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Picking a World

So you’ve decided to write a fantasy novel, but the big question on your mind is: “What fantasy world do I set it in?” This is an important question to answer before proceeding with your book. Many writers start on their book without any idea of where they are setting it. And without a good idea of where the action is happening, you set yourself up for plot holes, and inconsistencies the size of a dragon. Even authors like me (the proverbial “pantser”) need to know where the book is set so that the appropriate flavors can be added, and a good mental picture can be drawn by the reader.

Will you use an existing setting that is tried and tested? What about setting it on earth, but adding a fantasy flare to it? Or, of course, you could build your own world from scratch. These are all good options with their own sets of pros and cons that we will explore together.

Using an Existing World

At first glance, this seems like the safest of the options available. Putting your story into a world that has already been created and fleshed out is a great way to save yourself some work up front. But beware, as this option can give you a false sense of security as well. In order to set a novel in an existing world, you must have a very good grasp of the world you are targeting. Existing worlds gain their own fan base, and that fan base will be quick to pick up on whether you have a good grasp of the world you are working with.

There’s nothing worse than picking up a book by a new author, set in a tried and tested fictional world, which the author has gotten all wrong. The obvious way to avoid this situation is to do your research before starting to write. Read anything and everything ever set in that world. Make notes to keep yourself organized. Look online or at the local book or gaming store for any maps that might have been published. If the world is shared by more than one author, make sure you read a variety of authors work to get the best idea of how much wiggle room you have when interpreting the mechanics of the world.

If you do your research properly, this option will prove itself to be a great one, and you will end up with a finished product that fans of the world will love and appreciate. Moreover, you will end up with a highly marketable product that publishers of the world can add to their portfolio.

Setting Your Book on Earth

Setting a book on earth can be more challenging, because you are much more limited in what locations you can use and what rules you can bend or break. People reading a book set on earth have a certain expectation for your story and the amount of detail you put into characters and events. At the same time, Earth is a big place, and there always seems to be some undiscovered island resting just beyond the mist that holds a whole new world of fantastic creatures and cultures waiting to be explored.

The joy of using a setting like Earth rests in the familiarity with the setting. Writing what you know makes for a richer, more believable story, and urban fantasy seems to be hot right now. You can add magic to our mundane world, or alter history to suit your story, or even invent an entirely new history for earth. Even the time frame can be changed: set it in earths past during Arthurian times and explore the medieval era, or jump forward in time to post-apocalypse, or invent a futuristic setting with a twist of magic and some new creatures or races added.

But remember, the further you get from the Earth we know, the more you’re going to have to flesh it out in order to make it believable. Using an existing major city as a reference point can give readers perspective and help them build a mental image of the action, but ensure that you do your research so as not to get the details wrong. If I had to label it, I would call setting your story in Earth the balanced approach, as it is equal in both risk and ease of writing.

Creating a New World

This I think is the most complicated of the options. The details of creating a new world from scratch are very complex and beyond the scope of this article. A new world can be as large and detailed as you want to make it, but some serious thought must be put in to decide what type of ruling power is present, religions, politics, races, and many other factors.

An additional danger of creating a new world is the prospect of bringing it into an already pretty saturated market. There has to be some kind of hook to your world, something that makes it unique. That could be something as simple as the author’s voice making it a vivid enjoyable place to read about, or some strange concept that has yet to be explored.

Building your own world can also have some very cool benefits. You have ultimate creative control over what events happen and how things work. If you want to change something, you can. You direct the destiny of your own world and this, I think, is what makes it such an appealing concept to so many authors out there.

Conclusions

There are no wrong answers when writing your book. You pick the option that works best for you, but remember that no matter what option you choose, do your research up front and you’ll end up with a well-rounded end product that will leave your readers begging for more.

For more information on creating your own fantasy world, click Worldbuilding below to see a list of related articles.

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9 Comments

  1. Great advice, in clear, understandable terms. I don’t even write fantasy, but this piece gave me perspective on bringing even real worlds to life!

  2. Teresa Cypher says:

    Thanks for an article full of good, solid, advice, Thomas.

  3. I don’t agree with writing a book in an existing world. To me “Using an existing world = fanfiction” While I am not at all opposed to cutting one’s teeth on fanfiction (ala Naomi Novik) I don’t see it as a viable way to start a career by trying to sell a piece of fanfic to a publisher, editor or agent. I would think most agents would outright reject fanfiction. I have yet to hear any sound advice from a professional published author suggesting writing a fanfic book is a good idea.

