Today’s guest post is by my friend and fellow writer, Anna Staniszewski. Anna writes young adult and middle grade fantasy and teaches writing and children’s literature at Simmons College. She was the Children’s Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library in 2006, and she also maintains a great blog filled with advice on the craft of writing.
World-Building Through Character
One of the main things you hear about writing fantasy is that you have to spend a lot of time world-building, i.e. creating the rules and characteristics of your fictional world in order to make it vivid and believable. In her wonderful essay on world-building, Holly Lisle gives this important bit of advice: “Build as you go.” I would take this one step further and say: Build as you go, allowing your characters to lead you.
Who has the power in this world and where does your character stand in relation to that power? Is she a queen who is expected to lead her people into war to defend an ancient tradition? Or is he a peasant who isn’t allowed to enter the palace? Once you know where your characters fit into the social hierarchy, you’ll have a clearer sense of the restrictions and expectations that shape their lives.
What threatens your character’s security? What would put him in danger? Perhaps the peasant boy mentioned above has a sister who’s disappeared; he has no choice but to go into the palace looking for her. Where will he be taken after he’s caught? And what happens to law-breakers in this world?
Does your character have any abilities or traits that give him an advantage in this world? What if the peasant boy can sometimes see flashes of the future? In one of these flashes, he sees the outcome of the queen’s impending war. He uses the information from his vision to buy his freedom and to find his sister.
When magic is introduced into fantasy with no clear rules about how it works, it can be frustrating to the reader. How come the boy’s vision warned him about the queen’s war but not about his sister’s disappearance? Perhaps the visions only come when he’s frightened, or the visions might be so vague that he can only guess at their meaning. Whatever the reason, it needs to be consistent throughout the story so that we understand when the magic works and when it doesn’t.
Not only does magic have to adhere to strict rules, it needs to come with a price, e.g. every time the boy has a vision, it drains him of his strength. The greater the price for using magic, the more difficult the character’s struggle will be. What if the boy is the only person in the kingdom who has visions? Not only are there physical consequences for using the magic, there are also social ones. The boy knows others will use him for his ability so he’s kept it hidden, but when his sister disappears, he’s forced to divulge his secret.
Ultimately, world-building should give us a realistic sense of the story’s setting as well as help shape the story itself. In this unique world, the characters go up against obstacles that can only be found here. The story becomes a blend of character and place, so that the world helps to propel the action forward and to define what your characters must do in order to succeed.
Anna, thank you for a great post. The details about “consequences” were particularly relevatory for me, in thinking about revising my Nanowrimo project. Thank you!