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Worldbuilding Round Table with Jonathan French, Alec Hutson, and Phil Tucker

Of the fantasy books I have read this year, three of my favorites have been Alec Hutson’s Crimson Queen, Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards (winner of SPFBO 2016), and Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames (SPFBO 2016 finalist). All have received both critical acclaim and reader adoration. What drew me into their worlds was how well-developed and real they felt.

Today, I am excited to have all three here to discuss what went into the building of their unique worlds.

NOTE: In the interest of space and propriety, much of the banter and the forty-two instances of Jonathan’s curse words have been edited out. Also Alec’s lack of punctuation due to a Chinese keyboard has been corrected.

FF: So, GRRM and Tolkien are two of the most recognized fantasy authors. Which do you think built a better world, and why? Let’s start with Alec and see where discussion goes from there.

Alec Hutson

Alec Hutson

ALEC: First off, I think it’s a bit difficult to compare the two, since so much of modern fantasy is built off what Tolkien created. However, my answer would be that I find Tolkien’s worldbuilding more impressive . . . the languages he constructed, the extensive history, the depth . . . but as a reader I enjoy the world of Westeros more.

FF: Why is that?

ALEC: I think that’s because I find the locations more interesting. More exotic. Asshai, Qarth, the Dothraki, The Summer Islands, Slaver’s Bay . . . it seems like a richer and more varied world.

PHIL: I feel like Tolkien wrote his books to justify his worldbuilding, while GRRM created his world to carry his tales. I actually find GRRM’s worldbuilding to be really enjoyable in a subtle way; his Red Keeps and other simple names convey a kind of Saxon immediacy that makes his world immediately recognizable. Plus I like how his world plays as a foil to how he twists tropes and conventions, while Tolkien’s serves as a grand stage on which to play his tropes straight (due of course to his coming first and not needing to subvert anything).

FF: I don’t know, I feel Tolkien was adopting age-old tropes, like from Beowulf.

Phil Tucker

Phil Tucker

PHIL: Sure, but not subverting them. Or if he was, I’m not educated enough to see it. 😉

JONATHAN: I agree that Tolkien’s languages put him a step up. Martin is no slouch there, but no one comes close to the Professor in terms of being a cunning linguist. Middle Earth is more mythic, the history is deeper. Martin, though, is more historic and, I think, has that anthropologic aspect (as Alec points out, the more exotic cultures). But, for me, it’s still Tolkien. Because…where would you rather live?

PHIL: Interesting question: can you measure successful worldbuilding by a reader’s desire to visit? Visit/live?

ALEC: The question of where you’d rather live is interesting. Obviously that would be Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but that’s because fantasy has changed since then.

PHIL: I wouldn’t mind visiting the Prancing Pony, spending a week in Rivendell, and then helicoptering over the mountains to ride horses in Rohan before ending up for a feast at Gondor.
But that brings up another point: the more real a world appears to be, the more I want to experience it.

JONATHAN: Phil, can I come?

PHIL: Sure. I’ll send you my travel agent’s info. His first ticket/taste is free.

FF: I confess, what I loved about each of your worlds was how real they felt, in terms of having long histories and unique cultures. In your opinion, what do you think makes a fictional world feel “real”.

ALEC: I think a large part of that is having your characters relate to the world and its history in a believable way.

Jonathan French

Jonathan French

JONATHAN: Well fleshed-out characters and a keen self-awareness. Knowing when you’ve added too much icing and not enough yeast.

FF: So for you, it starts more with the characters than the world itself?

JONATHAN: For me, yes. Though the overlap is quick and hard to pin down

PHIL: I think what makes a world feel real are the details. I’ve read fantasy novels that bloviate endlessly about their encyclopedic levels of history, cultures, magical rules, etc., and not believed it for a second. But then a slender novel can completely convince me by presenting details that convince me of its verisimilitude. In a way, it’s almost the throwaway details that convince me this place is real: the name of an ale, a local legend that doesn’t really play into the plot, subtle variations in how religions are practiced across regions.

