One of the first distinguishing features of a fantasy novel is that it takes place in a setting defined by the imagination of the author. Where (as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) the setting is completely detached from the mundane world as we know it, the author must reckon with the sub-creative process known in the trade as world-building.
World-building entails “realizing” your fantasy world by endowing it with features analogous to the world we know. These features include geography, history, languages, culture, and technology. As a general rule, the more “concrete” your fantasy world in terms of these attributes, the more convincing the setting becomes to your readers.
As demonstrated by Tolkien, one way to “realize” the geography of your fantasy world is by mapping it out. (I fondly remember poring over the fold-out maps of Middle Earth in the hardback editions.) Map-making has always been a feature of my own creative process – partly just because I enjoy it, but also because it lends solidarity to the fantasy world I’m trying to create. While I wouldn’t necessarily insist that every fantasy writer should map his/her world, I would certainly recommend it – especially if the plot calls for large scale action, like a war between rival powers.
|Map scanned from print edition of Caledon of the Mists by Deborah Turner Harris (click to enlarge)|
Even if your plot doesn’t involve armies on the march, a map is a handy device because it enables both you and your readers to keep track of the action. You don’t have to be an artist: even a rough sketch showing compass orientation and relative distance in travel time between various locations can make a world of difference when it comes to plotting out character movements.
|Hand-drawn maps for Caledon of the Mists by Deborah Turner Harris (click to enlarge)|
Q: What’s the source of this rivalry?This kind of thinking sharpens your sense of how your world works and how your characters think. Working out these mechanics can help eliminate continuity problems at the source.
A: Aristocrat A’s wife ran off with Aristocrat B's.
Q: Why did she run off?
A: Because she’d been married against her will in the first place to cement an alliance between Aristocrat B and her family who come from the neighboring mainland.
Q. Why did the family want this alliance?
A: Because Aristocrats A and B are both corsairs, and her family was sick of getting plundered. Etc., etc.
But of course, geography and history aren’t everything. In our next installment, we’ll be considering culture, technology, and nomenclature.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.