Even if you are interested in learning new ways to think about your fiction writing, you probably hate to be ordered around. Because of that, I have avoided stating any rules or using "you" language in the following sections. You may find it tiresome to read so much about what I do—but I think that's better than telling you what to do.
My editor tells me that fantasy is a very difficult genre to write. There are competent authors published in other genres who have not made a successful transition to fantasy. The problem, according to my editor, lies in creating a believable and emotionally convincing world. The reader has to absorb new world rules and anticipate their consequences, suspending disbelief even while he or she is still learning about this new place and its people.
I have written four fantasy manuscripts, all of them successful in the sense that they are in some stage of publication, and I would like to share here with any interested writer the way I create my worlds. I do not believe that my approach is unique; indeed, I suspect that it is a largely untaught process that many writers use. I have heard another fantasy writer describe what I refer to on this page as "if-then" reasoning during the development of one of his manuscripts.
I believe it is Ursula K. Le Guin who once described fantasy as a genre that allows authors to take issues from our everyday culture and focus on them in an exaggerated form. She made the point that fantasy can be a laboratory wherein we study concepts of all sorts, forming world rules and alien cultures specifically to support our investigation. We can isolate and examine ideas within our otherworldly stories, just as laboratory scientists culture pure strains of organisms and perform tests on them that would be impossible under everyday conditions. Nor is this advantage limited exclusively to fantasy: it is certainly a technique exploited by the authors of science fiction. I believe it is one of the greatest benefits we can gain from creating fantasy or science fiction literature.
I am very interested in the idea of the fantasy book as a laboratory. In The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy, I have deliberately created races very different from one another in appearance, habits, and cultural values in order to study the causes and consequences of prejudice. If I had used existing human cultures for this experiment, my own prior experiences or lack of cultural insight might have led me to treat one or another of them unfairly. The fact that my races are fantasy creatures freed me from that danger.
The stories I have written so far are folklore-based fantasies: they are built up from the assumptions passed down to us in certain folktales. My first four books come specifically from the British (Welsh, Gaelic, and Irish) traditions. Even though reviewers have noted a similarity been The Hollow Kingdom and the Persephone myth, this myth was not a basis for my novel. The British tradition contains folktales much closer to my heroine's experiences.
I started building my fantasy world, then, using several very specific ideas from British folklore and regarding these ideas as "true" for the purposes of the manuscript:
A race of magical people lives beneath a lake. The Lady of the Lake, in the tales of King Arthur, is the most famous example of this folk idea.
The race of the "others" who cohabit the land with us humans lives under a great landmark hill, and this is their kingdom. This was a widespread belief, associated with different hills. The presence of an "underworld royalty" is recorded in the Welsh Mabinogion tale of Pwyll and Arawn.
They build magic circles, fenced by trees, in which the grass never dies. In Irish tales, these are called dancing circles, and nothing must ever be built in them.
They steal young human women and girls for the purpose of marriage, and there is either no courtship, or a very brief and cryptic one. In one Irish tale, a girl has a dream in which she sees fairy men riding on horses with human women seated behind them. One man is alone, and he points to the saddle behind him: "This is your place." Shortly afterwards, she is stolen. Usually, however, the abduction takes place with no warning at all.
They control sleep and dreams with magic. See the above example. Often the abductions occur after the victim has fallen into a magical slumber.
They have their own wars with other races or nations of their own magical sort, their own politics, their own etiquette, and their own business. They don't ordinarily concern themselves with humans. There are many British legends of magical wars being conducted at night and of warnings that humans should avoid the notice of these "others."
The "other" women have difficulty in childbirth. There are legends of difficult births involving beautiful "fairy" women helped by human midwives. (I call them elves, after the Tolkien tradition.) This notion is so prevalent that it appears in the World Book Encyclopedia. (1994 ed.)
I combined these ideas from British folklore with some general folktale notions about goblins. Goblins themselves are not, to my knowledge, native to British lore, coming from Northern European tales instead; the word goblin, meaning a mischievous and ugly demon, came into English from the French and is used in English literature from the 1300's. Here are the goblin ideas that I took for my fantasy world, some of them from fantasy classics such as Tolkien's books or MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin:
Goblins are not only ugly but misshapen—that is, they are not symmetrical—and they have animal features such as snouts, batwings, boar tusks, feathers, etc.
Goblins live underground, frequently in natural caves, and only go abroad after dark. Both Tolkien and MacDonald hold to this tradition.
Goblins steal human or elf women for marriage. This is the point of MacDonald's tale, and Tolkien proposes that orcs are descended from crossbreeding between goblins and elves.
Goblins always congregate in very large crowds or groups. Very few tales mention an encounter with one goblin; there seems to be some sort of pack mentality.
Goblin society involves a two-tier system of sentient goblin "people" and goblin "animals," which are equally misshapen and dangerous. Tolkien views these animals as twisted by the Dark Lord from their original species types; MacDonald, too, relates that they descend from domestic animals.
My Hollow Kingdom world, then, has a solid foundation, a whole set of folktales that I have turned to, like an investigative reporter, to ferret out the "truth" of my creatures' life.
Once I had put together my set of legendary notions, I then began to apply "if-then" logic to the folktale information about them. I always do this sort of dry investigative thinking about every aspect of fantasy life, developing my world from the "facts" I know to figure out what I don't know. I never think of myself as creating a fantasy culture, then—I always think of myself as reasoning out or discovering it.
I used this logic on the items listed in the section above to draw conclusions such as these:
If goblins are both very ugly and very gregarious (i.e., always together in groups), then they must have temperaments that are unflappable and callous. They must be tolerant of physical differences and probably immune to many insults. If they were truly as barbaric and excitable as traditional tales suggest, they would wind up murdering each other constantly in feuds and quarrels, and their society would not have survived.
