Building Worlds Without a Twenty-Year Lag Time

In working on the backstory of my newest novel, I’ve strayed into the euphoric nightmare shared by most fantasy writers–world-building. It is here in the vast blackness that is potential where fantasy writers first lift their fingers over their keyboards and with the first few strokes either triumph or fail.

I believe it can go largely undisputed that J.R.R. Tolkien set the bar for fantasy world creation. His Middle Earth is so real you could plunge through the page, step onto the ground and start walking in any direction. In your travels across his landscape you would never wander into a blank area or cross a foggy, half-imagined portion of the scenery. In Tolkien’s mystical land there are no gaps, no missed opportunities. Middle Earth is whole, a world as full as our own. Prete-a-habiter. The only downside to Tolkien’s masterful accomplishment–it took him over twenty years to build.

So comes the task I’ve been struggling with for a few weeks. I have to build nine fully fleshed worlds and not be mostly dead before I’m done. There are some great resources on the Internet, of course. My current favorite is a fill-in-the-blank sort of question sheet offered by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This sheet has been a great help to me in the past few days as I struggled to figure out what I had missed in terms of culture, geography, history and mythology. It has given me a direction, and–better still–kept me fixed on my course. There are many other resources out there, including numerous helpful sites for RPGs, and my newest inspiration, the monstrous Otherland novel series by Tad Williams. Seeing that modern, non-obsessed writers have indeed created believeable, multi-world novels is a huge comfort.

I was watching something on TV the other night (Robot Chicken or maybe Family Guy) and the characters were lampooning the fact that George Lucas is a terrible planet creator–making one only of sand, another only forest, another only ice… This easy route is the enticing lure I’m trying to evade, the pitfall I’m determined to dodge. You won’t find whole languages in my book, or even histories detailing every single year since the beginning of my worlds’ inceptions, but they will be whole, fleshed out and believable–with many different climate zones. And I won’t be sixty when I’m done.

Maybe fifty-five.

About Avery

I am a roller derbying, dark fantasy author. This blog chronicles my adventures in life, writing and skating. View all posts by Avery

11 responses to “Building Worlds Without a Twenty-Year Lag Time

  • laughingwolf

    gd google ate my post grrrrrrrrforgot what i said 😦

  • Lana Gramlich

    Robot Chicken rocks. ;)I was seriously into world building when I played D&D years ago. I enjoyed the process greatly (not to mention writing the story skeletons that I'd later guide my players through.) People laugh at D&D, but it really can inspire the mind in various ways.

  • Avery DeBow

    Miladysa — The nine worlds all have to do with penitence, if that’s a hint of where I’ll be going with them.

  • Miladysa

    I’ve got to check out that question sheet too :DGood luck with the world building – I am very interested to see what sort of worlds you build LOL

  • Avery DeBow

    Sidney — I believe it. That man was focused beyond the mortal. I’ll be happy for 1/1000th of what he had.

  • Sidney

    It’s probably on one of the Lord of the Rings commentaries, but I saw some interview with a scholar who said there’d never be a world with as much development as Tolkien put into Middle Earth. I suppose that’s true since it was a life’s work.Hope your efforts go well.

  • Avery DeBow

    Charles — It’s much better than writing reality-based novels, all that fact-checking and such.Steve — I was understating the hugeness of that site. There are actually many, many fact sheets on there, all having to do with different aspects of world-building. A very handy bookmark, indeed.Kate — Well, I tried writing a-la-Steve (by the seat of my pants) and my WIP looked like swiss cheese, with so many blanks to be filled in that I quickly lost control of everything. So, I’m back to plotting everything out on my index cards.Archavist – Thanks for stopping by. I was never one to pay much heed to the maps and genealogy charts in the beginning of fantasy books. Having admitted that, I also feel there is a necessity for a writer to know everything about the world she creates for her audience. It’s all in the balance of how much of that knowledge is used for personal reference and how much is divulged within the pages. Too much detail in a novel can many times be overwhelming and turn a fast-paced story into an alternative history lesson.


    That’s what’s often put me off fantasy – the maps,charts,political histories etc. In fact the last fantasy I really enjoyed was Lord Foul’s Bane.

  • Kate S

    Great tip! It’s just what I need for my current WIP. Good luck with yours – may it not suffer as many deadly gaps and black holes as mine currently does. 🙂

  • Steve Malley

    I’ve been toying with the idea of trying my hand at a bit of science fiction. I may need that question sheet before long!

  • Charles Gramlich

    I love that aspect of writing fantasy, although it often does call for quite a bit of work. I’m going to check out that link about the question sheet. sounds intersting.

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