Friday 27 June 2014

Creating Worlds

by Jeanette O'Hagan

Mountain Moon Rise by Jeanette O'Hagan (c 2013)
One Hundred Acre Woods, Never Land, Avonlea, Narnia, Hogwarts, Middlearth ... these are all places that have delighted countless children – and let’s admit it – adults, filling them with wonder and whimsy. 

For me one of the joys of reading is being transported to another place and time.  It might be across the universe in a FTL spaceship or a Blue Police box. It might be back in time to encounter ancient or not so ancient societies and cultures (Victorian, Medieval, Roman, Chinese or Incan) or perhaps to a strange technological or dystopic future. Or it might be the streets of New York or Sydney, the vast Australian Outback or the green hills of England. Books have whisked me away to all these places – and more, many more.

And, one of the joys of writing is in creating my own world.

In Maps of Fictional Worlds, Austin Kleon says ‘every tale has a setting, every tale creates a world in the reader’s mind’

I write fantasy and have the freedom to create my own world from the ground up, but all authors are world builders to a greater or lesser extent - Austen’s Pemberley, Elliot’s Middlemarch, Dickens’ Bleak House, Anne’s House of Dreams or Rose Dee’s Resolution Island. Realistic writers create houses, streets, neighbourhoods, cities. Historical writers recreate the past, populating it with a mixture of historical and fictional people. Science fiction writers imagine a possible future whether near or far or an alternative reality while fantasy writers allow their imaginations to roam.

As Neil Gaiman says ‘Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been.’  And sometimes it can show you the place you have lived your whole life with different eyes.

Even the most fantastical world draws inspiration from our world. And in that sense, writers walk in the steps of our own Maker who spoke the world into being. Somehow I find this thought both inspiring and very, very humbling.

What does it take to build a fictional world – apart from heaps of imagination? What things does the writer need to think about?

  • The world is complex, dynamic and interactive. History, geography, ecology, societies all interact, are rarely monolithic and are usually in flux. Altering one thing can have significant effects with ongoing ramifications – as our own histories show with say, the introduction of prickly pear in Queensland in mid 18th century.  
  •  The world needs to be consistent and coherent – even in a magical world, the magic has rules which the author establishes and must follow. Any exceptions need to be foreshadowed well before they are pulled out of the box to save the day.
  • Think beyond the surface to how the world works  – what infrastructure and economies support its societies, who does what, what motivates its characters, what are its conflicts and power struggles?
  •  Make maps, draw buildings, make notes, keep journals, collect images, facts, artefacts, mine history and other cultures for ideas, ask questions and daydream to your heart’s content.
  • Describe not only what the world looks like – but its sounds, textures, smells, the ambiance, cadences and rhythms. Describe the big features but don’t forget the little things, the everyday things – what people eat, the little rituals and gestures.
  •  Beware of dumping huge slabs of description and information or going off on tangents. Ernest Hemingway proposes the ‘Iceberg Theory’ in which the author knows much more information about the setting and characters than he or she uses, as he says, ‘The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.’  And as Charlie Jane Anders indicates even small descriptive elements (Heinlein's‘the door dilated’) can convey a wealth of knowledge.
  • Don’t allow the worldbuilding to overwhelm the plot or the characters. Use what is relevant to the story (to the plot but also to characterisation, mood etc). Incorporate it into your dialogue and action.  Show the world from the perspective of the characters –  as Malinda Lo says ‘of their lived experience of being in that place.’
  • Some writers build their world in great detail before writing the first word of their story (a top down approach) while others plunge into the narrative with the details emerging from the story telling (a bottom up approach). A different slant to the planners versus pantsters debate. A potential problem with the first approach can be that the writer becomes so immersed in world building that they never actually start writing the story (Tolkien almost succumbed to this). In the second approach, where the rules and properties of the world are created on the fly, it can be hard to be consistent or one can suddenly find that a particular detail that seemed cool in chapter 2 or Book One causes all sorts of bother in chapter 35 or Book Three. I, like many writers, do a combination of both – perhaps establishing the big picture elements at the beginning and then painting in the smaller details as one writes. And one can always back track (as long as the earlier books are not yet published).
  • Avoid stereotypes and clich├ęs
  • Don’t forget to have fun

 ‘If fiction begins in daydream ... it ends, if it is good fiction and we are good readers, by returning us to the world and to ourselves. It reconciles us with reality.’Robert Penn Warren

Fictional worlds, even fantasy ones, are reflections and refractions of our own world. They help us escape for a time into another place, they help us see our own world through other eyes but they also help us explore the meaning and contingencies of our own lives and selves.

