Fiction & Drama

Klaire de Lys: How to build a fantasy world


When I was little my dad had a tradition of reading us a book before bedtime. My siblings and I crowded around and listened with fascination as he read and acted out the story he had chosen. He would change his voice to suit the characters, shout and whisper as if he was an actor reading a script, and the words came alive and painted pictures of strange, beautiful new worlds. The first stories I remember him reading to us were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and as I got older my appetite for fantasy and science fiction became more and more voracious.

Once I ran out of books to read at the library I decided the next step was write my own stories, and I did, hundreds of them. Some short, most of them long, but all of them never finished. It was only once I started Outsider that I finally realised what worked when building a fantasy world. These are the tips that worked for me:

1. Know how it ends

Some writers are staunch advocates of planning out every fine detail, and others prefer to let the story run wild and take them where it may. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I need to know my characters’ history, and I need to know the important final scene of the book. But above all I need to know how the overall story ends. If not, the characters and story lines splay out in all directions like an uprooted tree, and I’m left with a directionless incoherent story that is impossible to pull back together.

2. Know your characters

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have entire files written on each of my characters. Everything from physical features, temperament and their entire life history all jotted down. I’ll even sketch out their clothes and draw portraits of them to make sure that they’re as fully fleshed out as I can make them before I release them into the world of the story. My notes on the characters and places of Ammastein are over forty thousand words long, and each time an important detail comes up while writing more of the story, I add this to the file. At least that way I’m less likely to forget that Loba has a deep hatred of shellfish and that Gríð’s eyes have been stained yellow from smoking too much honey root.

3. Let your characters loose 

With all that structure in place I need to be surprised and excited while I’m writing. It’s no fun sitting down each day and forcing yourself to write page after page where you know exactly what’s going to happen. If you don’t find writing the story fun, how can you expect a reader to? So I let the characters and the story itself go where it needs to. I’ve written their history, character-defining moments and drawn numerous pictures of them to clearly establish in my head who they are, how they think and what they would do. But now I have to let them loose  and see what happens  once the story takes hold of them. With the ending of the book in mind – in this case, a series – they won’t do something utterly daft which will bring the story skidding to a halt, but they can always still surprise me. A character I’d originally hated can suddenly turn out to be quite brave and oddly likeable, despite having the patience of flea. Yes, Halvard, I’m talking about you.


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