Image: Helen Sloan/HBO
I live in multiple worlds.
In one world, I am a writer on just about everything from high-end kitchen designs to the latest medical breakthroughs. This is how I spend most of my time because I enjoy writing, and it pays for things that I love: holidays, Japanese food, collecting rock minerals and, most importantly, books, particularly those of the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) variety.
Which brings me to the other worlds in which I often reside. When I am not at the office, I regularly travel to JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth, George RR Martin’s Westeros and Stephen King’s Mid-World, to name but a few. Fantastically, these are worlds that were built and created out of thin air.
So what does fictional “world building” in SFF have to do with content creation?
1) Let the Story Be the Master
In SFF, the world serves the story, not the other way around. You can have the most elaborate and considered universe in literature, but if you haven’t found the heart of the story, you’re writing an encyclopedia. So, instead of shoving descriptions of every castle, armour and forest down the throats of readers, the story and its characters become the protagonists.
This is something that real-world writers also have to keep in mind. Let’s say I am writing a story about a medical device. Sure, I can go to great lengths to describe the science behind it, but what’s the real story here? Breakthrough technology aside, the real narrative is about how this medical device will better the lives of its users. That is the story that will stay with the readers, which is why it’s important for us to ask this question: who are the protagonists?
2) Create Memorable Language
Coming up with fictional history, geography and language is one thing, but I can imagine that what really gives SFF authors an adrenaline rush is coming up with character and place names. However, some authors are markedly better than others.
Let’s take Terry Goodkind’s 11-book Sword of Truth series, for example, which has a character called Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander. It’s so complicated that people call him Zedd. Other characters with difficult-to-pronounce names include Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles and Cthulhu from HP Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. Don’t get me started on fantasy characters with apostrophes in their names.
Complicated terms are not only hard to pronounce, they are even harder to remember. As writers, we often come across technical jargon but jamming those terms into articles is not only going to turn the reader off, it is a disservice to the story as a whole.
Instead, I prefer simple, direct language. If you can’t get around terms like “Magnetic Resonance Imaging Machine”, use simple language to explain what it does and how it can benefit the user. You might be writing a medical newsletter, but the average person doesn’t want to read a mind-boggling tech brochure.
3) Establish a Relatable World
My father just doesn’t understand why a fantastical can sometimes feels more real than, well, the real world. Here’s a recent conversation I had with him:
Dad: What are you reading?
Me: Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey.
Dad: What’s it about?
Me: …It’s about dragonriders.
Dad: That’s stupid.
Fantastical creatures may populate these worlds, but they feel real to readers because they are, in some ways, grounded in reality, and build a connection with the audience. After all, there is a reason why the world of Harry Potter works. While the characters are battling He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, they also have to deal with difficult teachers, homework, and bullies — relatable concepts to its readers.
And that relatable familiarity is exactly what we, as writers, should be striving to achieve.
For example I wrote an article on medical cadavers, or silent mentors, and how they are crucial to the training and education of future medics. This is a world that not many people know about, so how do you bring readers into the fold?
We begin with a setting: who are the silent mentors? Who are the students? Who are the people who have to take care of the silent mentors? Then, you look for the heart of the story: why did they choose to be silent mentors? How do the students feel about them? Essentially, we are introducing the reader to an alien world, and then find common areas to which they can relate.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if this alien world — real or fictional — is populated by Hobbits or doctors. Everybody has a story to tell, and, as writers, we are all creators of worlds. Our job is to invite readers into uncharted territory, show them around and make them want to stay longer. Hopefully, by the time our readers bid this new world farewell, they will take away something unforgettable.