Perspectives On Worldbuilding

This month I had the opportunity to go to a lovely event by the Aspen Institute in NYC on fantasy worldbuilding. At the event, three impressive authors (Hannah Tinti, Mark Tompkins, and Lev Grossman) all talked about how they go about world building and what works best for their method. While there, I managed to take some notes about each individual author’s style and write down some of their insight as I think it bears repeating for authors and readers alike. Below are some of their comments and ideas by author.

Hannah Tinti – author of The Good Thief

  • I like to work backward from an ending and ask “What do you need?”. To me it’s always about the spectacular finale and then building the steps I need to get there.
  • Think of it as making a recipe for a delicious meal. There are key elements you need at each part of the story to be mixed with different techniques to get your final product to come out how you want it.
  • The biggest enemy of a writer’s world is boredom. I like to follow the steps I lay out earlier and then take measures to make sure to combat boredom at every step of the way. If you are bored writing it, the reader will be bored reading it.
    • When I need to alleviate boredom, I like to ask “What is the single most unexpected thing that can happen right now?”.
    • This often has elements of randomness in it that can be hard to explain, but after coming up with an idea the challenge then becomes how to execute it while still staying within the realm of believability.

Mark Tompkin – author of The Last Days of Magic

  • As I work mostly in historical fiction, my starting point is often “what if a legend/myth were true?”
  • From this starting point I like to delicately map out how truth in legend would change history and the trickle down effects of certain fantastical events. Sometimes the change can be negligible or minor, other times it can alter the course of history.
  • The beautiful thing about history is that in some places there are these gaps of time where we have little to know record that you can fill with whatever fills your imagination. It is much easier to work with because there is not text to point to and say “that’s not how it happened”.
  • Look through actual history for interesting plot points. History reads like a really weird book with strange twists and turns and often times what actually happened doesn’t make complete sense.
  • A large part of building a world and magic is not defining what your characters can do, as much as it is what they can’t. Limitations on powers and magic lend credibility to worlds and make them more believable, and it establishes boundaries so readers do not feel like you pull twists out of a hat.
  • A beautiful, but lazy, element of writing is that readers will do a lot of the work for you. You do not need to be exacting and precise with every description of everything, as in many cases readers are more than willing to fill in the detail for you and ascribe the credit to you. You just need to make sure you give them enough to do so.
  • These days you can count on your audience to be readers of fantasy and to have a certain amount of fantasy of works behind them that they have read. This allows you to use tropes if you want to to flesh out your world. New writers have it easy as each year the average fantasy reader has a deeper pool of knowledge to pull from.

Lev Grossman – author of The Magicians

  • As Mark said, when building a world it is more about what can’t you do than what can you. Where are the boundaries and how do you keep surprising readers without ever breaking the rules you establish.
  • My inspiration for fantasy was Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as it truly shows that you can achieve great work while writing in the fantasy genre.
  • For me, it is about making fantasy as real as possible. It is about blurring the line between fiction and fantasy and creating a work that is hard to classify in either.
  • I use lessons I learn from modernist writers in the fiction genre and a transplant their ideas to the fantasy to make something different.
  • It is about using tiny details as building blocks to create a larger and more impressive world. Start with the small things and let them build momentum until your world is living and breathing.
  • The reader is the actual world builder. They are going to do the work of assembling your world in their head. Your job as the writer is simply to supply them with the best building material possible and to give them a blueprint they can follow so their end result has the functionality you need for your story.
  • My personal style is to take fantasy that already exists, like Narnia, and inflect, alter, and degrade it until I get something completely new.
  • My personal favorite is to take existing material that is pure, and add a new element to see how it changes. For example, I was very curious to see how adding “fuck” as a word my characters said changed the impact of a fantasy story, and I loved the new result that emerged.
  • Another thing I love to explore in my worldbuilding is the existence of pop culture within pop culture. It always struck me as strange that Harry Potter was stuck in a staircase for a decade and didn’t read any fantasy books for escapism. No one would enjoy reading a Harry Potter book more than Harry Potter.
  • Everything doesn’t have to make perfect sense, you are writing fantasy, you just need to make sure you rationalize it on some level to your reader.
  • Books are not like a movie where you have a scene where you can see everything. Books are more like a man in a dark room with a flashlight. You can only see a very narrow scope at any one time, and you need to make sure that what is illuminated is compelling and makes sense to tell the full story.
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