If a race can produce members of great variety in appearance, then their aesthetics must be very broad: they will call many different sorts of appearances "beautiful."
If goblins live under a lake, then their vegetation and food crops must be limited by lack of sunlight. Their food animals will be small, as well.
If goblin animals can mate with regular animals, then goblins will have developed a taboo against eating any female animal (and thus possibly killing their own young).
I even applied this reasoning to individual characters:
If Marak is both highly intelligent and callous, then he will either find the behavior of others very boring or very interesting and amusing.
If Charm, the magical snake, has had the same job for thousands of years and still loves it, then this creature must have an "abnormal" narrowness of focus and interest in its occupation.
Often this investigative thinking leads through a long chain of steps. Here's an example of a connected chain of this sort, somewhat abbreviated for space concerns: it leaves out several steps I considered, and all the folktale evidence.
Both elves and goblins steal human women, intending this to result in a lifelong stay in their culture, usually as a wife of one of the indigenous men. By many reports, the captive women are well treated. Often they seem to be the consort or the ward of the king or a member of nobility. There must be some cultural reason for this behavior since it takes place over generations.
Attractiveness of the women alone could not be this reason because a beautiful and an ugly race could not share the same aesthetics, and elves are reported to be more beautiful than humans, anyway.
Marriage to a member of an outside culture is always risky behavior, and so is marriage by abduction. This foreign woman will have an influence over her children, and a wife can always find ways to make her dissatisfaction apparent. Why would any culture go to the trouble of bringing foreign women in so abruptly?
If there is no attempt on the part of goblins to win the woman through a long courtship, this could have to do with an anticipated reaction of the woman's disgust at a disfigured spouse. But that is no answer for the behavior of the elves, who are not ugly.
Different sets of stories suggest strongly that the "others" try to avoid raising the awareness of human society to their existence. This explains why the human woman is removed so quickly from her community, with no direct evidence of where she has gone.
If the "others" go to such trouble to take these brides, and to equal amounts of trouble to avoid contact with their society or culture, then these human women supply something crucial that indigenous women cannot, and this something is obviously not cultural.
This brings up the idea of the difficulty "fairy" races have in childbirth. Apparently, some "other" women can reproduce, or the alien race couldn't survive. But the races apparently don't reproduce well. There is never a sense that their members are as numerous as human.
Consequently, the crucial advantage a human woman supplies is probably either genetic or physical, and it makes her something of a prize. This explains her good treatment and the high social class of her husband.
When I have carried these lines of reasoning as far as I can take them, I have a very good idea how my fantasy society works.
Anthropologists apply just this sort of investigative reasoning to human cultures. I have had a small amount of formal anthropological training (some courses at the master's level), and it has been of immense value to my fictional work.
One of the most important things that anthropology brings to a writer is the realization that cultures solve survival issues in many different ways. Cultural norms, taken out of context, can seem absurd, but viewed together, all of them make a coherent and workable set of solutions to the problems of life and society. If they didn't provide a sensible approach to survival, the culture couldn't have lasted. So, for instance, we Westerners might find Buddhist India's insistence on not eating sacred cows to be odd, given the hunger problems there. But then, the populated parts of India are hot and very humid, and for millennia, food preservation problems would have rendered any attempt to incorporate meat into the diet a great danger. Diseases could have wiped out the culture entirely. Vegetarianism not only met religious requirements but made a great deal of sense in helping the culture to survive.
The more cultural variety I encounter, the more different ideas I can bring into play to solve the problems facing my fictional cultures. For instance, in considering the abduction problem, above, I recalled the habit among native American cultures of kidnapping small children and young women from settlers when those cultures were facing extinction in the 1800's. The problems of fostering in outsiders were outweighed, in that case, by the need of these cultures to increase their population.
Anthropologists carefully study the solutions a culture develops to handle issues of family, kinship, sex, childrearing, conflict, crime, and death. An anthropologist looks for the public signs of a culture: festivals, art, governing structures, and family units, for instance. Anthropologists ask, "Where do these people get their food? How do they celebrate birth, marriage, death? Who is related to whom and who is responsible for whom? How do they establish families? Who teaches the children?" Writers must find answers to these same questions regarding their fictional societies.
I consider this anthropological angle so important to my fantasy work that I continue to do a certain amount of study in this area. I often choose reading material written by anthropologists in order to broaden my understanding of other cultures. Exposure to the norms of other societies enables me to remember that my own society's norms are just one way to build a culture, not the only way to do so.
This sort of cultural research and background development goes on for weeks as I develop and write a story, and it continues throughout manuscript revisions. I test out all kinds of theories, looking for the solutions that make sense for my societies, and I work on developing characters whose thoughts are patterned by their cultures and not my own. But when I am writing, I try not to force the reader into contact with every single cultural solution I have worked out. More than anything else, I try very hard to avoid lecturing. My reader is attempting to enjoy an adventure tale. He or she has no time for the sort of dry and complicated reasoning that appears on this webpage.
Instead, I try to raise these cultural values and habits within their proper context, as I describe the members of my fictional culture living out their lives. I try to have my characters themselves explain cultural behaviors to outsiders, just as well or as poorly as we might explain our own societal norms to a visitor from another culture.
I don't clarify every cultural value for the reader. Many things, like the goblin taboo on eating females, make sense if attentive readers think about them, but they are never stated outright. I do this to mimic real life: we never learn everything about why people in a foreign country do the things they do. And I believe this is one of the elements that has made The Hollow Kingdom a success. Readers enjoy the feeling that there is more to this world than has been explained. Then the place seems real to them—or, as my editor would say, it seems believable and emotionally convincing.
"Ideas on Creating Fantasy Worlds" copyright 2004 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.