As part of my Guest blog series for authors and fellow bloggers I am proud to present another guest blog spot. Daniel E. Olesen the author of The Eagle’s Flight
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By Daniel E. Olesen
One of the pillars of the fantasy genre is world building. Whether the story is set in a completely separate world or our own with a few tweaks, it is a prerequisite. Before I started writing my novel, I spent years developing the setting first, and even now as I write more stories, I often find the plot changing according to the necessities imposed by the world surrounding it. In this post, I will talk about 6 aspects of world building, how and why they matter both to fantasy writers and readers and using examples from my own work or other fantasy books.
When I say language, I do not mean the writing style, but the actual vocabulary employed. Languages are organic entities that evolve over time, and they are greatly affected by historical events. English, for instance, had a huge influx of French words after the Norman invasion of 1066, changing the makeup of the English language significantly, as did the Viking invasions of the 9th, 10th, and 11th century. These are all things to consider. Using Norse or Anglo-Saxon words will evoke that culture in the reader’s mind, e.g. using burg rather than castle, calling it a lore house and not a school etc.
On the other hand, if we want to summon the knightly culture of medieval France with its jousts and code of chivalry, describing the surcoats and gambesons outfitted with emblems of heraldry, fighting in the grand mêlée at the tournament, then it is an entirely different set of vocabulary that matters.
Obviously there is some leeway in fantasy, because we are not directly writing about e.g. a Norse culture, but a fictitious one. But if there are people venturing forth in longships to raid other lands, the more we align the vocabulary used to describe them (and most importantly, when writing their dialogue), the easier it is for the readers to immerse themselves.
This leads me to perhaps the most important part of world building, which is culture. By this, I mean the society of the setting with all that entails. Vocabulary is one way to build this, but obviously, that is just a start. Culture is both the structure of society (tribal, feudal, urban, city-state etc.) but also the very way of life as lived by the characters. Festivals and feasts, rituals for birth and death, traditions, all make a culture seem real and genuine; they infuse the text with believability. This does not have to be wholly separate from the plot either, making it seem like mere flavour. Consider The Rains of Castamere, which not only works to make the culture of Westeros seem more genuine, but also acts to characterise Tywin Lannister and to foreshadow latter events of the story.
Rituals permeate our lives. They impose order on the chaos of human existence. Every culture celebrates birth in some way, every culture mourns their dead in some way. Rites of passage, the initiation into adulthood, are also universal, whatever form these rites may take. If a fantasy world is to convince the reader, it must have a culture as rich in rituals as those of our world.
This brings me to my next item, religion. This is a little complicated for fantasy, as it can easily tell a story where the gods are actively involved as characters. If so, that naturally imposes many requirements on the story to make that all fit together. I’ll steer away from that and simply discuss religion as part of world building. To me, culture and rituals are inexorably tied together with some form of belief system. It does not have to be organised religion per se, but whatever the specifics of this fantasy world, its inhabitants must believe in something.
Now, some stories may only have any kind of religion as a vague element in the background to focus on other aspects. In my own work, I chose to make religion important, because the general theme of my writing is power, and spiritual or religious power is one aspect of this – especially in a medieval world, where the influence of the clergy would be substantial. This made it necessary for me to define the various religious orders. Both in a simple manner such as their clothing and symbols to distinguish them from each other, but also more complex in their tenets and the goals they worked towards. See an example here, Priesthoods of Adal.
Of course, to define each religious order, I had to first define the gods they serve. Some writers may go entirely freestyle with this, but I found it very useful to study the mythologies of the world for inspiration. The three most well-known in the West would be the Judeo-Christian, the Greek and the Norse ones, which all provide plenty of incredible stories to build a pantheon from. Myself, I went a little further as by chance, I had been reading the works of Eliade, a scholar of comparative mythology. I took several cues from him to create my pantheon, The Faiths of Adal.
Having a pantheon is just one possibility, of course. Some cultures might fit much better with a shamanistic tradition or worship of ancestors. It all depends on what setting makes sense for the story being told.
I have noticed in some fantasy works that the history of the world is only mentioned when relevant to the plot. On some level, this is not necessarily bad; some authors do tend to ramble on, wanting to showcase the details of their world, even if it is has no bearing on the plot and messes with the pacing of the story. So this is not to advocate that authors should heap piles of backstory into the text.
But if you have ever been in a city with at least a moderate amount of history, consider how its history is woven into its fabric. Monuments on squares and plazas, often depicting a historical figure all but forgotten by now. The street names may similarly be to honour some long dead person, or they are of practical nature that has grown obsolete (e.g. Ropemakerstreet, because centuries ago, this was where the rope makers lived). In this and other ways, the history of the city is present.
