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#LoveOzYA Writing Tips: How do you build a fantasy story world?

  • 2 October, 2020
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Elves, dragons, and witches — oh my!

Devoted YA fantasy readers are a discerning bunch. They like their magic systems cohesive, their imaginary creatures compelling, and their story worlds well-crafted.

Simple enough in theory. But where do you start in practice?

It’s a question Katya de Becerra (What The Woods Keep, Oasis) and Alicia Jasinska (The Dark Tide) recently helped flesh out at an online worldbuilding panel hosted by #LoveOzYA’s wonderful partner organisation, OzAuthors Online.

Watch the full panel here, or read on for some key tips and tricks!

Worldbuilding Tip One: Remember, story not setting should come first.

Fantasy writers and readers alike love to imagine other worlds in rich and vivid detail, right down to the shape of a character’s shoe buckle.

And while letting your imagination run free with details is part of the fun of fantasy, Katya says it’s important to remember a vital rule: story comes first.

“You can come up with a beautiful, unique world, but in the end it’s just going to be like a piece of art,” she says.

“You start with the story and then you construct the world around it.”

For Alicia, a good way to focus her creative energy in this early, world-mapping stage is to ask the question: why does the story have to take place in that world?

“If I can just pick up my plot and characters and dump them into any kind of setting, it’s not connected enough.”

Worldbuilding Tip Two: Beware the illusion-breaking metaphor!

Some words or phrases are so commonly used, we can forget that they’re recognisably part of a distinct, real culture — in Katya’s example, a character describing another person in the story as a ‘Prima Donna’.

While it may not seem do-or-die, a good fantasy manuscript will cut out these real-world slips and make sure their hardwon worldbuilding isn’t undone by the distraction.

Need another example? Think Daenerys holding that Starbucks cup.

Worldbuilding Tip Three: Craft elements of the worldbuilding around your story’s key themes.

When it came to inventing the magic system for The Dark Tide, Alicia says she wanted to make sure it reflected the book’s key theme of sacrifice.

So, with that in mind, she embedded the idea of sacrifice in the act of magic in the story: witches have to give up locks of hair, drops of blood, even teeth, to be able to cast a spell.

Taking time to weave your story world details out of your theme will make your own fantasy realm richer, more cohesive, and ideally, more original.

“I just like everything to tie back to the main kind of theme,” Alicia says.

Worldbuilding Tip Four: Consult real-world references for areas you’re less naturally confident in.

“I’m not good at the nitty gritty,” Alicia says, citing details like a story world’s geography and trade. “I just like to write about magic (so) I kind of cheat and base my settings off a real place.”

Worldbuilding Tip Five: But, when you are looking to real-world places and cultures for inspiration, be careful not to culturally appropriate.

Katya says it can be a “fine line to walk” when it comes to drawing inspiration for a fantasy world by looking at cultural elements of the real one.

Before you take any real-world elements and put them in your story, she says to ask yourself: “What is your stake in this world?”

Likewise, Alicia agrees that writers should closely scrutinise their rationale for using real-world cultures as a worldbuilding base, and says two other questions should also be considered: “Am I the right person to be telling this story?” and “Are you taking up someone else’s spot (by writing about it)?”

Written by #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios


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