Just like the classic riddle of which comes first—the chicken or the egg, fantasy authors are also apt to argue, which comes first—the world or the characters. I’m firmly in the characters first, world second category. When I write, I start with a character and a situation and then the world develops from there.
For example, the world of Ixia began when I sparked on the idea of having a food taster as a main character. In my mind, I saw a woman about to taste food that was most likely poisoned through the eyes of the King. He watched her with heartbreaking horror because he had fallen in love with her. That led me to wonder about this woman. Who was she? Why was she there? Why would a King fall in love with her? Answering those and many other questions formed the world.
For my first novel, Poison Study, I did some research on military dictators, but I actually relied on my twelve years of attending Catholic school to develop Ixia! Researching other cultures, religions, animal behaviours, and history can spark ideas for interesting fantasy worlds or provide those little details that really bring a world to life. Also reading as many fantasy books as possible will teach you what’s been done before and what’s been done to death. For example, there are a ton of books out there with monarchs. In order to be different, I swapped the King for a military dictator for Poison Study.
Traveling has certainly given me ideas for my fantasy worlds. When I started writing my Healer Series, I needed to have a world map right away because I knew the characters would be traveling in the opening chapters. I had just returned from a Baltic Sea cruise and was inspired by Poland and Latvia. I printed a map of Eastern Europe, turned it 90 degrees to the right and traced out the countries to use as the Fifteen Realms.
I’m definitely one of those seat-of-the-pants writers and the same can be said of my world building. I show the world through the eyes of the characters. They all have goals and are actively working to achieve those goals. The obstacles that get in their way can be other characters, but they can also be the terrain, the weather, the government’s regulations, religious leaders, cultural expectations, etc… As they deal with those problems, the world is revealed to the readers.
I avoid writing paragraph after paragraph of description about the world. Instead, I strive to show the characters moving through the world and interacting with it. I include only those details or a bit of history if it’s absolutely necessary to the advancement of the plot or to show characterization and I leave the rest to my reader’s imagination. However, I’m not writing epic fantasy. In that case, the fans love all those details and history and world becomes one of the characters in the story.
Just like there is no right answer to the age old question of chickens verses eggs, there is no right or wrong way to build a fantasy world. However, if you find you’re spending all your time creating your world and not writing your story, then all you’ll end up with is a great big goose egg (American slang for “nothing” ;).
Night Study by Maria V Snyder is out now (MIRA ink, £7.99) Available to buy from Amazon