Worldbuilding: The Why before the How

I’ve written several posts about world building for fantasy and sci-fi, but on this post I want to come at it from a slightly different angle. What’s more important than the how-to of putting together a new society or creating an alien race is why. Why do you want an alien species that can live on the surface of a sun? Why do you want steampunk airships powered by magic spells instead of gas or steam?

The coolness factor aside, what I’m talking about is getting you to look at the bones of your story and your world. Cultural habits, societal structures, technology and industry, animals both wild and domesticated – all of these elements of life are the way they are for a reason. It may not always seem logical or even right – like in the case of a society’s sense of fashion – but it still fits within the context of the larger world as a whole.

For example, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Talking Beasts are more than just cute anthropomorphized animals to make the story appealing to children. Even if they originally started out that way, C.S. Lewis develops the Talking Beasts into their own culture. The reason for the existence of this fantasy culture is revealed throughout the stories. In Prince Caspian, the children encounter a bear who had once been a Talking Beast, but after living like a wild animal for too long, he lost the blessing of his speech and intelligence. In The Silver Chair, the giants kill and eat a Talking Stag, which solidifies the giants as the enemy in the minds of the characters and readers alike. It is not until the sixth book of the series, The Magician’s Nephew, where Lewis addresses the creation of the Talking Beasts as Aslan sets them apart from regular animals in order to live out a unique purpose in the world.

The how of fantasy worlds can be important – and the how is even more key in science fiction. But if there’s no reason within the continuity of the world or the story for something to exist, it will probably come across to readers as feeling contrived. What if C.S. Lewis had put the hrossa or the sorns of Mars from his sci-fi book Out of the Silent Planet into the world of Narnia? Those two Martian races are beautiful, gentle, intelligent creatures – but they aren’t Narnians. He designed them to live on a lush, cool, low-gravity planet, not a magical representation of Earth. As fantasy creatures, they’re every bit as engaging as any of Lewis’ creations – but he had his “why” in order in his mind, and so did not have to contrive some illogical reason to explain “how” the Martians were in Narnia.

A word of caution, though – it is not necessary for there to be a lengthy explanation of all the whys and reasons behind the creatures and customs. As in my Narnia example, all of those details were worked into the story itself.

I know it’s tempting, after you’ve gone to so much work to create this elaborate world, to share every little detail and bit of backstory. If a detail can be worked into the story without pulling the reader out of the plot and into a textbook, then do it; otherwise, it will have to live only in your head.

But the important part is that it’s there. You as the author must know and understand all these whys and details. Even if you don’t write it out in words, an astute reader is able to tell when a writer understands their world or not. Don’t hesitate to let your creativity flow while you’re building your worlds. Map out all the how’s and explanations of societal structures, magic, technology, and creatures. Just don’t forget to ask yourself why.

Revisiting a Forgotten World

Writing Updates

I’m still working on my fantasy trilogy that has been my writing project for a couple of years now. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about some stories I wrote and a world I created many years ago. I don’t want to neglect my time spent on my current projects, but I also want to make some time to revive this older set of stories. Those stories were the ones that got me to where I am today.


This fantasy world of these old stories was my first foray into epic fantasy – I created a complex world, dozens of characters, and enough of a history and timeline to cover several novels. Initially it didn’t start out with all those elaborate details – it began as just one book, and the story was a rather obvious copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I wrote it in fifth grade, and it was probably barely 20,000 words (I don’t have a word count, since the story was hand written in pencil on notebook paper). Still, not a bad middle-grade “novel,” I suppose – and it was the longest story I had ever written and completed to that point. It spawned a two-part sequel, part one of which I wrote in middle school. Then for a while I left that world behind in favor of Star Wars fan-fiction, a lengthy story about horses on a magical island, and other assorted short stories.


I revisited this world sometime in high school, with some fresh ideas and a slightly more mature command of writing and storytelling techniques. I wrote another novel which was intended to be a prequel to the one I’d written in elementary school, and I made plans to re-write that one.

The world was becoming more complex: I crafted different races and cultures, deities and religions, history and geography. I planned out a seven-book saga, even though one novel (and one and a half MG novelettes) is all I had written at the time.

In my college and post-college years I moved away from that world again, launching a new fantasy series, amid more short stories and some pitiful attempts at poetry. But even with all the school assignments, Shiny New Ideas, and other creative projects, I never forgot my first fantasy world that I built.


