My first fantasy novel, Above the Star, has over one hundred pages of research saved in a word document. For some, that may sound like torture, but it was a fascinating process that contributed to the success of my story. Readers are welcomed into the connected magical realm of Jarr as they follow the adventures of my three unlikely heroes; Grandpa Archie, Tessa, and Ella Wellsley. Its sub-sub genre is portal fantasy, in which readers learn about the new world they encounter through the eyes and experiences of the main characters.
World-building is paramount in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. It encompasses the ecology, history, government, customs, architecture, religion, commerce, transportation, marital practices, and worldview of the people or creatures in the new or parallel dimension. If there are holes or inconsistencies in world-building—even small details that have not been fully conceptualized in the writer’s mind—readers will pick up on this and snap out of the flow of the story. The verisimilitude must be palpable. The reader should believe in the plausibility of this magical place; it must be so well conceived that it fully envelopes them.
When I am writing my fantasy worlds, I first learn as much as I can about relevant real facts on Earth so that I can make intentional and meaningful decisions and deviations from the expected in my story. It’s amazing how everything is connected. This is where my research document comes in handy. If magic plays a role, for example, there still must be rules and limitations to it that govern its place in the world. Without that, magic becomes a frustratingly convenient plot fix. I write out the parameters of the magic, understanding its strengths and weaknesses, so that in the heat of a battle scene, I don’t break my own rules.
The Olearons Example
For instance, in Above the Star and the following two books in The 8th Island Trilogy—Below the Moon and Inside the Sun—there is a race of creatures called the Olearons. They have red skin, black eyes, and mohawks made of dreadlocks. They create fire and wield it in battle—but that’s not all. The Olearons use their flames to melt sand into glass and have built their city by fusing the shimmering pieces together. In their Lord’s citadel, leading up to his glass throne, are tall crystal pillars that support the domed roof while also holding moving images of each successive Lord, recording the history of their race.
Olearons are tall and willowy, with their rulers—the Lord and Maiden—standing at least a foot above the others. Olearons marry not only in one life, but in all their connected lives. They have a choice of whom to love, but the souls in their pairing are drawn together like magnets, even when reincarnated into different skin, even when in love with another. At their deaths, the Olearons emblaze the dead body in fire in their sacred scorching ceremony. If either the Lord or Maiden dies, the soul of the departed one goes to inhabit the body of the living partner until his or her death, when they both begin again.
Research and Record-Keeping
This is where research and record-keeping are pivotal for the writer. We must keep all these details clear, plus understand how all elements of our stories fit together like a puzzle. And it is no small task. When I was writing Below the Moon and Inside the Sun, I spent weeks plotting. Though I’m not usually the type to outline, I found it unavoidable and, in fact, immensely valuable. In book one, Above the Star, I established three main races of creatures—the Olearons, Bangols, and Steffanus sisters—yet the subsequent books delve deeper into their histories, desires, and powers. Not to mention, new races emerge on the magical island of Jarr-Wya, such as the sprites, huppers, shellarks, and blamala crabs, for example.
To keep all this straight, I needed to jot it down, map it out, and write confidently as if I was describing known facts about humans. Much of this research wove its way into the glossary at the end of each book. My glossaries are long and often include more information about each race of creature than I share in the actual novels. I’ve heard from readers that the glossary is fun for them to read, to which I chuckle. They were fun to write as well.
If you are world-building in your writing, here are some tips to do it successfully:
- Spend time researching. Think about all elements of society, history, and how an individual or creature moves through the world.
- Record your findings so that you can refer back to it later. Include images and links.
- Write a page or two about each specific race or element in your fictitious world. These words may not appear in your story, but having all the details flushed out in one place will prove helpful.
- Craft a glossary to assist your readers understand the new world and everything in it.
- Have fun! World-building is an amazing process which makes your story rich and alive. Get to know all your characters, creatures, and worlds.
Alexis Marie Chute is the authorof the award-winning books Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing, and Pregnancy After Loss, and The 8th Island Trilogy; Above the Star, Below the Moon, and Inside the Sun. She is also an artist, photographer, filmmaker, curator, and public speaker. Visit her website www.AlexisMarieChute.com and follow her on Instagram at @alexismariechute, on Twitter at @_Alexis_Marie, and subscribe to her YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/AlexisMarieChute.