Creating secondary worlds

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One of the great pleasures of writing a fantasy novel is creating the secondary world in which your story will inhabit.

In the contemporary fiction genre, the writer knows the religious, political, historical, and cultural background of the society already

A fantasy writer must construct the society from the very foundations.

E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects Of the Novel,

“What does fantasy ask of us? It asks us to pay something extra.

It compels us to make an adjustment that is different to an adjustment required by a work of art, to an additional adjustment.

The other novelists say, ‘here is something that might occur in your lives’, the fantasist ‘Here is something that could not occur.'”

The extra coin that E.M. Forster says must be paid by the reader of a work of fantasy is the suspension of disbelief.

By agreeing to put aside our inherent scepticism, we are opening the doors of our imagination and inviting in beauty, terror, strangeness, the marvellous and the miraculous. We are allowing ourselves to wonder whether the world may not be a different place to what we believe it to be. This can be an uncomfortable experience, no doubt, but also a liberating one.

The extra coin that a writer of fantasy must pay is the painful stretching of their own imaginations and knowledge. A good writer of fantasy is one which constructs their impossible world with great care.

They must know the spiritual beliefs of their people, and the tension which inevitably arise between those who believe differently.

They must know the history, the language, the culture, the landscape, the flora and fauna – and it is not enough to call a rat a “sleghg”, or some other unpronounceable made-up name!

Nor is it enough just to give your characters a sword and a cloak and a horse and a dragon to fight, and think that your work is done. Especially if your hero says ‘OK’ and ‘See ya later.’

Readers of fantasy are usually avid readers with excellent educations. When you have read a thousand fantasy books, the ones you remember are the ones which enter into your dreams and inhabit your waking life, ones which seem more real than your own life, ones which give you a language to express your own inexpressible fears and desires.

In order to create this vividness, this intensity of feeling in the reader, a writer must spend the time getting to know their created world as well, if not better, than the world in which we all live.

  • How they would speak, what clothes do they wear, have they discovered how to magnetise lodestones yet, and do they knew the recipe for gunpowder?
  • Is the world you are creating set on our planet in the past, or is it set on our planet as it may have been if things had happened differently, or is it on a different planet altogether?
  • Who holds the power in your created world? Who desires to?
  • What is the primary source of money?
  • What do people eat for breakfast?
  • What kind of underwear do they wear?
  • What do people say when they hammer their thumb instead of the nail?
  • What god do they call to in their despair?

The sorts of questions you can ask yourself when constructing a fantasy world are endless, and endlessly fascinating. Much of it may not find its way into the narrative, for after all, you are not writing a traveller’s guidebook, but a story.

It is the story which will compel your reader’s interest. Yet if you do not do the groundwork, you will not be able to understand what forces drive your characters, and it is your characters that make the story come alive.

Kate H-S smlKate Forsyth is the internationally bestselling author of 26 books, which have been published in 15 countries, including The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens. She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 25 Novelists and has been called “one of the finest writers of this generation”.

Kate teaches many creative writing courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre. This post originally appeared on Kate’s blog.
Find out more on the Writing in Oxford tour led by Kate and hosted by the Australian Writers’ Centre and Bookshop Travel.


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