    That being said, writing fanfic short stories and posting them on the web (if you don’t run afoul of right holder(s)) is a good idea for those in that frame of mind. I am not one of them.

    The rest of your article contains some very solid advice. I would add that an author does not need to create their entire world before starting the writing process for his first book. It’s too easy to get bogged down in world creation instead of actually doing the writing part. Many professional authors do not more than flesh out their world and add to it as they complete the first draft. Or world creation takes place over a lengthy period of time while the author is working on other projects. Check Brandon’s Sanderson’s podcast at http://www.writingexcuses.com for some good advice about world building.

  4. William Bellinger says:

    I thought the article was very informative and well thought out. It shows the depths authors have to go to bring good fiction to life.

  5. Phil Rider says:

    Being a story teller, and having put them in written form, I have to agree with Thomas about forethought in building a world before jumping into the story. Foundation, foundation, foundation. With the use of an earthly domain I don’t think there needs to be as much preplanning in your story since we’ve all grown up and live in this earthly environment. I found the article interesting throughout and I always enjoy anothers perspective on the subject of writing no matter what genre. Very nice article.

  6. Great article – very useful advice. Unlike the previous reviewer, I’m interpreting the “existing world” as being a sort of open-source fantasy setting with a mythology that is easily recognizable (e.g. vampire and werewolf-based underworlds, the afterlife – heaven, hell, limbo/purgatory, fairy realms, known planets). For vamp and supernatural genres, it’s always best to know what’s been done before and to give a nod (whether you follow it or not) to the traditions. I took what Thomas wrote to mean just that. Know the market and you’ll understand the fanbase. Then you’ll understand how your work can still fit into the overall scheme while finding something fresh, unexplored, or new to add to what’s out there so you can carve your own niche.

    I use a known city – the one where I actually live – and build a version of the afterlife borrowing from Christian and Buddhist traditions (shades of Dante and the Tibetan book of the dead). I’ve found it very useful to research such long-standing concepts and mythos before putting a spin on them. I agree that research is essential and will separate something good from something truly exceptional. You don’t have to invent a new language or culture, but you do have to get the nuances of dialect and lifestyle for a particular setting right and be consistent. Readers will pick up on those details.

  7. Khaldun says:

    An interesting article on choosing a setting. I hope we get more articles about how to create your own world, make it internally consistent, keep it feeling fresh, etc.
    @Paul: Yeah writingexcuses is a pretty great podcast. Thankfully they are only fifteen minutes long so it’s easy to plow through a bunch of them in a row. Definitely some good advice here. I can’t help but feel most of the advice on world building is a rehashing of the same stuff and a lot of the creative aspect is tied to “intangible” things that are really difficult to explain how to do well.
    Also, in writing my stories I’m mainly trying to get the plot down right now. The world itself changes week by week as I add my ideas, so I’ll have to go back and fix all the technological/magical aspects between drafts which will result in a very different setting (hopefully a more interesting one).
    Thanks for the discussion!

  8. World building includes knowing how climate and landscape can effect cultures. As said previously, research is needed.. doesn’t matter where you set your world.
    I think the comment about ‘Fan Fiction’ is something to watch. A lot of publishers will not accept fanfiction for a novel. Looking for a fan base among readers, and having a genre that is popular and saleable is important, but take care not to plagiarise. J K Rowling can afford her lawyers, but even she had the dreaded ‘plagiarism’ argument to deal with.
    Don’t let that stop you having fun building your fantasy world. That is the beauty of writing in this genre, you don’t have to obey the laws of physics, or even gravity, if you can make better ones that the reader can believe possible. Lose their ‘belief ‘ and you have lost them.

  9. Sam Sykes, currently guest blogging on Babel Clash (http://bordersblog.com/scifi/) hit the nail on proverbial head far better than I could have…

    “This is not to say that the worlds of fantasy are so deep that they require multiple novels. I’ve often railed against the use of “worldbuilding” as an excuse to avoid character development so that pages can be devoted to things that will justify the necessity of an appendix in the front of the book. Worlds aren’t important. People are important. Worlds as they affect people are important. And this is what the fantasy series delivers: a world that is completely unknown, affecting characters that are completely unknown, finding out how they work together.”

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