That is often all it takes. If a story is describing the surroundings anyway, such details take up very little space, but they hint of a rich, complex past. They impress upon the reader that people have lived in this city for centuries, that entire wars have been fought in that span and forgotten again etc. I think that is often an underappreciated device by a writer; adding clues and remarks like that without necessarily going into detail, thus keeping the flow of the story smooth while building up the age of the world in a natural way.
I often feel that many fantasy worlds are depicted as static in terms of technological advances, or there is an implicit assumption that they are. Maybe because they are often (European) medieval in setting, and we tend to think that between the fall of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, European civilisation remained in status quo for all those centuries.
Pushing aside that even the medieval age saw plenty of advances, I find a static world to be intrinsically against human nature. There is always someone trying to do things a better way, or find new solutions to old problems, and then new solutions to the new problems that arise because we solved the old ones.
There are exceptions, of course. Maybe a world full of magic would have little use for developing new technology or machinery (though I imagine they would be developing new ways to use magic instead). Maybe the story is set in a remote location and a society so simple that change happens at glacier speed.
If the story is set in a hectic society, however, change would inevitably take place. Especially some place like a city that has trade routes and connections to other lands, other cultures; there are few ways technology spreads as fast as when seeing how people do it elsewhere and bringing their good ideas back home. So far, I have encountered very few fantasy stories that incorporated the element of technological advancement, but being such sparsely used territory, maybe future writers will begin to explore it extensively in search of innovation.
- The whole is more than the sum of its parts
Stealing a quote from Aristotle, the most important part of all this is how all these aspects connect. The vocabulary, phrases, idioms and the like are not only important ways to make characters seem vivid and genuine. Language is intrinsically bound with history, changing in pace with historical events. Whatever happened in the history of this world, it would have left its marks on the language. Rituals are typically considered a domain of religion, but they are also unavoidably tied together with culture. A people that believes in certain gods or folklore would have related superstitions as an effect, perhaps avoiding travelling on certain days or not eating a certain part of the animals they raise. Similarly, swear words or curses and something as mundane as the names of the weekdays tend to have their roots in religion, tying that aspect closely together with language again.
If a world is to be truly genuine to the reader, it is not enough that each of these aspects have been considered in full. They must connect effortlessly; the transition of detail from history to language to culture must be fluid. In this manner, a truly immersive experience awaits the reader.
Daniel E. Olesen holds a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature, specializing in fantasy. Check the Town Crier at his site for more blog posts about fantasy, literary theory, etymology and the like. The site itself contains detailed information on the world of Adal for interested readers, including downloadable maps in high resolution.
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The Eagle’s Flight, free to download from www.annalsofadal.net
Peace in the Seven Realms of Adalmearc is only as strong as those who rule them. With the death of the high king and his heir too young to assume the throne, political intrigues fill the landscape as the leading noble families scheme and plot their way to power. Meanwhile, enemies abroad sense the changes and make their own preparations.
Standing as a safeguard against both foreign foes as well as enemies closer to heart are the Order and its knights. Keeping the realms of Adalmearc united and at peace is their foremost duty. But when the strife turns political and the enemy is difficult to discern, when alliances shift and allegiances are torn, even the hitherto unassailable honour of a knight may become stained.
The Eagle’s Flight compiles the first three of the Chronicles of Adalmearc. It is a journey into the world of Adal, its realms, peoples, cultures, and conflicts.
“I spit on your honour, Isarn.”
– Theobald, captain of the Citadel
“Rats will reign when eagles sleep.”
“I have lost all control.”
– Theodoric, jarl of Theodstan
“When night falls, my vigil begins. When dawn rises, so do I.”
– The Squire’s Pledge
“Away he rode with all his men, and never to return again, his eyes are closed, his body cold, the Dragonheart, who was of old.”
– a bard’s song
“War is like a river. We may suppress its flow, but eventually it will break through and do so with greater force.”
– Adalbrand of House Arnling
“There are many who would say it is not for a woman to rule.”
– Theodora, queen of Hæthiod
“I gave him direct orders! I will have his spurs for this and then his head!”
– Reynold, lord marshal of the Order of Adal
“Men may ride, but the raven will fly.”
“Politics is about being pragmatic, not about being right.”
– Irene, dowager queen of Hæthiod
“My sword fears not death. My shield defends the weak. My armour protects the realm. This is my oath. I am a Knight of Adal.”
– From the Knight’s Codex