Ever since I was a child I was drawn to fantasy worlds. I ignored contemporary books where characters faced real world problems in favor of fantastical worlds, outer space adventures, monsters, demons and dragons. My father’s shelves were filled with space operas, high-fantasy classics, and alternate universes. I grew up coveting his book selection. I remember at some point in elementary school I attempted to read his book Dune. Dust, sand-snakes, and strange creatures kept me up at night.
So when I started writing for teens, I naturally gravitated toward fantasy, magical realism, and science fiction. I bought all of these how-to books on world-building and creating well-developed fantastical landscapes. It is a daunting task for an author to create an entirely new place with new rules and a unique sense of order. Also, children and teens are tough critics. They will let you know if a world doesn’t work. But they will also dive head first into whatever crazy sensibilities or events you have set up in the novel. They suspend disbelief better than any other age ground.
Here are some fantastical lands I enjoy:
Kat Falls, Dark Life. This novel takes place in the future after the world’s cities are overcrowded and overwhelmed with people. Some families have become subsea pioneers and have communities along the ocean floor. Kat Falls masterfully builds her underwater world almost like the Wild West of America. Her pirates are reminiscent to outlaws and people on the run. I got introduced to this woman’s work at a round-table Writer’s Intensive at the SCBWI Winter Conference a few years back. She read the first 500 words of this novel out to us. We all loved the text, except for the grumpy agent assigned to our table. I bet the agent is kicking herself now. The movie rights have been bought and it is a strong book in the market.
In an interview, Falls states that she “came up with the premise for Dark Life during a writing exercise. I’d set myself the task of combining three things that my son loved to read about into one story – the ocean, Old West pioneers, and the X-Men. Suddenly, the world of the story took shape in my mind and the plot came together fairly easily after that.”
Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials. Armored bears, dirigibles, dust, a golden altheiometer, daemons, a knife that cuts into other worlds, the land of death, angels, strange horse-like creatures called mulefas, witches, golden telescopes, aeronauts, etc… Even though Philip Pullman’s world is controversial and ruffles people’s feathers (well, maybe it’s only in America), it is a well-constructed place full of complex relationships, conflicts, creatures, multi-cultural characters, and a small, girl-child who must save the world. He takes well-used fantastical creatures, such as witches and angels, and refreshes them. He also creates an epic tale on a grand scale that is so multi-faceted I had to read the text several times to grasp what he was attempting to do. This text and world has so many textures. He blends traditional fantasy with steampunk elements (machinery and technology that are steam-powered).
I was first introduced to this series during my last semester in college. Strangely, I decided to go abroad during my senior spring semester and went to England. My undergraduate university, Wake Forest, has a house in north London off Hampstead Heath (right next door to Jude Law’s ex-wife and kids!). My English professor from the States accompanied us and we had to take an intense British Literature course, as well as British Theatre course. She included His Dark Materials on the course list because she had secured for us to see the stage play that was all the rave in London at the time. In 2005, The National Theatre had adapted the three books into an elaborate two-part stage play. Each part of the play was 2.5 hours. They used Japanese puppetry for the daemons and had a million different scene changes. It was one of the highlights of my time there.
Phillip Pullman has admitted a fascination with John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost based upon the Bible’s description of the fall of man and Satan’s rebellion. Pullman borrows the phrase “His Dark Materials” from Milton’s poem.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games. This dystopian text masterfully builds the world around a Big Brother-type of government that elects teens to participate in a battle to the death. Collins does a fabulous job invoking the different districts in the ruins of North America through the everyday mundane things Katniss must do to keep her family afloat, such as hunting and bartering and traipsing through the Wild. I can’t wait to see how the world is adapted in the film version. I hope they pay close attention to how Suzanne developed her world so subtly.
During an interview with the School Library Journal, Collins said she was influenced and inspired by the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, as well as Spartacus and the Third Servile War. Katniss’ story arc and struggle had many parallels to those stories.
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. The classic Narnia has endured and will probably always be on the shelf. Even though at times C.S. Lewis’ wordy prose and mixed mythological beings are frustrating as an adult reader, when I was a small child I adored all things through that wardrobe. I read every single Narnia book over and over again. When I was in Catholic high school, we had to study his work in a Religion class and we examined his Christian ethos and mythology in the text. As a child, I never thought of these things. It was just a story about 4 kids and all the adventures they went on.
Lewis has been said to be influenced by his writer friend, J.R.R Tolkien, writer of The Lord of the Rings, and his introduction to Christianity. He also borrows creatures from different mythological backgrounds, from Greek to Asian to Irish/Celtic and so forth.
Tony Diterlizzi, The Search for Wondla. I came across this book recently and ploughed right through it. Eva Nine is a curious and sensitive 12-year old, who has existed only in a subterranean home called Sanctuary. She is looked after by a robot named Muthr. Eva’s greatest desire is to go above ground, and her wish comes true, though not as she had pictured. The illustrations that accompany the text are beautifully strange and magical and lure readers further into the text. I wanted to continue with the story and also turn the pages to see what illustration was next. There is also an online component to this novel, which is so cool. You can experience Wondla-Vision and hold the illustrations up to the computer screen and interesting things are revealed.
Diterlizzi is quoted in an interview stating, “WondLa is full of many classic sci-fi elements (robots, aliens, hovercraft, etc.), but it is a fairy tale at its heart. It contains many familiar fairy-tale plot motifs we all know of: a little girl lost in the woods, an evil huntsman after her, forest spirits who aid her in response to her own kindness and an uncaring queen who rules the land.”
Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan & Behemoth. This steampunk series is a force to be reckoned with. Scott Westerfeld dives right into the genre. He re-imagines World War I with a global conflict between the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, and the Darwinists, whose technology is based on the development of new species. He follows Prince Aleksandar after his parents are assassinated and his people turn against him, as well as Deryn Sharp, who is training to be an airman with the British Air Service, and praying that no one will discover that she is a girl. Deryn serves on the Leviathan, a massive biological airship that resembles an enormous flying whale and functions as a self-contained ecosystem.
By definition steampunk is (usually) an imaginary Victorian age that features brass and copper clockwork and steam-powered inventions that extend beyond the scope of 1800s technology. The novels from this genre also include steam-powered mechanical wonders, gear driven computers, dirigibles, clockwork machinery etc…I appreciate this world because Westerfeld re-imagined an historical event and meticulously created machinery and clockwork to accompany it.
There are so many facets to Scott Westerfeld’s world-building it is hard to pin down everything. He’s interested in tanks, guns, and machinery from the WWI period, biology, airships, etc…Read more about it here.
All of these worlds took a great deal of complex world-building through scenes, characters, and powerful descriptions that doesn’t slow the narrative. I wish I could interview each author and determine the inspiration for their fantasy landscapes. In my writing class, I am privileged to be in good company with two other fantasy and science fiction writers: Mary Thompson and Amy Ewing. As the nosey person I am, I wanted to immediately know how they went about building their fantasy worlds. So check back to see how Mary Thompson, Amy Ewing, and I build our own worlds.
What are some worlds you like? What world would you like to live in? And how do you world-building?