I’ve just started reading a new vampire novel. Sunshine by Robin McKinley. It’s made me contemplate the world-building that happens within the genre of urban fantasy in series and standalone novels like Sunshine and the Hollows (Kim Harrison) and Anita Blake (Laurell K. Hamilton), etc.
Urban fantasy is interesting because it explores worlds within our own, and has to walk a fine line between making the reader feel at home in our world while simultaneously changing certain aspects and creating a believable reality subsumed within it. Throw too much “other” in there, and readers will be lost or lose their SOD (suspension of disbelief, not rolled up sheets of grass).
I realized while reading, that it took me about fifty or so pages into Sunshine to realize how different the world of the story is from our world. Yes, there are vampires, etc., but the protagonist works in a coffeehouse and goes to the library, and for the first chunk of the book, there are very few hints about the extent of the world. The odd bit of slang that doesn’t quite fit 21st century speech, a few other little things.
If you want to bridge our world and a fantasy world, you first have to lull the reader into a sense of comfort. Even if you introduce the fantastical right off the bat, you still have to show enough “normalcy” to entice your reader to believe your story, whether that’s setting, description, or the every day life of the characters. Writers even do that in epic fantasy when they are creating a whole new world with a completely different history and landscape and everything. How many fantasy series begin with a rural hero living a quiet life on a farm? I can already think of three, and I’m not even trying. Because while we may not immediately “get” Middle Earth or Emond’s Field or Sendaria, we get farms as being something normal. When the magic starts happening, we’re already invested.
So when we write urban fantasy, we may not know off the bat what a writer means by “sheer” or “bad blood cross” or “Hogwarts” or “the Hollows,” but we get cars and bars and rush hour and the home of that anal-retentive aunt. As a writer, the more you pad your way across the tightrope stretched between this world and yours, the more you see of the new. It might come in bits and bangles at first, but if you take the time to build a world block by block, your readers will be steeped in it before you know it, and they won’t want to be evicted.
Good world-building is what keeps readers immersed into the wee hours of the night. Sometimes it happens quite by accident, as it was with the creation of Aloria and the world of David Eddings‘s Belgariad. His began with a doodle on a napkin that he didn’t expect to become anything until he realized that The Lord of the Rings was in its 78th printing years later and discovered that people enjoyed fantasy. From that napkin doodle came this world:
As I revise Primeval, one of the big texturing projects I am undertaking is to ensure that as my protagonist becomes more embroiled in a new type of world, the more quirks of that world she begins to see, then use herself as she adapts. I want to make sure the reader can take that journey with her. There are some structural things that need work, but I look at this revision time as sort of sitting on my egg. Most of the structure is there, but I have to keep it warm and cuddly so that life peeks out of it when I’m through.
How do you build your worlds? How do you decide what to introduce and when? How do you keep from overwhelming your reader even if you need to overwhelm your protagonist? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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