Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 2, 2012

World Building – Fantasy

World Building in Fantasy – workshop given by Christine Norris

written by Jen Veldhuyzen

We´ve all read agent bios with that one super-vague line: “I´m looking for writers who transport me into other worlds,” or something to that effect. How, we ask, and what does that even mean? According to Christine Norris, we have to balance between Tolkein-esque info-dumping and naked mental terrains. The reader does not want 20 pages about the history of your Smurflings, and often authors invent much more than the story needs—“Please, for the love of Pete,” she says,“Don´t try to cram it all in.” On the other hand, rich details make the whole story, whether in a real or imaginary universe setting, more believable to the reader.

We can classify fiction worlds into five types, with six components. The first type involves high fantasy, or a whole new world, as in Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars. The second type adds on to the real world in which we live. Harry Potter is a good example of this. We can also predict the future, as in Hunger Games or 1984, or we can do the opposite: we can re-interpret the actual past events with alternative history, as in the Bartameus Trilogy, or recreate an entire historic period in a fantasy style, as with steam punk stories. With the last two options, says Christine, world-building is called research.

With any world, we need to have some understanding of geography, history, economics, politics, religions and culture, and technological odds and ends. Christine provided us with a few questions to consider and a few hints and details to flesh out in each category. How do cities get their water? What does money look like? I found it especially helpful to wonder where in the world my YA sci fi characters got their food from. The every-day details like these really help to flesh out the world, but it´s important, Christine says, to include primarily details that matter to the story so they don´t feel “tacked on.” Each fictional animal, for example, must have a purpose, whether as an obstacle, food, or domesticated friend of your characters. Political and religious systems must in some way relate to your character, whether in the plot or in his or her personal life. Does your economic system relate to the class in which your character finds herself? Is religion a driving force for the plot in your story, or does it serve to show how the character feels about authority, virtue, love, etc?

I asked Christine how she comes up with her own worlds. She says sometimes she builds the world around the story—“well I know and like Philadelphia” or “well I need these machines.” Other times she builds the world around the character, asking herself what kind of world would form the character. She´s posted her extremely thorough list of things to think about—from topography to weaponry–at: extensive database of information for YA world-builders. She´s a very imaginative and detailed person, so if you didn´t get a chance to take her workshop, you should definitely check out it out.

Thank you Jen for giving us a look into Christine’s workshop.  Since there was so much going on at the conference, it is nice to hear a little bit about the other workshops we couldn’t attend.  Hope the illustration by Alik Arzoumanian and this article helps you stir up some great new worlds. Alik was featured a few weeks back on Illustrator Saturday:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thanks for all the great tips on fantasy world building. I write in this genre so it was very helpful. FYI the link at the end of the post doesn’t work.


    • Natalie,

      Definitely one to keep in your files, even if you haven’t tried you hand at fantasy. You never know if something will inspire you to do so.



    • Thanks for reading, and thanks Kathy, for posting! I would have commented earlier, but with limited internet access…Thanks again to Christine! I linked to this page from my blog (


  2. Thanks, Jen! Hope you enjoyed and got something from the workshop. Thanks for posting, Kathy!


    • Christine,

      Thanks for doing the workshop. Did you have fun doing it?



  3. I just can’t get enough reading about writing, for sure! Jen, thank you for writing this, and of course there’s always the “thank you” for Kathy for posting (even it goes unsaid). Lovin’ that we have Christine’s link, too 🙂

    Also, Kathy, I can’t wait to have time to go back through the many “Illustrator Saturdays” I’ve missed. Alik’s work looks so fun and appealing!


    • Donna,

      Are you getting back to normal, yet? I am still working on tying up conference stuff.



      • I’m feeling bits of normalcy and trying to get my head into dieting so I can lose at least SOME weight before the wedding! I’m still doing conference-related things, though not like yours. Still contemplating things we talked about, too…


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