix of types of people, the architecture, food, and some cultural references from our own Ancient Middle East. Then I added in a new overarching religious system as well as a magic system.
Many fantasy authors choose outsiders for their MCs so that they can learn about this world along with the readers. Think of Harry Potter, learning about the magical world. Paul Atreides (Dune) learning about Arrakis. Ender Wiggin in Battle School.
Instead of using an outsider to examine the world, I chose an insider. One who gets to see and experience the rituals and powers that lie at the heart of the system. I chose a child, turned my series into a semi-adult YA series, so that Matthias could ask questions and readers could learn.
It worked for me. I hope, perhaps, it can work for others, too.
Are you world building? Having trouble coming up with a foundation for your fantasy novel? Try this. Try asking yourself questions about your main character. About his family background. His religion or beliefs. The geography he lives in. What he likes to wear. Answers to these questions can help you pinpoint his location in time and space, build his government systems, his family, the reason he’s chosen his circle of friends, his attitudes towards others.
Keep the iceberg in mind. In our fantasy worlds, there is a huge amount beneath the surface that the reader will never see. But it’s there. It has to be there. Without it, it isn’t an iceberg at all.
About the Author: Maryel Stone
Maryel Stone is a native Pittsburgher and retired High School English and Literature teacher. Before she settled on teaching, her work experience was fairly eclectic, from salesperson at a steel company to bank teller to power company credit clerk, which, she claims, led to a lot of life lessons and a cast of unbelievable characters she has sprinkled in her novels.
An avid fan-fiction reader and writer, Maryel can be found on Archive of Our Own (AO3), writing under the penname Marzipan77. Fandom rocks!
Living in Virginia, Maryel spends her time visiting wineries with her husband, cat-sitting for her daughter, and keeping up with fandom while she continues to tell Matthias’ stories.
Maryel is the author of The Heir of Time Series, a fantasy, YA series with an adult twist. Set in an alt-history Ancient Middle-East, Matthias, Heir of Order, must survive long enough to lead his world onto a path beyond the strict divisions of Order and Chaos.