And now, even though I’m deep in the middle of something else, I’m feeling a burn to go back to this ancient world that has lain quiet and patient for so long. It requires another revamp – a bigger overhaul than just rewriting a childhood story. Change of format, change of storytelling structure, some changes to the timeline of history that I had created.

But the bones of the world are still there. I spent collectively years creating the complex societies of the centaurs, and the religion of the elves. I came up with detailed descriptions and biologies of several species of dragons, and a magical treasure that managed to make it through all the different versions of the world.

Even though I’m not fond of editing and rewriting, this revisiting is not the same thing: it’s a foundation, dusty but firm, that I can use to build on anew. Editing, revising, and rewriting will come much later, once I’ve got some new stories. But for now, I’m excited to be once again exploring a world that was my first love, in a sense. Let’s see where the stories take me this time.

Please share with me! Have you ever done a complete overhaul of a story idea, keeping it the same yet creating something new? Do you have a story or idea that’s stuck with you for years?

Creating Fantasy Creatures and Alien Species – Real Animals as Magical Races

In a previous post on this subject, I gave some tips for creating convincing and relatable creatures to populate a fantasy or sci-fi world. In this post, I will continue in that vein, but I will come at it from a slightly different view – that is, using animals as characters in your story.

This post is not about creating fantastic new monsters or magical animals, though I might do a post on that later. This is about using familiar, “real” animals as sentient characters or races. While the practice of having sentient, anthropomorphized animals in fantasy is not especially common – except perhaps in children’s books – it can be a valid fantasy storytelling element even in YA or adult fiction.

In my previous post about creating fantasy races, I emphasized two key points in creating believable creatures: elements that make them human, and elements that make them non-human. Both, I believe, are necessary to create convincing, well-rounded fantasy creatures.

The non-human element is probably obvious – you as a writer are seeking something different, something besides just another fantasy kingdom filled with humans. Whether they are Klingons or Elves, the “otherness” aspect is part of the point of fantasy.

But equally important is the human element. There must be some way for the human reader – if not the human characters – to relate to and understand this magical race of “other” in your story. Some common ground should be there – even if the point of your story is the search for that common ground. You can write about Klingons all day long, but always remember that your readers are human.

So how does this work if you want to imbue real animals with magic and use them as the “other,” the alien race? To illustrate how this can be done, I’ll use examples from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. (While both of these series might be considered YA or even children’s literature, they are stories that are complex and mature enough to be enjoyed by adults).

What are the qualities that make them non-human?

In my previous post about creating fantasy species, I discussed three main categories to consider: physical traits, emotions or mindset of the species, and the general culture.

In the Narnia books, there are plenty of non-human creatures – and some of the most non-human of all are the Talking Beasts. The badgers, bears, mice, and dogs that have human speech and mannerisms are perhaps more alien than the fauns and centaurs and gryphons. Though they live in harmony with humans, they are very much non-human.

The physical is the most obvious, of course. Even though some Talking Beasts can walk on their hind legs and wield tools (like the heroic mouse Reepicheep), they are very much animal in appearance and behavior. No cartoony animals in cute clothes in these stories. Each species still behaves according to their animal nature as far as attitude and mindset – the fiercely loyal dogs, jittery hyper squirrels, gentle and aloof deer.

While the humans fight wars, voice their opinions, and rage against Aslan in the name of free will and progress, the Talking Beasts don’t change. Their steadiness of behavior and belief sets them apart from every other sentient race in Narnia.

They love and respect the humans, but the Talking Beasts are quick to remind everyone that they are most definitely not human, and are not trying to be in any way. The Talking Beasts are proud of their Otherness. The magic of Narnia makes them more than mere animals, but they never will be human – and they want to keep it that way.

What are the qualities that make them human?

As I mentioned before, some human elements are needed in your magical animal race if you want your human readers to relate to them at all. Even if the “otherness” is part of the point of your story, having at least some common ground can help to emphasize all the elements that make them non-human.

In Philip Pullman’s books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), the Panserbjørne (Armored Bears or Ice Bears) are at first appearance very animalistic and “other.” These Bears tend to shun human contact, but they are master craftsmen and metal workers. Their physical dwellings and societal structure are more human than animal, with their castles, metal armor, and sense of honor.

