Author articles: Megan Derr on world-building in the fantasy genre

Welcome to a new feature on my blog. Which is where different authors talk about anything and everything to do with writing. Today we welcome multi-pubished author and well known for her wonderful books in the lgbtq-genre. Her book Tournament of Losers won the 2016 Rainbow Award for gay fantasy. She’s here to talk about world-building in fantasy. Let’s give the floor to Megan!


Building a Fantasy

I think it’s fairly well known in my little corner of the world that fantasy romance is my game. The first story I actually finished was pure contemporary because I figured that would be easier to do for my first try at writing a novella—and it was, but I didn’t love it, and was much happier when I finally dived into fantasy.

So how does one go about building a world from the ground up? Everyone does it a little differently, but since this is my post, I’ll obviously babble about how I do it :3 But know that if you don’t do it this way, or you find none of this works for you, that’s cool. No two authors work the same.

For the purposes of this, we’ll be discussing high fantasy, where the world is completely made up (rather than like urban fantasy, where half the work is done because it’s set in the ‘real’ world, or historical fantasy, which is something else again and not what I do anyway).

So let’s get to it  

The first step, honestly, is not to think about it too hard. The more you sit there and go ‘I need this and this and this and this and this’ the more overwhelmed and intimidated you are going to get. Or, and I see this happen a LOT, you are going to get so caught up in the building that you have 500 pages on how the economy of your fantasy land works but no real story.

Some of my stories start with the characters. Some of them start with the world.

The King’s Harem started with the world, more or less. I wanted to write about a place where harems were an important element of royal life, where the king had an all-male harem, the queen an all-female one. Which meant I needed a reason that would be so. Since bloodlines are usually an important thing in royal/noble families, I decided it would be extremely taboo to ever sleep with something of the ‘opposite’ (in the sense that at the time I wrote KH and Sandstorm, I sadly did not think of things like trans/gq/etc.) gender save for within marriage. It’s all right for men to sleep with other men before they’re married, but after marriage the only person they sleep with is their wife. Which means the harems become status symbols for the royal family.

And all the rest of the world spun out from that, and eventually I started to sort out the characters. I chose a middle eastern-style setting because that’s the most popular choice for harem stories and I wanted to work with the common tropes and clichés of those stories and see what I could do with them.

Counter that with The High King’s Golden Tongue, where I actually began with a prompt/characters. The key elements there were a soldier king still mourning his husband, and his new politician husband. High King of course implies an empire, which meant language problems, which one) gave me a title; and two) gave me several strong elements of the culture (language is a problem, translators are important, there is an overarching culture in the form of the High Court but also each kingdom is its own thing), which in turn led to other elements.

It gets messy fast. But just the languages and culture clashes ideas led to things like the idea of sires/dames, that transgender people are an everyday facet of the culture (queer people in general, but the trans element especially was important to me in the long version – I left it out of the short version, I think).

But an important thing to remember in all this craziness is that you should never entirely create a cultural component around a character. Allen inspired the idea of silver tongues, but after the idea came up, I made up the rules and wrote him around that. I create the world element and then make the characters deal with it. I don’t come across a problem, create a convenient cultural loophole, and go on.

A prime example of this is geography. I always draw my maps blindly, long before I have any real idea what kind of geography I’ll need. Sometimes I already know I need a city on the coast, or something small, but I draw the map and force the story/characters to deal with it. Only once was I ever forced to slightly alter a map (in Engineered Throne, I don’t remember why now).

There’s a tendency in mainstream fantasy, or at least it’s mainstream fantasy I mostly think of, to go on and on and on for pages about the worldbuilding. I remember I quit a story once because literally the author spent five pages describing the city the characters inhabited (that was probably going to be destroyed in another ten pages…). It’s important to remember that with fantasy, everything is from scratch, so the reader has a lot to remember on top of names/places/plot details. There is no reason to spend six paragraphs describing the economy when a sentence or two of exposition or dialogue will cover the key points that are all the reader needs.

If you’re ever in doubt about whether you’ve tipped into info-dumping, read it aloud to yourself (or have someone else read it aloud if you’re braver than me) and see how quickly you get bored/confused/other.

It’s the little things that build a world: what do they wear (be briefer than me, I have a weakness for clothes and tend to go overboard in describing them ^^), what do they eat, how do they cuss?

Cussing is a great way to show elements of the culture. Who do they worship? How would that reflect in their epithets and such? One of my favorites of any book I’ve written is “Winter’s Tits!” from Prisoner (and this is definitely the fan favorite as well). That tells you quite a bit—that Winter is more than just a season, that she is regarded as a woman, and if it’s used as a crudity when stubbing a toe or something, probably women don’t walk around bare-chested much.

Also they’re fun. People like little things like that. Jokes, cusswords, slang—these go a lot further in establishing a culture/world than a six-page history lecture.

But back to High King. My starting point for that was medieval India. Obviously I am not writing fantasy India (if you want that, man read The Star-touched Queen _), but it gave me a model and made things less overwhelming for me and also easier on the reader. If I tell you one of their meals is curry, you immediately get a vibe that otherwise would take me pages to convey not even a tenth as well. Like I said, it’s the little things that build a world best.

Another great trick for determining whether or not an element is necessary or info-dumping is to take it out, add just a sentence or two, and see how it does. Too often what I need to know is not the same as what the reader needs to know. Somewhat like in teaching, the professor should know way more than the students to teach a solid class. Inundating the students just guarantees they stop showing up to class.

Not that I think readers are students. I’m not here to teach people, simply share my stories

I hope this has been a useful, if rambling, post on world-building. Thanks for stopping by, and much love to Larissa for having me ^__^


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.