ALEC: That’s a good point, Phil. Worldbuilding is like an iceberg.

PHIL: Yeah, I guess you could phrase my answer as how well the characters experience this world. The reader can only see a little bit, but you have to give the impression there’s a vast mass beneath. Do they notice the weird street food, the change in accents? Or do they sail through the adventure only spouting on about how important it is to kill the Dark Lord?

JONATHAN: Hear, hear.

FF: So with that in mind, where did the worldbuilding process start in your respective worlds?

PHIL: With the world of The Chronicles it came with a question: what would an empire united by teleporting gates look like, and how would its consequent non-contiguous geography affect the resultant cultures and faiths?

FF: So dogma of Ascension came later?

PHIL: Right.

Grey Bastards (cover)JONATHAN: Grey Bastards started with a simple lark of a premise. Half-orc biker gang. I was watching a lot of TV that had these over and undertones of classic Westerns (Justified, Sons of Anarchy). I grew up watching Spaghetti Westerns and most of them were filmed in Spain. I also really liked the historic period of Reconquista Spain and the region of Andalusia just lent itself to this gritty type of story. Essentially, the perfect backdrop for blending fantasy and Westerns. So, I came up with the characters and dumped them down into this analogue of Old West Andalusia. Mayhem ensued.

PHIL: Where’s the ‘like’ button?

FF: I could totally see that from reading GB, replacing bikes with pigs.

JONATHAN: Most shameless use of “hogs” ever.

ALEC: The world of the Crimson Queen has been gestating for a long time. There are bits and pieces from ancient D&D campaigns and failed books. In the end, the book is pretty much a homage to what I loved to read. I started with the characters of Alyanna and Cein d’Kara and their conflict, and the world blossomed around them.

FF: Wow, again, stuff I would have never guessed from reading. It is amazing how much world building and storytelling evolved from a single idea.

JONATHAN: Show of hands: who is a gamer? *hand up*

PHIL: Proud of it! I’m running a Ravenloft weekend game after Thanksgiving for my old high school group and I’m ridiculously pumped.

ALEC: I was, in my teenage years.

JONATHAN: I think every book I’ve written or conceived began as a germ of a roleplaying game. Bastards was going to be, but my wife said, “Don’t be lazy. Write it as a book.”

PHIL: I’m actually part of an online gaming group with a bunch of fellow indie authors. We’re about to start the new 5e Curse of Strahd.

FF: Do you feel your participation in role playing games has influenced your worldbuilding creativity?

JONATHAN: Yes, John, gaming helps, but there is an element of restraint and, again, self-awareness that comes with successfully transforming those ideas to prose. I love my fellow game nerds, but your average Game Master has no idea when enough is enough.

ALEC: The Forgotten Realms were hugely influential. When I was 11-12-years-old I really got into the world and obsessively read all the sourcebooks and novels. For me, TSR defined fantasy more than Tolkien.

JONATHAN: For many of us (of a certain age) that was the gateway drug, for sure.

PHIL: For sure. I was invariably the DM, which meant creating the sandbox in which my players were going to run around and burn things down. While I never bothered to create religions or nations whole cloth, I did spend a lot of time trying to make my games ‘believable’ so as to really immerse the players, and that got me practicing on the small scale worldbuilding stuff. The setting books were like primers for worldbuilding.

Dungeons and Dragons Red BoxFF: When I think back to Dungeons and Dragons, I remember loving the maps. When you are worldbuilding, do you have a map in mind to begin with?

JONATHAN: So far, I just use real-world geography and tweak it.

FF: So the Grey Bastards world is based on what part of the world?

JONATHAN: Iberian Peninsula and surrounds

PHIL: Only a vague sketch, like one you might doodle on a napkin.

