Essential World-Building Secrets for Fantasy Writers

November 12, 2019 | 6 min read

Did you grow up enthralled by the stories of the Pevensie children in Narnia or Frodo and Bilbo Baggins in Middle Earth? If you dreamed of one day creating your own fantasy world to base your novels in, this article is for you. We’ll be exploring some top tips for creating fantasy worlds, drawing on advice from some of the heroes of fantasy writing, such as George R. R. Martin, who writes:

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La. They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth.

Approaching World-Building

Fantasy World Building

The great masters of fantasy writing all have their own quirks when it comes to their approach to world-building. However, there are essentially two broad approaches that you can take. The first is known as outside-in or top-down world-building and the second is called inside-out or bottom-up world-building.

Outside-In World-Building

With the outside-in approach to world-building, your focus is 100% on building your world. This is before you even start to think about the plot of your story. Every detail of the world has to be described and mapped in intricate detail.

Outside-in world-building includes creating detailed histories, mythologies, and etymologies for your world, and these details form the backdrop of your story.

The danger of outside-in world-building is that you get so involved with building your world that you never get around to writing your story. Or you neglect to develop your characters and plot in the same detail. Although the outside-in approach can be a lot of fun, you’ve got to remember that you started building your world to tell a story!

Inside-Out World-Building

Unlike outside-in world-building, the inside-out approach starts with a character or characters and a plot idea. Then, the world is created around the characters so that the details of the world always serve the plot/characters of the story. This was the approach that J.R.R. Tolkien took when writing The Hobbit.

With The Hobbit, Tolkien began with the character of Bilbo Baggins and created Middle Earth around him. Everything in Middle Earth serves the journey that Baggins has to take. For example, the things he has to achieve, and how he grows as a character. The landscape and inhabitants of Middle Earth were then developed, but Bilbo was the starting point.

Mapping Your World

Map your world

You don’t need to create a map of your world – but doing so is actually great fun. I remember spending hours mapping out the fantasy world of Alaryon when I was a teenager. I used maps from my favorite fantasy novels to guide me. Having a map of your fantasy world gives it more substance, somehow, and gives you something to refer back to when you’re writing.

There are lots to think about when you’re mapping your world. It’s not just about deciding the kinds of terrain, the location of communities, or the placement of key defenses. You need to think about the benefits and challenges of everything from the point of view of your characters.

If a vast amount of your world is forested, your characters may be skilled in wood-working. They may even have a tree-house based community. If your world is surrounded by sea, then your characters are more likely to be skilled in seafaring and fishing.

How will your characters travel around your world? If you make the landscape difficult to traverse, then having characters frequently traveling from place to place can become less believable. All of these things need to be considered when you’re mapping your world.

The Culture of Your World

Culture of your world

It’s actually really difficult to create a fantasy world out of a vacuum. What I mean by this is that most fantasy worlds have some kind of basis on which they’re built.

For example, for George Martin, the fantasy world in which the Game of Thrones is set began with a particular concept. This was a world shaped like the British Isles but a similar size to South America. This world then has a culture similar to that of Medieval Britain. This, of course, was just a starting point for world-building for Martin. But you can see how having something on which to build your fantasy world is easier than starting with a completely blank canvas.

When you start with an existing culture or civilization, you build your world by thinking about how your fantasy world is different. It’s an excellent springboard for your creativity!

To get ideas about the springboard for your fantasy world, existing histories or mythologies can be an excellent resource. Fantasy writers often use Arthurian, Aboriginal, and Norse mythology as starting points. You could also choose a particular time period (the Dark Ages, for example). Mythologies, histories, and cultures all offer a rich starting point.

Language and World-Building

Language and World Building

J.R.R. Tolkien created the fictional language of Quenya for his Middle Earth-based novels before he began building the landscape of his fantasy world. Of course, Tolkien was a linguist, so creating the Elvish language was something both enjoyable and natural for him. Most fantasy writers don’t go to this extent when world-building.

However, even if you’re not planning on creating a whole new language for your fantasy world, you still need to think about language. Having your characters speak in a particular way is a technique that all writers use to add depth to characters. This also adds realism to your stories.

There are some questions you need to ask yourself when considering the language spoken and used in your fantasy world:

  • Is your fantasy world set in a time period comparable to the Dark Ages or in a more recent age? To be more real, choose language constructs that are appropriate for the stage of human development.
  • Does your fantasy world cover a vast area, with different tribes or groups of people in different locations? It’s unlikely that people separated by distance will all speak in the same way. Therefore, you should consider giving different tribes different ways of speaking.

Creating Societies in Your Fantasy World

Creating societies for your world

World-building is as much about the people who inhabit it as it is about the landscape of the world. No matter the type of world, people always live in societies – and all societies must have some kind of order or rules.

Consider the magical world of the Harry Potter novels. The magical society is governed by rules – for example:

  • Curses can be countered with counter-curses
  • Different creatures can have secret powers (e.g. the house-elves)
  • There are governing bodies to prevent Muggles from discovering the magic that’s happening.

Questions you need to answer about the societies in your world include:

  • What rules and restrictions are there in your societies?
  • Who is in power and/or governs your societies?
  • Are there opposing societies at war with each other?
  • Are different societies in alliance with each other?
  • Are there religions or cults in your societies?
  • If there are religions, are they monotheistic or polytheistic?
  • Are different societies feared by other societies? (e.g. a society that uses magic may be feared by a non-magic society)

Some Final Advice for World-Builders

World-building is like a playground for your imagination, and it’s easy to get carried away with it. The details of your world are vital for enabling your readers to envision the world of your novel. But too much detail can be a bad thing. It’s really important not to do an ‘information dump’ in your story. Overwhelming your readers with information is off-putting, to say the least.

You have to get the balance right when revealing essential information to your readers. Do it slowly and in a controlled manner, the way that the masters of fantasy do. Learn from experts such as Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. It can be helpful to re-read the classics of fantasy writing to familiarize yourself with the way that information is revealed. Take notes as you read and implement what you learn in your own writing.

But, most of all, never see world-building as a chore! If world-building feels like work, maybe you should be looking for a different genre to write in!

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There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

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