Greetings Brave Adventurers,
I am very lucky today to have multi-published fantasy and science fiction author Ryk E Spoor with me on HFA, and I picked his brains on all things world building. Below is his candid, humorous and inspirational interview which is packed full of great world building tips.
HFA: Your latest novel, Phoenix Rising, is set in the world of Zarathan. What was your first flash of inspiration for creating Zarathan?
Well, in a general sense it was my introduction to high fantasy in the form of The Lord of the Rings. But actually, the first flash of inspiration in which it appeared was when I started writing a story which was centered around a group of cavers who discovered a new cave. Originally it was supposed to be a sort of Hardy-Boys-ish adventure, with spies and secrets being uncovered… but suddenly I found myself deciding to divert it to a cross-world adventure, and that meant I had to creat the world this group of people stepped onto. I named it “Zarathan”, derived from “Zarathustra”, as I drew – and still draw – much of my inspiration from movies, and that piece of music (Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Strauss) I associated with the act of creation.
This was undoubtedly triggered by the fact that I had started playing and running the RPG Dungeons and Dragons very shortly before, and was already contemplating how to make my own world to run games in. The story triggered the entire process, though, and was originally projected as a trilogy once I realized what I was doing.
HFA: How did you then go about building up the world of Zarathan?
At first it was pretty haphazard; I drew inspiration (or, more honestly, stole wholesale and retail) from everything I’d ever read and started trying to fit the pieces I liked best into a coherent whole. I drew a map – which, surprisingly, has remained relatively unchanged for well over 30 years, although I’ve added lots to it in the intervening years – and as I did so I thought about what the map IMPLIED. The Claw Mountains – later renamed the Khalal Range, as I also developed the nomenclature of the world – were clearly the result of classic plate boundaries clashing, like the Himalayas, while the Ice Peaks were simply impossible by ordinary forces (they were supposed to be, literally, mountains of ice, some over 30,000 feet high), so obviously that meant some kind of powerful magic had been used that resulted in their creation and permanent existence.
But I wanted a coherent world, so I started changing things and shaping them. I think Zarathan really started to solidify once I came up with the basic myth cycle that drives the entire universe – the Fall of the Saurans (and the associated Fall of Atlantaea, which really drives everything in that universe), the order in which the various species arrived and how they were viewed, the Chaoswars, and the main countries and powers as they stand currently. Zarathan as you see it in Phoenix Rising was complete in its basic outline by the early 1980s, although it has changed and grown a lot since then. But someone playing in my game, or reading one of my early stories from that era, would recognize a lot of pieces in Phoenix Rising, even if some of the names have changed.
HFA: What do you think are the most important considerations when world building?
Consistency. Logical consistency. You need to know why and how things WORK in the world, or how can you manage to know what stories CAN be told in it? How can you “play fair” with your readers about how things work in your world – what magic can and can’t do, what is a real threat versus a minor annoyance, and so on – if you don’t yourself know, and have some basis for knowing?
The very worst explanation for anything in a book or movie is “It’s MAGIC, that’s why!” or “It’s SCIENCE FICTION!”. Oh, sometimes you can – and even must – use that explanation to the reader, at least for a short time, but you as a writer should know the answer to why. Not down to the subatomic level, perhaps, but if someone asks “Why couldn’t Lord Evilguy just use his scrying spell to see what Heroic Dude was doing and stop him before he ever got to Evilguy’s castle?” you should know the answer, and the answer should be something a lot better than “Because if he DID that, my book would have ended way too soon, and suckily, too.”
HFA: You have so many races, gods and creatures in Zarathon. How did you come up with them and how do you keep track of them all?
Well, many of them I have created by the time-honored tradition of stealing them from other sources and filing off the serial numbers. As I developed Zarathan, this became actually a feature; I realized that Zarathan itself was a nexus, the place where all Creation “tied together”, so anything of any universe could make an appearance there. For the gods, many of them were taken from real-life pantheons – the Norse Gods, slightly tweaked, are the main pantheon worshipped by the Children of Odin; the Greek Gods, again somewhat modified, are the patrons of Aegeia. There are others – literally thousands of gods exist on Zarathan.
Other pantheons were built for my game, sometimes by the players. Chromaias and the Four derived from a long-running set of “GM’s Games” between me and my friend Eric Palmer, where we basically ran each other’s super-powerful NPCs – gods or the equivalent – because no one else would, and it helped develop our ideas of how the world worked. Chromaias was originally one of Eric’s characters; his Four Wives were various NPCs of mine.
Myrionar, and Kyri Vantage (then called Kyrie Ross), were both developed for a game run by Jeff Getzin, and quickly transferred into my world; I started writing the first draft of what became Phoenix Rising in 1991-92.
