I am creating the setting of my fantasy story, every day, when I sit down to write my drafts. To be honest, one of the things I like about writing fantasy is not having to do any research. I knew that, for my first story or two, I wanted to write my own rules.
I did think that I would spend a lot of time writing out the setting first before writing the story. But you know what? I found that’s the worst way to do it. Well, not the worst way for everyone, but it is for me. And the biggest motivation for me was talking to authors who were doing it this way.
Another reason to not write.
Almost anyone who spends their time following any creative pursuit will tell you that it isn’t the doing that’s the hard part. It’s the showing up. Writing isn’t hard. Sitting down to write is.
I’ve spoken to a few people now who, after learning that I’m writing a fantasy story, say something like “oh yeah, I have a fantasy story that I want to write. I’m just working on the setting, getting that right, before I write the story.”
“Really?” I ask. “What do you mean.?”
“Oh, you know,” comes the answer. “I need to get the world right before I can start writing the story.”
No, you really don’t.
Characters and Story come first, setting comes second.
The majority of my world has come about from writing the narrative. When I’m drafting, two characters might be having a conversation and one will start talking about some event that happened in the history of the world. Rather than stopping the character from talking, I’ll let them drone on and on, then cut that seciton out and add it to the world document. The same thing goes for character background.
Let me give you an example. You can see a scene in your head of three characters in a basement. One is a tall man in a dark coat and hat. He’s angry and brooding, and doesn’t show much love for the other two characters.
The second is a young woman in a bright dress, white with red flowers or something. The third is another woman. She is much older with regal clothing, her grey hair done up in a high and fancy style.
Now, you don’t know why, but this scene has been following you around for years. In your mind, you know that these three are here to rob the place. You know that the mysterious man has good reason to be cold and aloof. You know that the story will involve one character betraying the other two. You want the reader to suspect the guy, but in the end you know it will turn out to be the young woman.
The point is, you have a scene in your head in which you know the characters and maybe some dialouge. You probably know the outcome, if not to the whole story then at least to this scene.
Seperate yourself from the crowd …
So you take the plunge and decide to write this story. Well done! So many people won’t take this step and write down the story (or music, or poem) that’s been in their head for so long. So you sit down and start to do one of a few things.
First thing you could do is just start writing. Writers call this pantsing, as in, you are just writing by the seat of your pants, with no idea where things will go. Stephen King promotes this style of writing in his book On Writing. I’m not going to go in to the advantages and disadvatages of this method – that’s a whole other article.
Second is you sit down and plot out the scene a bit, or maybe the whole story. This can be as tight or as loose as you want.
… and then rejoin them.
The third possibility is this: step away from your story for weeks, months or years to write down what the setting is. Where are they? Who is the guy in the cap? Why is he so unfriendly? What is his relationship with the young woman? Why does the young woman make a joke out of everything, but never laughs herself? What happened in her childhood? Where did the older woman’s fortunes come from? What is the year? Blah blah blah blah blah.
I’m amazed at how many writers I meet have become stuck at this point. They want to write the Silmarillion and the Appendices before they write the Lord of The Rings.
Try getting the story out first.
In a world full of YouTube, Adventure Time, Skyrim, space-sims and anime, we have enough distractions to fight off without creating ones for ourselves. Well, I do, anyway.
My advice is to just write your story. Let the characters tell you or each other what has happened in their world, then cut that peice out of your narrative and plonk it in your research file. If you feel the need to go back and polish it, change it, study it, that’s fine. Whatever. That stuff will be in a constant state of change anyway. But get the story down, before all of your characters have turned stale, and you realise you now have ten thousand pages worth of information on a world you don’t care about anymore.
Remember: writing is re-writing. You won’t get your draft perfect first time, and you won’t get your world-building perfect first time. Don’t waste your time perfecting something that your characters are just going to trample all over anyway. I find it much easier to just tidy everything in their wake.