The Ice Bears, though emphasized as different and “other,” experience the very human emotions of fear and shame, hatred and love. The Bears have a king and their own laws for their kingdom. Almost the opposite of the animals in Narnia, who live in their natural habitats in the wilderness, the Ice Bears depend on their created laws and their skill with tools to hold their society together.

While the Bears and the humans have reluctant contact at best, until the plot of the story forces them together, the two species have more in common than each one believes at first. The Bears are animals and the Bears are Other, but just like humans, they hate and love and will fight to preserve their world.

Animals as sentient races and important characters can be a valid storytelling element for YA and adult fantasy, I believe, as shown by these examples. Always key is the human element, and the non-human element.Whether it’s a sword-wielding mouse, an armored polar bear, or some other animal, choose your beast and go create some magic.

Creating Fantasy Creatures and Alien Species

I read a great blog some time ago (here and here) about the use of non-human characters in fantasy and science-fiction. It’s true that non-human creatures are a staple of these genres; and for those of us who write sci-fi and fantasy, creating new creatures is part of the fun of world-building.

I’m not going to lay out rules for creating magical creatures or alien life-forms. However, similar to other forms of world-building, I believe there are some factors that should be considered when creating non-human people.

Note: these guidelines/suggestions apply primarily to sentient creatures rather than regular animals, as I’m discussing the roles that individuals of these species may play as major or supporting characters. Think Wookies rather than taun-tauns.

If you’re inventing a fairy kingdom or an alien race to be major players in your story, then you want them to well-rounded and have all the nuances and details of any real culture. (This is not to say that every writer must aspire to have Tolkien-esque creations, complete with their own language, mythology, and land of after-life). But if you want your creatures to be appealing to the reader, they should be more than one-dimensional over-generalizations.

What are the qualities that make them non-human?

There’s nothing wrong with simply sticking pointed ears on a human and calling it an elf or a Vulcan, but if you’re going to all the work of creating a non-human race, then why is it important that these people be non-human? This could be for any number of reasons (magical realm, alien planet, plot about human versus non-human war, etc). But my point here is that there need to be some noticeable, and story-specific, reasons that these characters are not mere humans from the neighboring land.

Physiology: Wings, prehensile tails, fur, gills. Creatures that eat rocks, breathe methane, live in the ice, live in the sun. The plot of your story may dictate certain physical attributes that your creatures have. Again, there’s nothing wrong with a humanoid with pointed ears, but consider other aspects of the physiology as it relates to the plot and other needs of your story.

Emotions/Mindset: How do these people (as a race in general, or specific characters) think and feel that makes them different from the human characters? Do they consider anger to be a sign of strength and prestige? Do they have no concept of betrayal, and so your character experiences completely new emotions when betrayed by a human character? Since I’ve been talking about pointy-eared folks, consider the Vulcans and their mindset of placing reason above emotions.

Culture: This one sort of goes along with the previous entry of emotions and racial thought-process, but it’s a bit broader. What about the culture makes it so radically different from any human society? If your pointy-eared elves look, think, feel, dress, eat, talk, work, and play exactly the same way that most any human society would, then why bother making them non-human? How does their clothing indicate each individual’s role in the family structure? What is unique about their art or their music? What do they eat during special ceremonies? Not every detail of a culture has to be established (and if you’re writing a long epic or a series, many of these details can be revealed over the long haul). But again, try to make your people unique as a race in more ways than just pointy-eared humans who all wear purple sashes on Fridays.

Example: Hobbits. Yep, they’re pretty humanoid (and have pointed ears!) They even have a lot of human cultural traits like fancy silverware and books on the bookshelves, ale-drinking at pubs, fireworks at parties. But what are some things that make then distinctly non-human?

Hobbits have giant, furry feet that are sturdier than the best shoes. Frodo and Sam hiked all the way to Mordor barefoot, and sore feet was one thing that never bothered them. Hobbits frown upon adventures and doing anything wild and crazy and new. The very human-like craving to explore and do something new made both Bilbo and Frodo outcasts of a sort. In broader cultural terms, hobbits shun boats and water, despite the prevalence of rivers in their land. And they avoid outsiders, not so much out of fear, but rather out of a cultural mindset of believing that their land is immune to the problems that plague the rest of the world.

What are the qualities that make them human?

