Author’s Roundtable: Creating Fantasy Worlds with Sherry Thompson and Terry W. Ervin II

23 Jun
The Author’s Roundtable is back, and today’s guests are Sherry Thompson, author of The Narentan Tumults, and Terry W. Ervin II, author of Flank Hawk. Sherry and Terry (I didn’t do that on purpose- promise!) discuss their thoughts on the topic of creating fantasy worlds.

“As a reader and as a writer, what makes a memorable fantasy world for you?”

Sherry Thompson:
I want to experience a memorable fantasy world –and- I want to create one, so the “hat” that I have on at the moment doesn’t make much difference.

No matter what we’re writing or reading, we all want to be involved in an interesting world, don’t we? Readers want to be engaged by the world, characters and plot of whatever they’re reading. Authors do too. What could be worse than slogging through writing 30 chapters of a fantasy novel that nearly puts you to sleep? I’ve critiqued stories in which less happens than you can find in your own neighborhood. Everyone makes nice to everyone else, the setting is beautiful and hospitable 24/7, and no one has any challenges to overcome. Why bother?

The best way to add interest to the story is via conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to be via physical/military challenges though that is the meat of genres like sword-and-sorcery. Interpersonal problems like court intrigue or psychological problems like growing madness or lycanthropy can serve the purpose, as long as the developing details are interesting enough to keep the reader turning pages and to keep the author interested in his own manuscript.

A fantasy world by its very nature should be alien—different in easily discernable ways from what we are familiar with here on Earth. Something must be different enough about the setting or the inhabitants to make it impossible for the plot to unfold in a mainstream setting. This principle is essential to fantasy writing yet is easily forgotten.

At least something about the animals and plants should alert a reader that they are no longer in the world they know. If the setting is close to that with which we are familiar, then the characters need to be alien in one or more ways. In any case, we need to know that we are no longer in Kansas and these people aren’t from our hometown.

Eerie or Numinous
Here, I may part ways with other authors or readers. I believe that a memorable fantasy world will engender awe in its readers. Something should be so strange and startling, so inexplicable, that the reader—and the author—remain intrigued with the world long after they have finished reading or writing it. If a fantasy world has this quality, people will go back to it again and again in thought, and wonder about certain events, objects, landscapes or alien behaviors. Using LotR as an easy example, there’s the One Ring as well as supplemental creepy stuff like the Paths of the Dead, Tom Bombadil & Old Man Willow, the Barrows, and the forest of the Elves.

Terry W. Ervin II
I’ll start off by tying readers and writers together with my firm belief that authors write novels they’d hope to find on the bookstore shelf, even if they hadn’t written them. Conversely, readers read and truly enjoy those novels that they’d be honored to have written themselves.

That being said, what makes a fantasy novel’s world memorable isn’t the unique creatures or cities or history or flora and fauna or the way magic works or…well, I think you get the point. All of those aspects are important. They add depth and texture and engage the reader’s imagination. But it’s the characters and their interaction with each other, along with the fantasy world’s many elements, that holds a reader’s interest. That interaction goes a long way to making a fantasy world memorable.

Would JRR Tolkien’s detailed genealogies, languages, great cities, races, civilizations, and similar content about Middle Earth be remembered if it weren’t for the characters he wrote about that populated The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy? It was Bilbo, Frodo, Gollum, Saruman, and Gandalf (among many) that brought the world Tolkien created to life—through the context of those characters interacting with each other and within the backdrop elements of Middle Earth, be they the Mines of Moria or the history, influence and power of the One Ring itself.

But even the characters and a fantasy world’s unique elements alone aren’t enough to make it memorable. The final component is conflict, and what’s at stake. The conflict can be as confined as an internal character struggle, to one as expansive as the survival of an entire race, or the world itself. It’s what binds the characters and the fantasy world’s elements together, moving the novel’s action forward and making it a memorable read.

So, as I see it, a fantasy world’s unique elements are an essential factor. But elements alone, without interesting characters and their struggles, won’t kindle a reader’s imagination and will soon be forgotten after the last page is turned—that is, if the novel even reaches publication.

My thanks to Terry and Sherry for sharing their thoughts. Please feel free to reply with your own thoughts and reactions. And if you love speculative fiction, be sure to check out their work:

5 thoughts on “Author’s Roundtable: Creating Fantasy Worlds with Sherry Thompson and Terry W. Ervin II

  1. Great thoughts. I totally agree that without great characters and plot, the wonderful world would be meaningless. I love different, intriguing settings, going to places that are so different from my own.

  2. Sherry and Terry (and David) – thank you very much for your insight. As a wanne-be (manuscripts in progress), it is so valuable to heve these reminders from the victorious concerning what makes a novel great. The origin of my own stems from my wife's urging that I could do that…

  3. Angie, I agree that “different, intriguing settings, going to places that are so different from my own” is a major draw for those that regulary read fantasy. And that's also why, I believe, there are so many varieties (or subgenres) of fantasy.

    Xanthrope, keep hammering away and learning as you go–and I think your wife's urging, one of those manuscripts in progress just might bear fruit.

  4. Sherry, I appreciated what you said about the importance of making your world “alien.” There's a tricky balance between giving readers what they want (dungeons, dragons, elves, wizards etc.) and striking out into new territory. Thanks to Tolkien and his many imitators, magic and ancient faerie races are a bit too familiar.

    I think the same could be said for court intrigue. Why does every fantasy world have to be ruled by a monarchy?

    I really enjoy fantasies that break out of the quasi-medieval mold–Clive Barker's Imajica is a wonderful example (albeit a bit ponderous at times).

  5. Nice insights.
    Recently I heard that all forms of entertainment are a learning/teaching experience(1).
    And so for me, immersing myself into yet another fantasy world – book or not – only works if I learn. New things, things that get Sherry excited.
    At the same time, I think learning something can turn out to be terribly boring if the teacher is not interested or can't bring a topic across. So people (protagonists) actively being part of this living breathing world are needed, because they demonstrate the possibilities. What is magic good for if there is no magician?(2)
    Characters and the world are interconnected, e.g. humans adapt to their environment(s) by inventing suitable jobs.

    (1)I guess action-blockbusters teach the audience cheesy one-liners. What else would they be good for?
    (2)Well yes, a subliminal sense of mysticism perhaps, or a good amount of danger.
    Either way you need characters to talk about these mystical elements or you need magical dangers to appear. And I still consider a magician able to pull off a more memorable demonstration of…well, magic.

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