ALEC: Yes, same for me. I had a vague sense of where the various nations and empires were located, and the general geography (The Empire of Swords and Flowers was beyond the southern sea, for example), but I actually finished the book before I sat down and actually drew out the map. Which did make it hard, because I had to go back and tweak various things so that the passage of time over certain distances was consistent.

JONATHAN: That’s always a headache.

FF: There has been a lot of criticism of that for Game of Thrones. At least, with the TV series.

PHIL: No kidding.

JONATHAN: Westeros leased some of Phil’s gates.

PHIL: We’re settling out of court.

JONATHAN: Get that Martin money!

FF: Do you plan out where your worlds exist on a galactic scale?

PHIL: Can’t say that I do.


ALEC: Nope.

FF: I can’t think of much mention of constellations, moons, or other celestial bodies in your stories.

JONATHAN: Too lazy and my science background is weak sauce.

PHIL: I know Martin plays with seasons and long winters and the like, but that was too much for me. You have to pick your battles.

ALEC: I think when you’re constructing a world you have to decide what you’re going to weave whole cloth, or take from our world. Flora, fauna, celestial bodies, elves . . . it’s ambitious to try and conjure up something totally new, partly because you’ll have to walk readers through so much of it so that they’ll be oriented enough to follow the plot.

FF: The other aspect of your books that made your worlds feel so real to me was their histories. Do you sketch that out to start, or just let it fall into place?

JONATHAN: A mixture. Broad strokes to start. Zoom in a bit more as the story develops.

PHIL: This graphic from Martin’s GoT really inspired me when I was searching for a method.

Game of Thrones History and Lore Timeline

ALEC: Same. I knew the sweep of history and it’s gotten more granular as I’ve progressed.

FF: The other thing I noted about the histories of each of your worlds is there is history as it “really” happened, and what the characters believe happened. For example, the role of half-orcs in defeating the orc armies in GB, and the cataclysm in CQ.

The Path of Flames (cover)PHIL: I really liked how history there is divided into Ages, and then centuries. I followed that on a much smaller scale, figuring out the big points like Age of Wonders, the rise of the first Ascendant, etc., and then drilled down to the events that really mattered in my plot, like the fall of Starkadr and so forth. I left the rest blank, and then went filling it in as I created events, referring to my timeline to make sure things didn’t conflict.

ALEC: Yes – I think that’s what helps create verisimilitude. Just having an info-dump that explains everything just as it actually is isn’t very realistic. Every character has their particular background and knowledge base.

JONATHAN: People are mostly ignorant in the real-world. They may know a lot about a few aspects of their most immediate surroundings, but there are thick blinders elsewhere, especially for people that don’t travel much (this is modern day, I’m talking about). It only made sense to me to apply that to the fiction.

PHIL: Yeah, you spend any amount of time reading our real world history and you quickly pick up on the fact that official accounts are written by the victors, and often are little more than PR. So that becomes a really fun facet to play with: what’s real, what’s fabricated, and who is invested in keeping the truth hidden? What happens when that truth starts to come out, and how does that affect things?

ALEC: Mr. French laying it out better than I did.

FF: One of the biggest parts of many fantasy worlds is magic. How did you create your magic systems, and how do they fit in your world? Do you like scarcity of magic? Or lots of it?

ALEC: I’ve seen magic done in so many ways and I’ve appreciated most of them. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of ‘mechanistic magic’ where the rules are so rigid that sorcery becomes almost like a science. I like magic to be wild and mysterious.

JONATHAN: Bastards (genre-wise) falls in this place between epic fantasy and swords and sorcery. The races are more epic, the magic less so. I wanted to strike this Robert E Howard approach; magic is known, but rarely seen and not trusted. For the magic that is seen, I purposefully tried to avoid a set system. I wanted readers to not be able to pin down exactly how stuff was working. When it comes to Crafty, there is (hopefully) a sense that what he’s doing could be simple alchemy . . . but maybe not.

