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Inkcouragement: A Whole New World

Inkcouragement kicks off world-building month with FYA faves Mary Weber and Sarah Rees Brennan! These talented ladies are here to give us their best suggestions for creating fantastical worlds.

Inkcouragement: A Whole New World

[Ed. note: Like I was going to pick any other title for this post. - J]

Welcome to October! Or as we're calling it over at Inkcouragement: World Building Month! Over the next couple posts we will be digging into how you create a world that feels authentic and real, whether it's fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, or historical. Lots of amazing guest posters coming your way, with solid advice, encouragement, and even a video or two. Let's dive in!

Personally, I'm a pretty big fan of SciFi and Fantasy. Tamora Pierce is my hero, followed closely by Robin McKinley and J.K. Rowling. Because honestly guys, sometimes the real world just isn't enough. Sometimes you just need a dragon. And fantasy is dragons if you want them. Or magic, or necromancers, or whatever you want cause you make the rules. You are queen of your own world! Or king. Or despotic overlord or democratically elected leader or whatever makes you happiest that day. Writing fantasy is incredibly liberating.

But it's also unbelievably hard to write good fantasy for that exact same reason: you make the rules. So, you know, no pressure or anything. True story: I spent weeks trying to invent a new board game in 5th grade which ultimately ended up being completely un-winnable (and un-losable). As it turns out, it's actually pretty hard to come up with a coherent and comprehensive set of rules for anything. If you thought a board game was tough, try pulling it off for a whole universe.

Luckily, authors Mary Weber and Sarah Rees Brennan are here to tell us the secrets of writing good fantasy. Mary is the author of the bestselling (and objectively fantastic) Storm Siren Trilogy, which takes place in a fully-fledged, complex, and incredibly rich world of her own making. There are no dragons, but I think we can forgive her that. Sarah wrote the hilarious and heartbreaking Gothic fantasy series, The Lynburn Legacy, among other series, which involves a delicious magical world, mind-reading love interests, and a sleepy English town which is gloriously named Sorry-in-the-Vale.

We are so excited to host them!

Mary Weber: My Super Sexy, Super Uncomplicated Process to Fantasy Rules & World Building

Okay, so I feel like maybe this post should be called, “Just do whatever the hell you want to make your own world and rules, because writing should be fun and fantasy is all about imagination.”
But that’s a little long, so whatever.

That said, it’s pretty much the gist of what I believe. And it probably best describes how I went about constructing my own universe for the Storm Siren trilogy. Because I adore fantasy and love love love the idea that we, as writers, get to create made-up places that are weird and wild and beautiful. And then we create characters to populate said worlds and make them fight and cry and be all sexy and stuff. (Commence J.K. Rowling, who is the queen of this.)

So I made a short video for you guys on how I generally go about it. Ahem. (And don’t hate me for the Avatar comment – it’s just because I’m a Zuko girl forever and would have his little fire bender babies if my husband was cool with it.)

And here’s the thing. I am a very feelings-oriented person. Yes I’m brainy when I need to be (no, we will not unpack what that looks like, ack!), but like the rest of the human race, I’m desperate to FEEL immersed in a world. Like…I want my soul to feel the fear and joy that inhabit the air of that universe. I want my senses to taste the acrid smoke and to tingle with trauma at the creepy cougar-type lady who is staring at my protagonist’s hot man and good heavens that hot man should put a shirt on.

And the best way I’ve found to become immersed – and thus inspire my creativity is to (1) watch movies in which these emotions are so well evoked.

And (2) read all the books.

Because those directors and screenwriters and authors know what the hell they’re doing!!

And when I’ve binge-watched-read all of those?

I ask myself - (1) Which of those worlds do I love (the LOTR universe? Hogwarts? Dune – which is arguably sci-fi, yes, but still)? (2) WHY do I love them (aside from the plot and writing)? And (3) what can I learn from them to create my own?

Only after that do I sit down and, with my main character in hand, begin to construct a universe (and its rules) that feels alive and fresh and terrifying to live in.

