I recently attended the Australian National Science Fiction Convention — Conflux 9 — a fabulous four days of hanging out with other writers, industry professionals and speculative fiction fans.
The convention offered many valuable panel discussions and workshops (among other things); I attended a worldbuilding session with Glenda Larke, an Australian epic fantasy author whose innovative and multi-dimensional worlds regularly garner much acclaim. As regular readers of this blog will know, worldbuilding is important to me and I thought perhaps Glenda might reveal some of her secrets.
She did! And I’m going to share some of the key points here today.
To start with, the following two points were emphasised. A successful fantasy world is dependent on two quite separate factors:
- Building the world
- Introducing the world to readers
Building the fantastical world
When creating a fantastical world, it’s essential to make it solid and believable — and give it some pizzazz. The author must know more than is revealed to the reader to give it that multi-dimensional quality, that sense the world extends beyond the immediate story.
Some authors spend a great deal of time developing a fully realised world up front, and allow the story to unfold within it. (As I have done to-date.) Glenda, on the other hand, develops her world in parallel with the story.
She said several times that one of her starting questions is “Who has the power?” and then “What do they do with it?”. Everything derives from here. She continuously adjusts the world to fit the plot, and sometimes even the map is changing right up to the final draft. The world exists to fit the story.
This doesn’t mean she skimps on the worldbuilding. But she says she doesn’t need to know everything at the beginning of the story — so long as by the end she has a comprehensive understanding.
Moreover, it’s important to identify at least one thing to make your world original, different from all the others…
As for the details, there are any number of questionnaires and worldbuilding templates available online to assist authors these days. It’s not usually necessary to fill out every single item on each list, but it can be helpful to have an idea, however roughly formed, about aspects such as economics, geography, climate, social structure and so on.
This is all assuming the fantastical world is not based directly on a particular period of our own. If that is the case, then comprehensive research from original sources is recommended.
Introducing the world to readers
Here, the key is achieving the perfect balance between what the author knows and what the reader needs to know. There’s no sense revealing irrelevant details — they’ll only bore the reader and create false expectation.
Moreover, (we all know this, but I’ll reiterate it anyway), authors must avoid the info-dump. The secret to introducing the world to readers is inserting threads of detail gradually, so the reader builds up a picture one tiny element at a time.
Some of Glenda’s tips for subtle inclusion of world detail are:
- Creating small incidents, which also convey important characterisation, plot information, etc
- Creating curse words to reflect culture
- Using calendars of festivals, religious celebrations etc
- Using unique similes and metaphors in the narrative and dialogue to convey culture and world detail
- Referring to historical and cultural events
Finally, Glenda says don’t get hung up with getting it right the first time round! She says layering and texturing of the world can take place in subsequent drafts and revisions.
And I agree — my favourite part!
Does anyone else have any worldbuilding tips? I’d love to hear thoughts on fantastical worlds. Let me know your favourite fantasy worlds and their authors too. I’m always on the lookout for great new fantasy reading experiences.
Coming up soon will be a post exploring something else I learnt at Conflux — how important it is to be prepared to talk about your work! We’ll be talking pitching and dealing with that innocent question: “What’s your novel about?”