What are your favourite fictional worlds? What have you learnt from your forays into their pages? Which ones would you most like to visit in ‘real life’ if that were possible? What do you enjoy – as a reader or as a writer - about world building?

Jeanette has practiced medicine and taught theology. She is currently caring for her children, enjoying post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad fantasy fiction series. She is actively involved in a caring Christian community. 

You can find her at


  1. Lots of food for thought in this post, Jeanette--thanks for all your excellent tips. Re my favourite fictional world I might like to visit, since I am currently immersed in reading some of Elizabeth Goudge's beautiful books set in old English, cathedral towns ('The Dean's Watch', 'A City of Bells'), I'd probably choose one of those, but the Channel Islands, particularly Guernsey, that she also writes about in 'Island Magic' and her autobiography, 'The Joy of the Snow' could also tempt me! And then, of course, there is the Prince Edward Island featured in the 'Anne' books ...

    1. Thanks Jo-Anne. Some wonderful choices - there is such a depth of history and sense of place in old English towns. And I was sure that Prince Edward Island would feature - a great favourite of many readers. Montgomery's writing is so evocative.

  2. Facinating post, Jeanette. All you writers of fantasy are simply marvellous! To actually build your own world ... amazing.( Putting your brain to such good use must surely help in staving off dementia ... one would hope.) So many details to keep in mind. I find it challenge enough writing in the Victorian Era. There were so many great inventions then but still nothing like in the 21st century, so you have to be on the lookout for 'slips'.

    I am finding now that I'm halfway between a potter and pantser. And I love that iceberg example of Hemingway. I'm working on removing slabs of description of action believing it will add to the mystery which will be discovered later.

    1. Thanks Rita. I think writing historical fiction can just as challenging as world building in fantasy. Yes, there's a lot to think about and one does need to keep things consistent but at least one doesn't have to worry to much about anachronisms - say talking about sliced bread in 1927 when it wasn't invented until 1928 for instance. I love Hemingway's analogy too.

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  4. Hi Jeanette,
    Fantasy lands are wonderful places to visit. Your post also made me think of the young Bronte siblings and the compelling fantasy worlds they constructed in their childhoods, long before any of the sisters ever wrote their classics. I admit, I wouldn't have minded finding Platform 9 and 3/4s to Hogwarts, or found the wardrobe whose back enters directly to Narnia. The fantasy worlds I've enjoyed over the last couple of months are Patrick W. Carr's Illustra, C.E. Laureano's isle of Seire and W. A. Noble's Midrash and Seddon.

    1. I agree Paula, worlds of wonder though usually not without their dangers as well. The Bronte's fantasy world sounds fascinating - C S Lewis & his brother Warren also invented an elaborate world together - Animalalia which perhaps shows up in the talking animals of Narnia. I'll join you for the Narnian excursion any day :) I can see there are some more books to put on my to-read list :)

  5. Wow! If I ever decide to write a fantasy novel I shall refer to your post! So practical, which is what I need as a (very) visual learner.

    I recently read 'The Remnant' by Lisa T Bergren, and really enjoyed the world she has created. Fantasy is truly fascinating.

    1. Thanks Andrea. I'm glad the post is practical :) I think that all writers world build to a greater or lesser extent even when recreating their local neighbourhood in their books - it comes out in the sense of place.

      The Remnants series does look interesting.

  6. Hi Jeanette, I'm with Rita is saying how in awe I am of fantasy writers. To create such detail just boggles my mind. I don't read a lot of fantasy. I think I'm put off by the fact most of them appear to be massive tomes in length. I did read one of CS Lewis' fantasy novels and didn't enjoy it.

    I find I enjoy stories that have a natural world element (ie what we know) but with another world overlaid on it in some way. So that might be the old Doctor Who stories (I haven't watched any of the more recent ones), to ones set on a future earth, to ones that have a supernatural bent.

    Thanks for sharing some of the intricacies of world-creation.

    1. Hi Ian. I've read (and enjoyed) your first book Angelguard in which you not only re-create the angelic world that overlaps our own, but give a great sense of place in at least four different places; Sydney, London, Los Angeles and France. It's not too huge a step to creating your own world :) In my own books the fantastical elements are often understated and I borrow and remix a lot from our reality and my own experiences of place. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Jeanette, excellent post! I admire writers who have the skills to effectively create an alternate world and keep track of all the details.


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