Damien Black

Old Nick's Letters

Welcome to Old Nick's Letters, a series of blogs and occasional videos compiled by the writer whenever he feels the constellations are propitious.

World-building: the jewel in the crown of fantasy

Like most fantasy fans, I remember reading The Lord of the Rings as a teenager. What really captured my imagination was not so much the story as the world it evoked; Peter Jackson said that when he read Tolkien he got a feeling of having stumbled on a forgotten history rather than a work of fiction. I have to say I agree completely.

My debut work of fantasy fiction Devil’s Night Dawning didn’t begin with a synopsis, or even an opening chapter. It began with a map. Histories, legends, superstitions, religions, and countries followed, and within a couple of years I had a fully interactive world developed, complete with its own diversity of cultures and chronology of events.

Only then did I sit down to write the story that would become Devil’s Night Dawning, the first book of the Broken Stone Series. Well, I reasoned, if it worked for old JRR maybe it could work for me!

But there was something more to it than establishing a solid platform for a work of genre fiction: I enjoyed world-building for its own sake. I had a sense of playing god, of being a mythomaniac, of creating my own parallel universe with its allegories and truths and tragedies… Put glibly, it was one hell of a creative buzz to be on!

For me, world-building is a component that is unique to high fantasy and its various offshoots. It is the element that makes our genre special, some might even say exceptional. And it gives the writer so much freedom: you can craft a setting that is every bit as meticulous in its conception as researching a period of history… And yet you don’t have to be constrained by fact. I think this is inspirational gold for writers.

I read somewhere that Robert E Howard started out as a writer of historical fiction – then came up with the Hyborian Age so he could continue to write sword and sorcery without having to concern himself with the niceties of historical fact. Some might say this is a cop-out, one that keeps fantasy on the fringes and less respectable than other more mainstream genres, but I disagree. As the likes of George RR Martin and Daniel Abraham have demonstrated, a fantasy author can be as erudite as he or she wishes, using detailed knowledge of real-life history and culture to inform a fictional universe, often to potent effect.

As far as I’m able to fathom, William Morris was the first author in the English language to set a fable in an entirely fictional parallel world, with his seminal The Wood Beyond the World. That was published around 150 years ago, and I find it astonishing that this concept didn’t exist in literature before then (Gulliver’s Travels might be a grey area, being set in fictional parts of the real world). But then perhaps our ancestors were so superstitious they didn’t feel the need to evoke an alternate world for their tales of magic and horror!

What does world-building in fantasy mean to you? Is it a core element, or just backdrop for the story? Feel free to comment, I’d love to hear your views!