Philip Athans on Building Immersive Sci-Fi & Fantasy Worlds
Special Announcement: Susan J. Morris (Writers Don’t Cry columnist) Philip Athans will both be appearing at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle, WA, on March 30th. Meet the authors as Susan discusses the secrets behind creating killer villains for games and books, and Philip discusses the ins and outs of the publishing business! Details at the end of this column.
Books are more than stories—they are whole worlds. Absorptive, transportive, and filled with all the quirks, grit, and breath-taking wonders that make the magic feel oh so real. The Lord of the Rings movies brought J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to life in ways that had never been seen before, and we were enraptured, practicing our sword play and learning the languages of the elves—just in case. Harry Potter inspired a whole theme park where some people go again and again, just to have the feeling of being in that magical world once more. And Avatar’s Pandora was so beautiful and resonant that people actually cried at the end of the movie when they realized it wasn’t real. That they couldn’t live there.
That is the power of a well-built world.
Of course, the work required to build a world with such strong immersive properties is no small task—and it’s particularly intimidating when you’re facing the blank page of your book or outline. I mean, there’s a whole world at stake here—where do you even start? How do you know what decisions will make or break your sci-fi or fantasy world?
Fortunately, I was able to get a hold of New York Times best-selling author and editor Philip Athans, who has more than a little experience designing and maintaining worlds. A professional world-builder at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, Philip also had a hand in maintaining The Forgotten Realms shared world for many years, creating the Fathomless Abyss world, and co-creating the shared world Arron of the Black Forest. A veteran on both sides of the red pen, Philip is ideally suited to help guide authors through creating their own rich, immersive fantasy and sci-fi worlds.
Susan: World building is such an intimidating concept. Why is it so important for fantasy and science fiction writers to establish a world for their stories? Can’t they just make it all up as they go along?
Philip: In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, on my blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and at conventions and so on, I continue to fall back on what I think is at the heart of successful SF and fantasy: the line between “realistic” and “plausible.” If there are dragons and magic, or aliens and faster-than-light travel in your story it’s intrinsically “unrealistic.” No one expects you to explain exactly how that stuff works, but still you hear readers make the complaint: this or that element of the story was “unrealistic.” What they really mean is that it was implausible--in that moment, they just didn’t buy it.
You always have to keep your eye on that plausibility factor, and help your readers maintain their suspension of disbelief, and the way you do that is by establishing a clear set of rules for how things like magic or FTL starships work, and sticking to those rules. If it takes your starship crew a week to get from Earth to Antares in Chapter 1, but they get there in two days in Chapter 8, that will seem “unrealistic,” because you’ve broken your own invented technological rules.
This is part of the world building process. If the castle is eight miles from the village in Chapter 3 and the characters walk there in half an hour in Chapter 12, that’s breaking your own rules, too. So everything from how fast a starship can get from here to there to how far apart the city and the castle are must be consistent. And though I’m sure there are authors out there who feel they can juggle facts like that as they go along, I think the majority of us put at least a little work in up front to define the rules that are necessary for the story, especially since the clear application of those rules will effect essential plot points.
Susan: What all is involved in world building?
Philip: The map is barely scratching the surface. The term “worldbuilding” encompasses literally everything about the world your characters inhabit: political and legal structures, available technology, religious beliefs and practices, communications, flora and fauna . . . everything.
Philip: The amount of research you’ll end up doing and the precise nature of it will depend entirely on the setting you have in mind. If you’re creating an entirely new fantasy world from the ground up, you may not have to do much research at all--just set the rules the way you want them. You are responsible for establishing everything from the laws of physics up. But the closer you want your world to be to a real world historical period, like the various fantasy-infused versions of Japanese or Chinese history in books like Sean Russell’s The Initiate Brother, the more research you’re in for.
Otherwise, the characters and story will make certain research demands. Are your characters sailing from here to there? If so, you’ll want to know at least a little bit about how sailing ships work. Science fiction tends to demand at least a little research no matter what. The more you know about trends in science and technology, the more plausible your future universe will seem--especially if you’re writing near future SF, a post-apocalypse story, or urban/contemporary fantasy.
I don’t think there’s any clear step-by-step method that everyone can equally apply when it comes to sitting down to create a fantasy world. Ultimately you want to start with characters and story and then build a world to service them. If your story is heavy on political intrigue then you may want to start with building that system. If you’re writing, say, military SF you’ll want to start by defining the combatants and their available technology.
Susan: Which comes first, the world or the story?
Philip: I know a few authors who have started building a world then created characters and stories to inhabit it, but under most circumstances I really think this is allowing the tail to wag the dog. You should always start with a theme--with something to say. What are you writing about, exactly? Then build characters and plot points up from that initial goal. All writing, even the most plot-driven sword & sorcery or space opera adventure yarn, has to be about something, has to have something to say. Your world should be built to service that, not the other way around.
Susan: What’s the coolest part about designing a world?
Philip: Maybe it’s my long association with Dungeons & Dragons but I love to drawn maps. I tend to map like a madman. They help me visualize not only the world but even buildings, the interior layout of spaceships . . . anything and everything.
