Setting the Record Straight

“You write fantasy?  Well, you have it easy then.  You can just make everything up!”

Yes, someone actually said that to me.  To which I responded, “Huh?!!?”

I know, eloquent, hey?

Well, sure, those of us who write fantasy do make up a lot of things.  We create whole worlds for our characters to inhabit.  But easy?  Seriously?  Have you ever tried to create a world from scratch?

Worldbuilding is exactly that.  Building.  A.  World.  The whole world.  Which means there’s a lot more to it than setting a scene.   To draw the reader in and hold them – give them their moment of suspended disbelief —  our worlds must be believable, and consistent. They have history and culture, languages, social structures, food, clothing, artifacts – in short, everything the real world has.  A lot of that information never makes it directly to the reader, but that isn’t the point.  It shapes our characters.  How they react to the situations they’re put into is impacted by their environment and culture and if we, as writers, don’t know those details how the heck are we, as readers, going to care?  To ensure our characters talk and act in a true manner, the world they exist in must have rules and boundaries.

And it must be consistent.

Oh, did I say that already?  Well, I’m saying it again.  If it’s commonplace for inhabitants of Aquinius to be able to walk on water, and suddenly in the heat of a chase scene they can’t get across a lake because not doing so builds tension, there’s a problem.  Caveat alert:  If that scenario is part of the plot, if there’s something different about this lake that prevents the inhabitants of Aquinius from walking across it, and they need to discover the secret, then there’s a reason for it.  Otherwise, walking on water is commonplace for all inhabitants and must remain so.  End of discussion.

So, yeah, we make stuff up.  A lot of stuff.  A lot more than the reader may realize.

And why?  Depth.  Believability.  Escapism.

After all, would you rather spend your time in a world rich in culture and history, where things feel real?  Or one where you’re surrounded  by hazy details and superficiality?

Me?  I’m going for the big plunge.  Make me believe this world does exist somewhere and these people are real because then I’ll care, and I won’t want to put that book down.  As an example, some of my all time favorite worlds are:  Middle Earth, Pern, and the section of Compact space in which dwell the Chanur clan.  How about you?  What worlds do you think have succeeded?  Or failed?

Next post:  A look at magic in fantasy.

Write on!


  1. Ahh, Fantasy. The Marmite of the Genres. Me? I love fantasy. I too have been transported to alternative realities, and have usually finished my inter-reality journey full of hope that when I close the final chapter it will have been a diary – true to the finest detail – rather than the brain-child of one of an elite breed of Authors.

    For me, Avatar was a definite “wish it was real” experience. I loved everything about the story. What made it particularly believable for me was the fact that humans visited and integrated seamlessly into the structure of Pandora. It was one of those stories I wish I had written…

    • Hi Bev. Marmite, huh? Never had it so I’m thinking I’ll have to try it some day. 🙂 Oh yes, Avatar was awesome as well. Very well done world ~ and overall plot.

  2. Yes, I get the ‘How hard can it be? You’re just making up stuff.’ A lot.

    Of course, they aren’t taking into account that all fiction writers ‘make things up’ and work hard at it. I challenge the people who say it isn’t hard to write their own story. Then I hear crickets on the subject. 🙂

    • Isn’t it amazing how loud crickets can be. 😉 When I explained to this particular person the meaning of “fiction” and how all writers make stuff up, they answered in something like, “Some writers write about the real world.” LOL

  3. Still chuckling over Fantasy = Marmite. 🙂 Weird sidenote: this is the second reference to McCaffrey’s work I’ve seen TODAY. I’ve always meant to read the Pern books, but never got around to it. I take this as a sign from the universe, and will start immediately.

    As to worlds I’ve loved, nothing quite tops Middle Earth for me. But also love Jacqueline Carey’s Terre de Ange, GRRM’s Westros is pretty awesome, and Katherine Kurtz did a great job with the Eleven Kingdoms of the Deryni. Robert Jordan’s world in Wheel of Time was pretty inventive, too (even though the series got too long for me).

    Nice post. I stumbled over here from Writer Unboxed, and glad I did. Nice to meet another world-builder! 🙂

    • Hi Vaughn, thanks for stopping in. 🙂 I do believe you’re correct, it is a sign from the universe. Get to it. I must admit, I’m partial to McCaffrey’s early work, but I think the first thing of hers I ever read wasn’t even Fantasy.

  4. Definitely Middle Earth ranks at the top. Tolkien set a high bar for world-building. Pern was great, too.

    My sci-fi novel is mainly set on Earth in our time, but a chunk of it takes place in the 24th century. So I’ve got to figure out (oh, excuse me, my character need to explain to me) what’s different then. Not quite as hard as building a totally new world, though!

  5. I am a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. He is utterly brilliant.

    When I wrote my urban fantasy novel, GLORY, I wanted to do unique things with my vampires and not stick to clichés. The advice I was given was that as long as I was, yes, consistent I could create any kind of vampire reality I wanted. It worked!

    • I’ve never read any Pratchett — yet. I’m finding I’m reading a lot more with my Kindle. Odd, but that whole instant gratification thing comes in handy. Still have to get to Glory!

  6. Well said, well said…well once you got past “Huh?!!?”… which incidentally would have matched my immediate response.

    I’m fond of Vegemite and Our Mate myself and whenever I spread either on toast from now on, Bev’s, “Ahh, Fantasy. The Marmite of the Genres,” will stick in my mind (and possibly the roof of my mouth 😉 ). Thanks Kathi and Bev!

  7. I’m feel like I’m totally missing out on something, never having had the delights (?) of Marmite, Vegemite, or Our Mate. LOL Something to put on my “Bucket List”, hey?

  8. “You write fantasy? Well, you have it easy then. You can just make everything up!”

    hahahahahaha…. *dies*….

    What you said, exactly… (obviously I’m a fantasy author too). I spent years working on the world for my Tales of the Travelers series (Arabian Dreams is the first one) and I’m super happy with what I’ve come up with, but boy am I still building, even as I write.

    Kristian Britian’s Green Rider series is a great world.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Oh yes! I totally forgot about Green Rider — think I re-read that last year at some point. I have to admit to only reading the first in the series though.

  9. Whoever said that to you can’t possibly be a fiction writer of ANY genre. All fiction is made up–fantasy, mainstream, science, even parts of historical fiction is made up–so I’m not sure what that person was talking about.

    Then, I’m inclined to think the person isn’t a writer, period. Writing anything is not easy. It’s freakin’ hard! omg, I don’t know how you controlled yourself in that moment. I think I’d have gone off. But then, I’ve spent many years listening to “jokes” about how writing isn’t a job because I’m not getting paid for it (yet), so I admit I’m probably over-sensitive to the matter.

    I don’t personally write fantasy and I’m always impressed by those who can. I wish I had that kind of unlimited, fantastical imagination, but it scares me to go there. So I stick with dysfunctional families instead, lol 🙂

    • Yeah, they weren’t a writer of any kind. My control probably came from understanding they couldn’t help themselves. 😉 Not being a writer, they had no concept, and so no basis for understanding. Now, had another writer spewed forth with that line . . .

  10. You are preaching to the choir but, you are still right on.

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