Now we come to the flip side of creating imaginary creatures and alien races. Unless you’re writing a humans-versus-creatures-who-have-no-redeeming-qualities story (like, say, in the movie Independence Day), then you want your people to have some human qualities to make them relatable. Chances are your human characters will be interacting with the non-humans in many different ways, and having some point of familiarity can smooth rough patches or add to the tension, depending on your plot and how you use it.

Also, some human qualities will make these made-up creatures more likeable by your readers. Again, unless you’re doing an Independence Day-type story, you want your readers to enjoy reading about the creatures you’ve created.

Physiology: Physical features are perhaps the least important (at least, in my opinion) for the human-relatability factor. But if the needs of your story demand the humans and the non-humans to interact in any way beside total war and annihilation, then having some common ground to work from could be good. In the classic Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark,” the non-human character was a living rock. But even then, the Enterprise crew and the alien found a common ground when the humans figured out that the rock was a female protecting her eggs. Not that humans lay eggs, but the mother-protecting-her-young thing was enough to launch an understanding.

Emotions/Mindset: This category, and the next one of culture, are where you can build the strongest human-like elements in your magical or alien race. It doesn’t have to be big or obvious. But if your fairies have a sense of humor and laugh at jokes – even if those jokes make no sense to the humans – that is your common ground. The fairies have a sense of humor, just like humans – even if each race has to struggle to understand each other’s humor.

Culture: Again, you don’t have to go overboard with similarities to human culture (refer back to the pointy-eared just-like-humans-in-almost-every-way example I used earlier). Unless, of course, loads of similarities is part of the plot or theme of your book. But in general, just a few commonalities is enough to make your fantasy creatures believable and understood by your readers. Maybe your elves put the same emphasis on fashion that most human cultures past and present have? Maybe your aliens are radically alien in every way, but even they bond and find community while eating together? Make it as big or little, emphatic or unimportant as you want, but some little human element can help hook and ground your human readers.

Example: The dragons from Jeff Smith’s epic fantasy comic Bone. Physiology is where they are the least human – they’re dragons, after all. But even the main dragon character The Great Red Dragon has distinctly human-like hands, complete with smooth flexible fingers and opposable thumbs. The dragon racial mindset and culture is one rooted in fear, despite their great wisdom and power. Fear does strange things to people and makes them do things they might not normally do if they were thinking clearly – and this is what has happened to the dragons as a people as the story begins. The Great Red Dragon finds himself trying to be the lone voice of reason to both his own kind and the humans – a position that most people could understand, if not identify with.

So there’s my take on the populating of fantasy worlds. These are far from being rules, for sure, but are just common elements that I’ve noticed from some of the best sci-fi and fantasy stories. Now go grab some humans, some pointed ears, and let your imagination run wild!

Update: Here is another post along this vein, about using real-world animals in a fantasy setting.

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: World-Building

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

I wrote a two-part post some time ago about world-building for fantasy and sci-fi. Like any good epic, Babylon 5 has a complex fantasy world to build—so here are some more tips for building the world for fantasy.

1.       Don’t build the world all at once. Introduce information at a natural pace.

In other words, avoid an info dump. If you’re writing something long and epic, there is plenty of time to introduce important information. Even with a shorter work, no reader wants to spend pages of exposition reading a textbook entry about your amazing fantasy world.

Babylon 5 begins with a bare-bones intro to the world. The audience learns that the setting is a space station in the future. Through action and dialogue, the main characters are introduced, and the main alien races of the series all make a brief appearance. Emphasis on brief. The story—and the setting—begins in the middle of the action (see the post about how to begin an epic.)

During this five-year-long epic, the world is developed, personal back-stories are revealed, alien cultures, languages, and technologies are explored. In real life you don’t learn all about a person or a place or a new situation in thirty seconds, so don’t make your audience try to learn this way, either.

2.       The little details can enrich the world and make things more believable.

As you’re building your world at a natural pace, and putting in the big points, don’t neglect the small, easily-overlooked details.

For example, in Babylon 5 it is vastly important to the plot and the environment of the fantasy world that humans and Minbari used to be at war. This fact is introduced right away to set the tone of cultural tension and shaky peace. However, it’s the little details that are tossed in throughout the series that shape the Minbari into something much more than just “the aliens who used to be at war with Earth.”