After that, I like the parts that surprise me. I love that moment when I’m halfway through a manuscript and realize I have to stop and figure out how something works, why one character is suspicious of another, and so on. That’s the point at which the world starts to breathe: when it makes demands of you.
Susan: What’s your least favorite part of designing a world?
Philip: I avoid things like made-up curse words like the plague. I think that if there’s something about your world you’re just not interested in, it’s most likely it's because it’s not ever actually going to come up in the story, so it’s not necessary to establish a rule for how people swear, how they go to the bathroom, and stuff like that.
Susan: How much do you develop your world before you start writing stories in it, and does your world ever change after you start writing stories in it?
Philip: You always have to give yourself permission to have a better idea. The only time you’re really stuck is when you’ve established a certain set of rules for your world, and that story or book has been published. Once it’s out there in front of readers, it’s locked in, and you’d better come up with a convincing mechanism for how that rule has changed or your readers will hate it. SF and fantasy readers are a pretty savvy and vocal group, and they can sniff out a cheat from light-years away. But as long as you’re still writing, nothing has been locked in. If you have a better idea, or need your starship to go faster or the fire spell to kill more people at a go, then do what makes your story better. Just don't forget to go back and make sure that rule is consistently applied throughout.
Susan: You’ve managed and created a number of worlds as both an editor and as an author. Which is your favorite and why?
Philip: Boy, that’s really a tough one. Right now I’m writing in the Fathomless Abyss, which I set the scene for then developed as part of a collective of authors. This is the most bizarre world I’ve ever explored as a writer and I’m loving the massive variety of elements that can exist in the Abyss, freely mixing elements of fantasy and science fiction from every sub-genre.
The world that Mel Odom and I are creating for the Arron of the Black Forest series is lots simpler, and much more open-ended. In that case, we’re only creating pieces of the world as we need them, giving ourselves the freedom to explore the wider world along with Arron as he travels through it.
The Forgotten Realms was a whole different animal, with so many elements to juggle that had been locked in through publication. For me, that was an exercise in maintaining a world rather than creating it, even when we made some major revisions in the service of fourth edition D&D.
Susan: How do you prepare to have multiple authors working in a world you’ve created?
Philip: The series/world bible is king. The first rule is: when in doubt, write it down. And this is where it’s important to have someone, an editor namely, who sits in the middle of the authors and other creatives who have a hand in the property to juggle the additions to the canon that come from new material, making sure that all those elements and all those people work together and don’t render each others’ work obsolete. It's a much more difficult role than I think most people imagine, and for a world as complex as, say, the Forgotten Realms setting, which has been around for decades and consists of literally hundreds of published sources, it’s almost impossible. I know you know what I mean, having spent some time as the FR novel line editor yourself. Mistakes were inevitable, but it’s like that old saying amongst air traffic controllers: “You land a million planes safely and no one says a word, but you have one mid-air collision and they never let you hear the end of it.”
Susan: What kinds of things do you find make worlds more difficult or easier to manage?
Philip: In general, less is always easier to manage than more. This is why I tend to advise authors to be very careful about what they add to their worlds. Do you really need a list of made-up curse words? Do you really need eighteen different kinds of elves? Does every single one of the twenty-member crew of the starship really have to be a different sort of alien? If you let your world get too big, you can easily end up with lots of boring exposition while you stop your story to explain the system of military ranks instead of just letting a sergeant be a sergeant and a general be a general. Always ask yourself: Does this worldbuilding element, whatever it is, serve my story? If not, leave it out.
Susan: Where can authors go to learn more about world building?
Philip: Well of course, I would recommend my own book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, as a good place to start. Otherwise, read, read, read, and read some more. Authors should be reading, and not only in the genre in which they write. Read non-fiction! Spend time in the library and online, researching. Learn from history and current events. Always keep your eyes and ears open for ideas.
Philip Athans is the founding partner of Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, and the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other fantasy and horror books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction and the recently-released The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff and Tales From The Fathomless Abyss. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He makes his home in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.
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Emerald City Comicon
Washington State Convention Center
800 Convention Place
Seattle, WA 98101-2350
Susan J. Morris
Sympathy for the Devil: Creating Killer Villains for Games and Books
Friday, March 30th
Time: 7:00 - 8:00
Fascinating and devastating in their sharp suits, with their killer smiles, and their eyes that will eat you alive, villains are strong, smart, and motivated. They have that lean and hungry look. They stand alone. And say what you like about villains, but they know what they want. And that confidence is sexy.
Without the villain, there is no story. Without the villain, the heroes aren’t heroic. And without the villain, things are a lot less interesting. What is Star Wars without Darth Vader? Who is Harry Potter without Voldemort? Kick your game or book up a notch and learn the secrets behind creating killer villains with author, editor, and Amazon columnist Susan J. Morris of “Writers Don’t Cry.”
The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction
Friday, March 30th
Time: 4:00 - 5:00
An informative Q&A with veteran editor and New York Times best-selling fantasy author Philip Athans, author of "The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction". Philip will give tips for the aspiring author, and candid answers to direct questions.