PHIL: Magic systems have become a really big deal these days. Are you going to go hard or soft? Treat it like a science, or allow it to be vague and atmospheric? Sanderson’s created a real vogue for ‘hard’ magic, and his sales seem to indicate that people really enjoy that approach. I actually spent a lot of time wrestling with how I wanted magic to work in my world, but in the end wanted magic to speak to the fundamental concerns of my setting. I wanted my magic to feel really native to my world, to further the plot and create as many questions as it answered.

FF: Speaking of Sanderson, are there any worlds or authors which have influenced the way you think about worldbuilding?

JONATHAN: My influences are: Robert E Howard, Guy Gavriel Kay, Lloyd Alexander, and Tad Williams.

PHIL: Gemmell showed me that you can write amazing fantasy tales without going nuts with your worldbuilding. People come for the characters, and if they fall in love with them they get invested in the worldbuilding. Gemmell really helped me get that order of priorities straight. GRRM was a big influence in that I spent a lot of time studying how he introduced his world building. I actually downloaded a text version of his first book and went through it, highlighting any and all worldbuilding. I’d then zoom out so I could see like thirty pages at once on my screen, and would look at the patterns of yellow to see how much he revealed and when.

FF: That’s brilliant.

Perdido Street Station (cover)PHIL: It’s hard to tease out your influences. Miéville’s Bas-Lag had a huge impact on me, as did M John Harrison’s Viriconium series – and his disdain for the TSR worldbuilding that I love. I was really taken by Feist and Wurts’ Empire setting, as it was my first introduction to what seemed an ‘alien’ world that I loved. Tolkien and Kay of course were foundational, and Vance showed me that you don’t have to take your setting so seriously, that being wry and letting your imagination run riot can be hugely rewarding. I could go on, but yeah.

ALEC: Martin changed my life when I plucked his book off the shelf at random in 1996. He created a vibrant, grounded land within a larger world full of rich cultures; he alluded to vast mysteries and rich histories that let the reader’s imaginations wander far from what was actually explored . . . . who hasn’t read ‘Asshai by the Shadow’ and wondered what that meant? You can actually see that a lot in his short work, as well, like “In The House of the Worm” or “The Stone City”. His approach to constructing a world and infusing it with a sense of mystery and wonder has really been what’s guided me.

ALEC: Bas-Lag has also been a huge influence. Miéville can with a throwaway line create a world I’m dying to explore. The zombie factories of High Cromlech? The Witchocracy of the Firewater Straits? Take me there, please!

FF: When building individual cultures, do you use real-world cultures as your basis? Or build from the ground up?

JONATHAN: Culture origins are a weird chimera for me. At some point I could probably have outlined how it all came to be, but I find that after 2+ years of plotting and writing, most of the process has just melted away from my memory.

The Crimson Queen (cover)ALEC: I use real-world cultures. Maybe for my next series I’ll try to be a bit more ambitious.

PHIL: I think it’s really hard to avoid real world analogs, but I tried to create mine from the premises I established with the geography and magic of my setting. What would a subterranean slave culture look like? How would they divide their days without sunlight? How would their overseers control them? What would their relationship be to a religion that cast them at the very bottom of the ladder?

I did however model Aletheian culture pretty directly on the Heian Japanese court of the 11th Century. It fit so perfectly with what I was striving for. Ennoians were hugely influenced by 13th Century France, and the code of chivalry that sought to explain how Christians could be sanctioned to chop each other up. Agerastos had Constantinople influences . . . so yeah. Real world analogs are hard to avoid, but I think the trick is to not simply lift them wholesale, but rather allow the logic of your fantasy setting to inform how you interpret them so as to make them unique to your world.

ALEC: I have a question: I was wondering – for all of you – do you have copious amounts of notes regarding your world, or do you have just a few major names and facts written down, or do you keep it all up in your head and in the book as you write?

JONATHAN: Mostly my stuff just percolates in my head, but I keep brainstorming notes. They are far from copious.

