The Plight of the Pen-Wielding Demi-God: To World-Build or Not to World-Build

A lot of people who read fantasy but don’t write it often comment to me about how amazingly difficult it must be to build an entire world.  They regard we authors as something akin to pen-wielding demi-gods who can erect mountains and islands, create kingdoms and races, and write entire histories for a world and then proceed to tell a story in it.

"What did I do today? Oh nothing much, just built a WORLD with my PEN!"

Sounds impressive, right?  Well, yes, it kind of is, if I do say so myself.

The easier choice, then, would be to write urban fantasy, which is a fantasy novel that takes place in this world.  Take the streets of London, add a few werewolves, a pixie, and a very annoyed goblin and you have yourself the makings of an interesting urban fantasy novel with a premade setting that only needs a few tweaks.  Well… more than a few.

You might be surprised then to know that when I think about writing in a fantasy world and writing in this world, I never think about fantasy world-building as the tougher option and I always cringe away from writing a story that takes place in this world.  To my mind, it is much harder.

Of course, being so very sensible, I chose this world as the setting for my first real, full length, honest to goodness, hopefully someday to be published by Lantern Hollow Press fantasy novel.  That’s just because I like to challenge myself.


As I continue to work on my novel in which our mundane world gains a supernatural twist (faeries, in this case), I have begun to notice all the different complications that inevitably arise when an author bases a novel in this world.  I now long ardently for a fantasy world of my own, where I make the rules.

That’s the thing.  When you write a fantasy novel, you begin with a completely blank slate.  I can do anything I want, pretty much.  If I so choose, my hero can be a talking duck named Pumpkin whose mission is to defeat the terrible Dark Goose and save aquatic fowl everywhere.

He was not a very brave duck, but Fate had heroic plans for Pumpkin...

Before you ask, no, I have not written a story about a talking duck named Pumpkin.  But I could if I wanted to.  It’s my world, after all.  The only rules are the rules of believability.  Make your world believable and people can accept it.   Making up a basic history can be as simple or as complicated as you want, as long as there’s enough there to support your story.  We’ll start with Pumpkin’s lineage…

Contrast this with the anchoring weight of the “real world” as you might call it.  Our world is filled with rules, structure, and a very well established history that can be played with, but only to a limited extent.  Everything that you write has to be fitted within the confines of this world.  Anything you change has to be explained.  This starts to get very complicated and very detailed.

One simple example that I ran into with my book is the high school system.  What’s a high school like?  Well, since I never went to one (home schooled and yes, you should be jealous), I had no idea what a high school was like besides what I’d picked up from television or the occasional book.  And those, of course, are totally accurate.  So, I have continually run into confusing little problems.

I have to keep remembering the little things, like basic school rules, technology, social interactions, and what does and does not make sense in each setting according to what I know about this world.  I can’t just change things to fit what I want to happen.

So, what it comes down to is this: With a fantasy world, you do have a lot of work building your world up from practically nothing.  You have a lot of details to pay attention to and an intimidating and awe inspiring literary hero (namely Tolkien) who has set nearly impossible standards of world creation that you will probably aspire to, at least at first.  I gave up on that one, myself.

But with our world, you have a whole new set of problems.  You have restrictions and guidelines already in place and a history and present that you have to pay attention to.  And the most tedious part is that your readers will know if you get it wrong.  And they won’t ever let you forget it.  (Do I have to know how a football game works?)

So if you’re thinking about your next novel or short story and trying to decide where to drop your characters, think twice before taking the “easy” route and sending them to our world.  It comes with a lot more baggage.

Plus, Narnia is just so much prettier!


About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on August 2, 2011, in Fantasy, Humor, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Narnia, Universes, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I write children’s books and have had trouble creating the world in a few sentences. I know that the illustrations could be used to show that but I like to let the words frame the setting. Thanks for the ideas.

  2. Are we talking, Gridiron – NFL or CFL, Soccer, Aussie Rules, Rugby League, Rugby Union? What level? Indoor or outdoor? Long or short pitch? Women’s or mens?

    I’m much happier setting my fantasy novels on other realms of existence. I get to make all the rules.

    • I wish that when you talk about “fantasy football” it was actually more appropriate for a fantasy novel. Alas, I have no idea what anything you said meant except perhaps that football can also mean “soccer”, which does in fact make more sense to me…

      PS – my main character makes it very clear what she thinks of all sports that involve weirdly shaped balls instead of weapons.

  3. I’ve sort of gone halfway with my last couple stories; I’ve technically set it in our world and with an urban fantasy setting, but I kicked it way far into the future, and on the other side of a helpfully convenient world-shattering apocalypse, so I have room to skimp on the rules a bit. After all, if a character gets an Earth reference wrong, hey, that was thousands of years in the past. and then you can get all sorts of wordcount from the other characters correcting their reference….:P

    • My excuse is that my character was also homeschooled and more used to combat training in Russia than normal high school experiences, so she is generally bewildered by everything. But I still have to get things right, alas!

  4. Hooray a fellow homeschooler! Yes I have this problem too. I gave up on trying to create urban fantasies in our world a long time ago. If I make them in our world I always either make it post apocalyptic or pre-known civilization.Or one could simply take the Diana Wynn Jones route and make alternate realities, where you can keep anything you like and change anything you don’t.

    • That is a good way to get around it (I just read the Hunger Games as an example of that). Unfortunately, futuristic books are too much like sci-fi for me to feel comfortable there either, and historical ones have too much, well, history, which I also have to know. What I DO like is alternative realities, such as Jones’ books, which are fun, and alternative histories, such as Novak’s Temeraire books. Good stuff, that! Not my forte, but very cool.

  5. Cartoon on my bulletin board: Foxtrot kids: “Third and long, my wizard takes the snap.” Reply: “My cave trolls blitz.” Response: “My wood elf runs a deep post pattern while my hobbits go short.” Older brother: “That’s not how fantasy football is played.” Kids: “Sez you!”

  6. Have you read Charles de Lint? I got into his work with The Onion Girl.

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