For me, this is simply done by:

(1) Creating a sense that the fantasy universe (and rules within) is similar enough to our own real-life world that it feels familiar. This allows us as readers to settle in quickly with the story without getting too overwhelmed by new information. (For instance, Marissa Meyer’s LUNAR CHRONICLES are set in a futuristic, sci-fi/fantasy, earth-based world that rings different but still true.) It also allows the horrific things we encounter in the story to trigger our fear sensors faster.
(2) Creating enough of a difference in the universe (and rules) that the reader will feel intrigued. (So in Storm Siren, it might be: Wait, what are bolcranes? And why do the panther-monkeys eat dogs? And where did the Elementals and shapeshifters get their abilities? These are questions that need answering and thus we read to find out.)
(3) Developing rules for magic and societies that suspend the boundaries of reality without totally breaking it. (Thus, we can have shapeshifters – or in Marissa’s series cyborgs and werewolves – but there’s a plausible explanation for their abilities and existence.)
(4) And finally, developing a realistic history for that universe. Even if the scope of it never shows up in the stories, having a world’s history detailed out behind the scenes provides a foundation for the book and characters to stand upon. What nations have gone to war? Which societies are totalitarian, or impoverished, and what led to those things? Which races have been oppressed and why?

And then when that’s all said and done…

I write.

So yes, I’m pretty much a stealer-person who sucks the imaginative marrow from stories and uses it to inspire my imagination and writing. :0)

Don’t tell anyone.

Ooh! And I almost forgot. LASTLY, I may sometimes ask myself: “Precious, what would J.K. Rowling do?” (Because I think we can all agree the answer to that will always be the right one. And if I can do it in a sexy British accent while sipping sexy British tea – that is called #WINNING, peeps.)



One of my favourite writers, Diana Wynne Jones, says ‘you have to be able to put the magic out with the milk bottles.’ I’ve always thought that was advice to make magic seem as real as anything else in your world.

So to create your own particular magic, you have to create your own particular world. My latest series, a Gothic mystery series called the Lynburn Legacy, was set in a little town in the Cotswolds: the magic there was like nature, which came from a natural source, which was beautiful in the way trees and water can be beautiful. While my next book, Tell the Wind and Fire, is set in an alternate New York city with magic. The magic there is generated and regulated, glittering and glamorous, and transforms the world like electricity once did.

So nobody can tell you exactly how your magic should be, just as nobody can tell you how your world should be. The two are inextricable. You have to learn your world inside out, and create the magic that springs from it. If you’re basing your world on a place in the real world, or even somewhere like a place in the real world, go there if you can. Read all about it if you can’t. Watch other people’s youtube videos like a creeper. (Who has watched a lot of other people’s youtube videos like a creeper? THIS GIRL.)

If your magic is based on mythology, research that too, and look at other books and movies which uses the same mythology: no better way to have your inspiration fired by going ‘Or what if this magic… DID SOMETHING ELSE?’ In Tell the Wind and Fire, I use the doppelganger legend: that if you see a pallid specter with your face, your doom has come. And I did a good deal of research, including much watching of the Vampire Diaries, which for years featured an awesome duo of doppelgangers.

SARAH (writing laboriously): One’s hair should be curly.
SARAH: Make them both attractive brunettes…?
SARAH: A great truth of our time: Evil always gets the best lines.
I am a research master. [It’s all totally different from the Vampire Diaries of course. My doppelgangers are dudes. Plus… there are no… vampires…])

The world will tell you about magic, and magic will tell you about the world.

That said, I do have three rules for fantasy worldbuilding I think are foolproof.

1) You get one ‘gimme.’ Everyone knows vampires are real. If you know who to ask, you can hire a necromancer. The world as the characters know it is a giant pirate ship. The audience will accept just one thing, and have to be convinced of everything else. Use your gimme wisely.

2)  Character creates magic. I adapted this from something I also believe: ‘character creates plot’—the actions of a particular person in a particular situation will be different, and kickstart a different story. Think about what story would belong to your character—and what magic would belong to your character, too. The main character of the Lynburn Legacy was a reporter, who wanted to write true stories… and the magic she could do was that stories became truth, for her. The magic of Tell the Wind and Fire, magic belonging to a set of much more cynical characters, has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with magic as power. What kind of person does power make you? How do you treat the powerless?

3) Have fun! Adding magic to a story is like adding sprinkles to ice-cream—a little something extra, more delicious and more colourful. What’s the point, if the magic isn’t fun? Think of all the swooping feelings of wonder you got, reading a book about magic, whether your first was Narnia or His Dark Materials or My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Put that in there.

Final Notes

Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah and Mary! You've made the intimidating process of sci-fi/fantasy world-building a little less so with your suggestions (and pretty pretty pictures). Do you have any questions about world building? What has your experience with world-building been? Let us know in the comments!

Stay tuned for our next post: contemporary world-building. You think there's no world-building when you set a story in the non-magical, present day? Think again!


Leah Stecher lives in New York City, where she edits history books. When not editing, she runs, dances, rewatches Firefly, and eats nachos.

Thanks for stopping by, Leah!