PHIL: I kind of journal my way through worldbuilding. Like, I have a conversation with myself on the page, and talk myself through the creation process, starting with a premise and then following its consequences down the rabbit hole. I’ll open a new doc for each major place, and explore it there, figuring out just enough to feel grounded and ready to explore it on the page.

FF: I was blown away by the depth of culture development for Alethia.

PHIL: Heian Japan was utterly fascinating. The world of the Shining Prince! Where a man’s worth was measured by his ability to mix a fine perfume or come up with a poem on the fly, and not by how well he swung a sword.

PHIL: I’ve got a question for you guys! What’s one bit of worldbuilding that you’re particularly happy/proud of? Something you sat back after creating/describing, no matter how small, and thought: heck yeah, that’s awesome and all me.

JONATHAN: Most of mine were in my other series (The Autumn’s Fall Saga *cough* shameless plug *cough*). But since Bastards is the topic, I’ll say the mongrel bloodlines made me pretty proud. The eureka moment that half-orc males are sterile and how that would affect everything about their culture was huge. That interplay allowed for the creation of thricebloods and frailings, which was a fun thing to explore. I was also really happy with my invented slang, but most of those can’t be politely uttered.

ALEC: Ergh. That’s a tough question. Let me get back to you. I have to say I liked the idea of the Fists, five slave warrior brothers from different mothers who are born at the same moment and share a psychic bond. They are considered the finest bodyguards of my world. I loved how the Fists fighting style was based on Demian’s clan!

JONATHAN: Oh, nice

ALEC: Sounds better in the book, ha!

PHIL: Sounds very cool.

FF: How about you, Phil?

PHIL: I’m pretty happy with how I envisioned the way trolls think/commune with the mountains. Also the layout of Abythos – I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a dragon-proof castle, and was pretty satisfied with the result.

FF: I loved the way the Trolls communed with the mountains. It made me so sad the way they were used.

JONATHAN: Ok, my question: what premise do you feel you will never be able to accomplish? Mine is anything related to feudal Japan/samurai. I love that stuff, but don’t think I could ever do it justice, even in a fantasy analogue.

PHIL: I’d love to be able to write a nautical themed series a la Master and Commander. But I’m utterly defeated by the rigging and ropes/sheets and technical stuff. No matter how much research I did, I’m sure I’d still flub it.

FF: And one last question on my part: worldbuilding surprises and twists. Do you have any that we can expect in your worlds?

JONATHAN: Many twists to come in the Lot Lands. Count on it.

PHIL: My series is finished! All the twists are now there on the page.

ALEC: Yes, I have to say I don’t think I could write convincingly about a culture analogous to an Earth culture without a really deep understanding of it. I feel confident when writing about Europe during the Middle Ages or the Classical Era, but I couldn’t write a book set in a world similar to Africa or India, for example.

PHIL: Alec, do you feel like you’re getting closer to understanding Chinese culture?

ALEC: The Shan in my book are based off of Tang dynasty China, but I’ve lived in China for over ten years. Yes . . . to a degree. I’ll never have the intimate understanding that comes from being born Chinese, but I feel fairly confident I can at least do a reasonable job having been exposed to so much here.

FF: Thank you so much for participating in this round table. It was enlightening to see what all goes into your worldbuilding process.

Worldbuilding by Mac

Title image by Mac.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Adam Weller says:

    Great conversation. Easily three of my favorite authors and book series I’ve read this year. Interesting to hear how deep their influences run, and how much they can let fly off-the-cuff. Very much looking forward to the Crimson Queen and Grey Bastards sequels.

    “For me, TSR defined fantasy more than Tolkien.”
    ^^ This x1000
    Every time I was able to afford a new manual, I spent countless hours poring over every description, creating new maps with graph paper pads, and running single-player campaigns against myself to play through the modules. New TSR books & Dragon magazine were like all eight nights of Chanukah rolled into one.

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