Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part I)

If you are going to embark on a career writing fantasy literature, at some point or another you are going to have to familiarize yourself with the concept of world building. World building is the art of constructing an alternate world or universe in which the action of your story takes place. One of the most important things you can do in that regard is read: You can learn a lot from reading other writers’ works. You can figure out what works and what doesn’t work. One important lesson I have learned from reading others work is “all things in moderation.” This applies particularly to world-building activities in fantasy literature. A part of that is the notion of limits that I discussed in an earlier post. In that post I mentioned the important point that unless a reader loves your work so much (as we all hope they do) that they reread the book a dozen times, they will not be nearly as conversant in all the characteristics and relationships in the world as the author is. Because of this, what is clear to the author may not be clear to the reader on a first read. And that can be dangerous.


Two examples of well-respected authors who have fallen into this trap are Brandon Sanderson and Tad Williams. Specifically, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings involves extensive world building. In my opinion, it involves too much. I read the book quite some time ago and reviewed it here. I can deal with multiple moons, different weather patterns from our own, and even different days of the week than ours, but what I find excessive is a whole slew of alien critters that aren’t essential to the story but are added to simply give the world an alien feel. Likewise, inventing entirely new types of material for clothing and what have you. I only read the book once, and although it was an excellent book, I don’t intend to read it again. As for Tad Williams, his Shadowmarch series was a semi-decent series, not exceptional and certainly not as good as his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. However, the Shadowmarch series suffered one serious failing. He gave approximately three different names to each of his world’s deities. That was confusing as all heck. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I think there were at least eight significant deities, maybe more. That’s twenty-four names that the reader has to keep track of as they cross reference themselves many times. Like I said: very confusing.


The lesson from this is that creativity is a good thing, but there’s a point where it can be detrimental. Just because something makes logical sense, doesn’t mean you should incorporate it into your writing. In the next post, I’ll give you a way to manage such an abundance of creativity, inspired by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and some of my own experience.

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