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Writing Fantasy? Alan Early on Understanding the Rules

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Alan Early

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He enters his room – a beige box furnished with an Ikea desk, a set of Ikea shelves and a framed motivational poster – and sits down. As his computer whirrs into life, he shuts his eyes, leans back and sees-

Darkness at first.

Then out of that darkness comes a shape in the distance, getting closer. It’s grey and blocky, with towers and turrets rising out of it and uniformed figures standing sentinel along the battlements; a castle.

Greenness grows out of the base of the castle, swallowing the blank darkness and becoming a knoll, a hill, a mountainside. The landscape continues to spread in every direction; single trees bursting out of the ground, then forests and jungles.

The sky is an endless kaleidoscope of colour. One moment it’s blood-red, reflecting the chaos and evil-doing in the kingdom; the next it’s pastel blue for the princess is getting married; and then green for the stormy times that are stirring on the horizon.

He opens his eyes. The laptop screen is dead centre in his field of vision, the blank Word document ready, the cursor blinking impatiently.

He puts his fingers to the keys. And starts writing.

If only world building was as easy as closing your eyes.

alan-early-portraitIt’s not. But, like all writing, when you do it well – when it’s really working – it does allow you to escape your beige box of a writing room. You stop hearing road-works outside your window. You don’t feel the urge to check Twitter every two minutes.

Good writing always takes the reader away. They put themselves in the protagonist’s position; they walk in their shoes, see the things they see, feel the things they feel. But fantasy writing often goes one step further. In fantasy (and its fact-loving cousin sci-fi), the reader is presented with something altogether different; worlds where magic exists, where the impossible can happen, where dreams become reality.

But how do you create one of these fantasy worlds if it’s not as simple as shutting your eyes and letting it pop into your head? Well, here are a few things to think about before you begin…

The World Itself

So you’ve decided to write a fantasy story. Great! You’re going to have loads of fun (as well as lots of pull-your-hair-out moments). You’ve got your basic plot sorted, you’ve met your characters; now it’s time to think about the World of the story.

Maybe it’s set in this world, or at least someplace very similar; an Ireland with the same landscape, culture and politics but where magic happens also to exist. Maybe the world runs parallel to our own; an alternative medieval creation like in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or all those books with countless maps at the front. Or maybe you’re going for something completely different, completely off-the-wall; a world where nothing behaves the same way it does in ours.

The World is one of the most important elements of a fantasy story so spend a bit of time thinking about it – and researching it. It’s the place you’re transporting your readers to and should feel as truthful as possible. If you’re writing about a journey through a never-ending forest with trees as tall as skyscrapers, go for a stroll in a woodland near you. What are the aromas like? How does the undergrowth feel beneath your feet? What can you hear and see and touch?

If you’re writing about an alien desert landscape, odds are the Sahara isn’t at your doorstep. So read up about it. What do people report about one of the driest places on Earth? How does it feel in that heat? Is the sand solid and compacted or loose and crumbling?

Ask yourself how one element of your World might affect another element. For instance, if your World is a desert wasteland, what impact does it have on the weather? Are sandstorms the norm here? And if they are, what happens when a sandstorm reaches a city or a village? Make your World fascinating and engaging and you’ll find it offering you plot points you hadn’t even considered.

The Rules

Every story has a list of Rules. And in a fantasy story, it’s the writer’s job to create new Rules.

Take as an example, GRR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. One of the key Rules in that World is that the seasons last for, not just months, but years. So when the characters say ‘Winter is coming,’ it really is a big deal for them! They have no idea how long the seasons will go on for; just that they could last for decades. Dramatically, this is a fascinating premise and pushes the characters to act in ways they would not have had they been inhabitants of our world.

Rules can be freeing – such as allowing magic to exist – but they can also be restricting. And it is this restriction that can often offer the strongest dramatic potential. In my recent novel, Arthur Quinn and Hell’s Keeper, I wrote that nobody should kill a god. However, the villain of the piece, Loki, is a Viking god. So Arthur is struck with an interesting quandary; either kill Loki and doom his own soul, or let Loki live and destroy the world. That Arthur has to find a solution to this problem creates much of the drama and conflict in the book.

The most difficult part when it comes to the Rules isn’t coming up with them. (Often, the plot will dictate the Rules for you.) But rather, it is how you introduce the Rules to the reader. Sometimes it’s okay to have a character flat out explain a Rule. But more often than not, it’s best to show the characters reacting to the Rules they’re bound by. Show the hero flying through the sky in the opening pages and the reader will understand that magic exists in this world without the writer needing to spell it out.

The Cultures

The last point to consider is the people that inhabit it and specifically the cultures they have grown up in. What is the society of this World like? Is there gender equality? Or perhaps children rule the world and adults are their slaves? It’s likely, as in our world, that there is more than one society, each one different from the last. If that’s the case, then you need to ensure that the cultures seem significantly different and, again, truthful. You’ll need to think about language here – the way names and words are formed – customs and hierarchy. The best place to look for inspiration, as ever, is our own world.

In his Song of Fire and Ice, GRR Martin has created a multifaceted realm with as many different cultures as in the real world. The land of Westeros mirrors Europe, while Essos is full of Mediterranean influences in language and custom. As with everything else in world building, accuracy and consistency is key.

So that’s it. Three simple steps to building your own fantasy land. Make your worlds as life-like and accurate as you can; give people something to believe in. And if you’re ever stuck, just seek inspiration in the world around you. Remember that exaggeration and transformation are your best friends and that the seeds of other worlds can often come from our own.

Now open your eyes to the possibilities and get started.

He sits back, reads over what he’s written, and smiles. Then he hits CTRL-S, closes the laptop and walks away.

(c) Alan Early

About the author

Alan was born in Leitrim and now lives in Dublin, in the sometimes-posh and leafy suburb of Ranelagh. He studied in the National Film School and went on to publish his first book ‘Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent’ in 2011 to critical acclaim. The book was described by Eoin Colfer as ‘a brilliant creation… fast paced and thrilling’ and was chosen for the inaugural UNESCO Dublin City of Literature children’s reading initiative. The third and final chapter in the Father of Lies Chronicles, ‘Arthur Quinn and Hell’s Keeper’ has just been published by Mercier Press.
For more info on the Arthur Quinn books, visit www.arthurquinn.ie

When Alan is writing, you can find him being distracted on Twitter here: www.twitter.com/alanearly

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