Details add flavor, like adding spices to food. Details like Minbari beds being at a forty-five degree angle instead of flat, or a throw-away line by a supporting character about a Minbari city that is carved entirely out of crystal.

How about other world-building details? Like the detail about cities on the Drazi homeworld having streets too narrow for any vehicle to travel on. And Narns are apparently marsupials (or something similar), because they refer to their children as “pouchlings.” And the colonists on Mars have their own baseball team, which competes in a futuristic World Series.

Are any of these details vital to the overall plot (or even supporting plot threads?) No. But they add depth and character to the fantasy setting. Just like real life, the best things are often found in the minutia.

3.       Be consistent!

This is the most important thing. All of the good pacing, character development, enticing details, and general creativity falls flat if you’re not consistent.

No writer is perfect, and the longer the story, the more details there are to keep track of. Even in Babylon 5, there are a few inconsistencies—like the slight changes in some of the alien make-up during the early episodes.

But overall, the world of Babylon 5 is consistent, and that is part of what makes the story so engaging. If a character dies, they are not forgotten about two episodes later. Each alien race has a distinctive and unique look to their space ships, so the audience always knows who is who in a space battle. The Narn language is written from right to left, and every time G’Kar is seen with a pen in hand (which is frequent, since the character is a writer), he is making his notes from right to left. Even the Minbari’s slanted beds make the periodic appearance right up until the very end of the show.

What are some other world-building do’s or don’ts that you have seen in your favorite fantasy or sci-fi epic? Comments are welcome!

Research for a Fantasy Story

Yes, I’m writing a fantasy story and yes, I’m doing research. I believe that research to one degree or another is going to come into most any writing project, unless you’re writing a memoir or something that you’re truly an expert on. Roz Morris wrote a fantastic post about ways to do research for a novel, so I’m not going to try to duplicate what she wrote.

Even if you’re writing a realistic work of fiction, you might still need to a bit of research to add that extra touch of realism to something that you know nothing about. What if your main character owns several Great Danes, but you’ve never been near a dog bigger than a Chihuahua in your life? A little research—hands-on or otherwise—might be in order.

Obviously, historical fiction is the most research-heavy genre. Depending on your story and your intended audience, you don’t have to be a stickler for every detail, but general accuracy is good. For example, a historical fiction tale set in medieval London should not make mention of Queen Victoria. Unless you’re trying to weave in time-travel or some other fantastical element, this would be a glaring mistake.

I wrote a blog post a while back about world-building for fantasy and sci-fi, and the use of research. And so, in keeping with my own advice, I’m doing some research for my current fantasy trilogy. Here are three of the main subjects I’m researching:

Musical instruments—specifically, the traditional folk instruments of Finland and other Scandinavian regions.  I’m not trying to be historically accurate, or even accurate with the details of instrument construction or use, because this is a fantasy world. The world is inspired by the mythology of Finland, however, and so I want the musical instruments—like the jouhikko, the kantele, and the mouth harp—to reflect this. YouTube has been my primary research tool—ancient Finnish folk music is alive and well today, and YouTube lets me both see and hear the instruments in action.

Reindeer—specifically, the reindeer and their herders in Finland. This has required the most research (since two of my main characters are reindeer herders from modern-day Finland). My main source of information has been internet searches, but I’ve read some books, too (both fiction and non-fiction) that involve reindeer and the Sami people.

Even when I deem my research complete and publish my stories, there will probably be inaccuracies. But since my intended audience is the average North American/Western European reader of fantasy adventure books, I’m not too concerned with every detail. I want enough of the setting/culture/details of the animals to be accurate enough to give the reader a flavor of this very real yet very foreign lifestyle.

Northern Lights—specifically, what aurora scientists right now are studying and how they’re doing it. Again, this is a research-intensive topic, and one where I will probably wind up with inaccuracies despite my best efforts. The internet has been my only source of information about this, with my main focus being the websites of universities that have aurora programs. My next step, if I feel I need more detailed information, would be to contact some of the people at these universities to ask specific questions. Again, though, like with the reindeer, I’m writing my stories for readers of fantasy—not aurora experts or astronomers. I want the reader to feel convinced, but if I get one little jot of technobabble wrong, I don’t consider that a big deal.

Any other writers of fantasy or sci-fi out there? What sort of research have you done for your stories?