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.
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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” http://insaneangel.com/