Before we begin, if you have a living author whom you defend with hard, cold, steel, I am sorry in advance. I am an unashamed Classics girl. Please don’t kill me for calling your author shallow. In fact, put the book title in the comments, and if it looks like something I’d be interested in, I might read it. Who knows? Opinions can be changed.
I can honestly say that I do not, as a general rule, enjoy modern fantasy novels. I don’t usually enjoy dystopian or science fiction either. Basically I don’t enjoy modern fiction, at least as far as I’ve read (there are one or two that I do like, but they are almost never the first thing off my shelves) Soooo shallow...but I digress. There are authors (unfortunately all dead) who have written in those genres, whose works I love with a passion. Jules Verne and J.R.R. Tolkien are two of them. I have over time discovered that all my favorite authors are all deceased, and I am a history GEEK. In all caps. With italics. And underlined. Also with fireworks. I love history. Can you tell?
In my personal opinion, Tolkien is the best fantasy writer of all time, and the father of fantasy as we know it. He took his entire life building Middle Earth, and put infinitely more thought into it than any other fantasy world that I have ever heard of. We can learn a lot from his stories, and while not all of it is applicable to a short story, I will present some things which I have discovered. I’m not asking that you take everything that I say and write a 5,000 word tale, because you’ll probably go crazy, and it’s not worth spending the rest of your life to work out a world if you only need it for three pages of action, but it’s worth reading, at least, and storing away in your mind palace for future reference.
- Give your world distinctly different ethnicities.
This is something that you can do a little in a short story, but don’t feel like you need to stress over deep developement unless you plan on writing a novel in the same world later. Be careful that you don’t make everyone have the same skin tone. People who live in one area of the world might have more melanin in their skin than people who live on another continent. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien added a very important group of people, the Drúedain, a tribe-like people in the mountains who showed Aragorn and company a series of paths in the woods to evade an Orc army. Basically what I’m saying is don’t make everyone the same.
- Place and event names are important.
It is not “The Mountain”; it is “Caradhras”. It is not “The Lake-Village”; it is “Dale”. If a tree is important, give it a name. If a road will be travelled on, give it a name. If a tiny valley will be used or talked about, name that tiny valley. Do not ignore the importance of giving something a title. I have read multiple books where names have been ignored, and it ruins the entire story. I don’t care if your world only exists for 6,000 words. Give everything a name. Very rarely can the object name successfully exist in the name of the landmark or battle. The Party Tree in the Shire and The Lonely Mountain are two examples where it might work; however, different people groups (such as the Elves) called The Lonely Mountain something entirely different. The same is true with Rivendell, or the Last Homely House.
- Along with the ethnicities, give the people different cultures.
While there’s nothing wrong with having common beliefs, every culture needs to view those beliefs differently, and have different ways of approaching their deity, or deities. Not only that, but their relationships with other people, their laws, and their superstitions vary from people to people. What kind of songs do they sing? What foods do they eat? Do they have different instruments? Do they have different names for different places? Are certain things or people held in higher respect than others? Why? Don’t go into great detail for a little story, but make sure the difference is clear.
- Give your world a history.
No, you don’t have to write five books on the topic, and if you’re just writing a short story, this isn’t something you’re going to want to dive into headfirst. But believe me, a culture is shaped by its past. You can also tie this into the first two points. How did the different people groups originate and disburse? How are their beliefs and cultures affected by their history. Do two different groups of people see the same event from totally different viewpoints? Does it affect their relationship with other peoples? If so, how? To go back to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, the Elves and Dwarves are enemies partly because of a war that went on between them in the past. The Elves believe that the Dwarves caused the war, and the Dwarves believe the opposite. In our own world, America and Europe view World War II very differently, because while they were both on the same side(for the most part), they had different perspectives on what was going on, as well as how it affected them.
I just realized how lengthy that became. I can usually summarize pretty well, but whatever, at least you have my advice. Take all of it, some of it, or none of it as you see fit. Just remember that a good story needs a solid world, and how well you build your world will determine whether your story falls or flies.
Now that you’ve read all that, I’d be glad to hear any advice you might have, or tips you’ve heard in different places. How do you go about building a world? Everyone does it a little differently. Is there anything that you have found to be essential? Any advice on forming a clear idea of the world? And last but not least, have you created an entire language? If you have, congratulations! If you haven’t, don’t feel badly. J.R.R. Tolkien is literally the only person I have ever heard of who has built a language system for his fantasy world. I have tried - and given up one hour into the process.
Keep reading, and keep working on your stories! I would be writing one...okay I should be writing a short story and really have no excuse for why I’m not. Oh, and if you haven’t read anything by Tolkien, I suggest you do over the summer. The Hobbit is my favorite, but read the entire series. And the Silmarillion, and The Book of Lost Tales, and The Children of Húrin...
Once you’ve read them, tell me what you think. I’ll be in my hobbit-hole and tea is at four.
~ Grace Weiser