Thursday, August 23, 2012

Guest Post by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

I’m a self-proclaimed fantasist. I’m a writer and editor working almost exclusively in fantasy and speculative fiction, and those are the genre traditions that have shaped my creativity all my life. I cut my childhood reader’s teeth on Carl Barks’ Disney duck tales and the “Tarzan” of Russ Manning and Joe Kubert, and on “Batman” and “The Legion of Superheroes,” on Tolkien and Lewis, Silverberg and Heinlein. I’m a person who spent most of his time in high school doing an unofficial course of self-directed study in imaginative literature, courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, Robert E. Howard and Larry Niven, and so many others. And though I love mainstream and “real” literature just as much as I love fantasy and SF, and though I’ve written mostly mainstream stories in my work as a screenwriter, I’m drawn to fantasy first and foremost in my prose fiction for one simple reason:

Fantasy is all about building worlds, and I loves me the world building.

There are two broad approaches to world building, I think. On the one hand, you can take a kind of freeform approach where the laws and foundations of a fantasy world arise entirely out of the storytelling. This is a type of writing where the story and the characters are the primary focus, and the world shapes itself according to whatever makes the characters and the story work best. In this type of writing, the formal act of world building sometimes doesn’t happen until the story is actually done, whereupon a writer goes back and sketches out the broader rules and tropes of the fantasy world in a way that supports what the story is doing. As a broad example, an author might not have a strong initial sense of how magic should work in a fantasy world. But then in the course of the writing, it becomes clear that the character story is best served by magic being rare and potentially deadly to those who wield it. As the story comes together, it then falls to the writer to figure out why magic is rare and deadly, but those decisions follow from the character story.

At the other end of the creative spectrum is the process in which the world building comes first. Some writers like to have the rules of the world firmly laid down even before the first bits of plot and character story are sketched out. As a broad counterexample to the above, an author might lay down a concrete framework for how magic works and how characters interact with it with no real sense of how those characters will be doing so. Then as the plot and character story develop, the rules of the world-building framework become a big part of what pushes the character story, inflexibly and dogmatically determining what the characters can and can’t do.

I had designs on being a writer from an early age. En route to the point in my life when I was first comfortable actually calling myself a writer, I engaged in a lot of activities that involved the application of fictional paradigms to alternate modes of creativity. That’s a kind of intentionally over-the-top highbrow way of saying, “When I was younger, I spent a lot of time playing roleplaying games.” These days, a lot of years later, I spend a fair bit of time working on roleplaying games as a freelance editor and designer for Wizards of the Coast (publishers of Dungeons & Dragons), alongside writing my own stuff, story editing and script consulting for film, and editing fiction. As such, I spend a lot of time working in a fictional world where a rigid rule set defines the “story,” and it would be easy to say that my own approach to world building cleaves firmly to a “rules first, character second” approach as a result. However, the truth is a little more complicated.

I like a starting point to my fiction that’s tied down firmly by rules. I like the idea of consistency in fantasy worlds. I like the idea that magic works the same way for everyone in a fantasy world, and thus should be theoretically accessible to everyone in some way — not just the exclusive province of a small number of extremely powerful background characters. I like the idea that the rules of magic should be consistent across an entire fictional milieu, and that a book should reflect some sense of how magic works in the world, not just offer up a lot of soft description. I like the idea that whatever historical and cultural underpinnings are used in the foundations of a fantasy world should create rigid expectations for how characters live their lives, as determined by their social standing, their culture, their creed, or what have you. I like the idea that in worlds with magic, magic should inflect every part of the world and its culture, not just show up when it’s convenient to the storytelling.

As such, my own process has always been to lay down the rules of the world first. My fantasy fiction takes place in a shared-world milieu called the Endlands, which actually takes as its starting point a variant version of the rules of the D&D “world” that should look familiar to anyone who’s ever played the game. And I think that the first mode of world building mentioned above (creating the rules of the world in response to character story) is fine, and can be used to great effect. But the risk inherent in that approach is of inadvertently creating a world that’s too custom-tailored to the needs of the characters, and which thus misses out on the opportunity to layer in the conflict and obstacles that all character story is built on.

Once all the rigid rules are laid down, I don’t view them as limitations to character story. I see them as challenges to be overcome as a writer, running in parallel to the way the challenges of the world need to be overcome by the characters themselves. With those rules in place, I get to make use of the greatest freedom given to any writer — the need and wherewithal to flip the finger to the rules in the name of story. In broadest Fiction 101 terms, the most interesting aspects of any fictional world are those that set up the roadblocks preventing the characters from too easily attaining their dramatic goals. At the end of the day, all the rules laid down in fiction exist on some level to screw the characters around — and it’s the job of the characters and the writer to break those rules any way we can.

• • •

Scott Fitzgerald Gray has been flogging his imagination professionally since deciding he wanted to be a writer and abandoning any hope of a real career in about the fourth grade. That was the year that speculative fiction and fantasy kindled his voracious appetite for literary escapism and a love of roleplaying gaming that still drives his questionable creativity. In addition to his fantasy and speculative fiction writing, Scott has dabbled in feature film and television, was a finalist for the Jim Burt Screenwriting Prize from the Writers’ Guild of Canada, and currently consults and story edits on projects ranging from overly obscure indie-Canadian fare to Neill Blomkamp’s somewhat less-obscure “District 9” and the upcoming “Elysium”.

Scott’s latest novel is the high-school coming-of-age techno-thriller “We Can Be Heroes”]. The world of the Endlands can be sampled in most of Scott’s other books, including the “Tales of the Endlands” series of shorts [], and the anthology “A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales” [].


  1. I build the world first, then populate it with characters, but there are others that do the other method as you've described, Scott. However, I don't hammer out every minor world detail, just a solid line so that I am consistent and don't write myself into a corner.

    Interesting post. :)

  2. Thanks, Terry. As with all things, i think the best approach is always the one that works for whoever’s using it. :-) It’s just an interesting analysis for me because of the amount of time i spend working in other people’s worlds as an editor, and even comparing the similarities and differences between world building as a writer and as a gamer.

    Thanks also to Scott for the guest-post slot, and the topic suggestion.

    1. I always find the different methods that people use in their writing to be interesting. I'm not sure that I will ever write anything myself (doubt it), but it is still kind of fascinating to me. Probably since I have been an avid reader since I can remember and always get excited to find new authors. It's a way of getting a glimpse into the world of writing.

      Anything I can do to help out Scott.

  3. For me? Novels = freeform. Screenplays = structure, structure, structure ... that is how I roll!

    Great post!


    1. Thanks for stopping by madebymeghan, glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Fascinating post. I'm definitely what they call a "pantser" - I've found that trying to structure a story or world means it dies around page 20 - and I love seeing how the other half do it.

    1. When you said "pantser" I was thinking of someone who randomly pulls other people pants down lol. I figured out what you meant by the end of the comment though. Things are special in my head sometimes, must have been the story about you tackling a guy teaching you how to joust.