Some others are from other sources – some just plain fun in-jokes. For instance, the pantheon mentioned a couple of times in Phoenix Rising as “The Triad” is composed of three gods called Lyric, the Lifeson, and the Speaker, and represents the forces of good, free will, and music; they are based, of course, on the Canadian rock group Rush and specifically taken from their appearance on the back of their album 2112.
As for how I remember the gods, creatures, people… honestly, it’s like asking how I remember the books I’ve read or the people I live with. I’ve spent so much time with this world since I first made it in 1977-1978, thought so much on it, expended so much effort on it, that it would be more surprising to me if I couldn’t keep track of them pretty well.
HFA: How do you go about creating an original race / creature? Do you ask them questions? Write a physical description? Or just weave them into the story and let them develop on their own?
Well, first, I tapdance around the word “original”. I’m not sure I’ve done anything really original in my life, aside from putting pieces together differently than someone else.
But usually it’s a matter of finding a need for something new – a missing element in the world, or something that a player would like to see, but hasn’t found in my world so far. I guess that means the first question I ask is “why do I want this here?” or, possibly, “what’s missing that I really need?”
The Intelligent Toads are an example of something that emerged from gameplay. One of my players, Dana Lajeunesse, loved toads and wanted to see a playable species of toads. I thought a bit and figured that they could fit pretty well with the world, so I went ahead and put them in. Very quickly I got an impression of what kind of creatures they were, and with that as a hint I could construct their little home village Pondsparkle and know what kind of people lived there, and even realize that their god would also be as quirky and down-to-earth as they were.
On the opposite side, I spent years trying to develop the ultimate evil in my universe – and created several almost ultimate evils along the way, such as Kerlamion, King of All Hells – but my ideas and efforts never quite jelled; I came up with a lot of cool villains and demons and monsters, but none of them quite spoke to me and said “Hello. I’m the thing everything else in your universe is afraid of, or should be if they knew what I was”.
That I didn’t really solve by thinking about it directly. What happened was that I created what I thought of as a very scary monster, but one that was nonetheless supposed to be just a badass monster, basically a super-werewolf, and used him in a story (Photo Finish, part of my first published novel Digital Knight), and he worked just fine. Then, working on a completely separate story – actually, a fanfic, with my then-girlfriend, now wife, Kathleen – I decided to make that same monster into the Big Bad of the fanfic.
And suddenly, in the middle of writing that fanfic, I realized what that creature really was – and my entire universe came into perfect focus. I understood the reason for every single event that had puzzled me in my world’s background, saw the way history would have to develop, and knew the ultimate fate of several other characters whose futures had been nebulous.
That was probably the single most awesome moment in my writing career – that single perfect moment of revelation and understanding.
HFA: What advice would you give other fantasy writers when developing their own worlds?
Take your time and think about it. Yes, I know, you’d really like to get to the story, but if you don’t take the time earlier, you’ll end up taking more time later, when you realize your world either makes no sense, or it’s written you into a corner that you can’t escape without ripping the whole story apart and starting new.
Focus on the parts that matter for you and your stories. You can’t do everything, not even if – like me – you spend 35 years working on it. For instance, I’ve got some “invented” languages in my work, like the Sauran language, but that language is there for flavor. It won’t hold up under any sustained scrutiny as a language, unlike Tolkien’s Elvish. But that’s because I wasn’t trying to do what Tolkien did in that area; I’m not an expert linguist, for one thing, so I wouldn’t even try.
On the other hand, Tolkien’s world had a lot of pieces that either didn’t make sense, or were just glossed over, in areas I’ve devoted a LOT of time to – because they’re areas I care about for purposes of storytelling. Magic, for instance; Tolkien tells us essentially nothing of how magic really works, or why, or what its limits are, or pretty much anything else. For me, that was anathema; I had to understand how the powers in my world worked, and I do, and that understanding affects a lot of what I tell and show in my stories.
HFA: What is your favourite part of world-building?
Coming up with a new region or idea that fills in an empty space on the map, or in my headspace that envisions Zarathan as a living world. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of “AHHH, that makes sense!” that comes out of those moments; the one with my ultimate Big Bad was the biggest and best such moment, but I’ve had many others, such as understanding how all of the adventures happening on Zarathan connected.
HFA: What is your least favourite part?
Heh. Probably nitpicky details. Sometimes you just have to work out details, like who lives in which house on which street in a particular town, because your characters are going to visit that area and important things will happen there, but having to do all that detailing slows down the writing no end.
About Ryk E Spoor
Ryk E Spoor is a fantasy and science fiction writer. He has published a number of novels through Baen books, including Digital Knight, Diamonds Are Forever (with Eric Flint), Boundary (with Eric Flint), Threshold, Portal and Grand Central Arena. I recently reviewed his fantasy novel, Phoenix Rising. You can see my review here.