Epic Fantasy–Balancing World and Story

Worldbuilding is necessary for any fantasy story, but especially for epic fantasy that takes place in a unique world with its own creatures and cultures. But you can’t get so bogged down by the details of the world that your reader sits there and wonders when anything is actually going to happen.

Joshua Robertson, author of soon-to-be-released Melkorka, speaks on balancing the worldbuilding with the storytelling.

Balancing World and Story
Like any other fantasy author, I was heavily influenced by great stories in my younger years: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Princess and the Goblin, anything by Tolkien, the movie Legend (don’t judge), and numerous folktales and legends from cultures around the world. Fantasy captivated me from a very young age, whether it was on the television, video games, board games, comic books, or novels. There was nothing better than swords and sorcery, heroes and monsters, and epic battles. Anything that involved good and evil and the destruction of the world had me hooked. Clearly, it was not long before I wanted to master this particular craft of storytelling. Now, I would still classify myself as an apprentice but I have learned a few things on my journey. I would like to take this time to talk about the challenge of balancing world building with story development when writing epic fantasy.

In speaking with authors of other genres, I have learned that world building is unique to the fantasy [and science fiction] genre. Many writers are able to jump into character development, plot, theme, and so forth, because the setting is already developed in a pre-existing world. This is not true for fantasy authors. I began building the world [Aenar] for Melkorka sixteen years ago. I have continents, cities, religions, legends, people, cultures, and so forth spanning thousands of years. The gigabits on my computer are not full of music or videos – but documents laced with intricate details of kingdoms and capitals and hamlets. As you can imagine, I am delighted by my world and LOVE to talk about it. Sad to say, I am generally the only person that likes to hear about it. See, my first lesson in writing fantasy was that, although this information is important for the author, readers are not as interested in world details as they are story development.

Let me rephrase that – Readers are only interested in the world when it serves the character and plot in the story. Although the world building aspect is important to the fantasy author, readers in any genre find connection through the character and the character’s experiences. I could spend countless pages talking about my magic system, expanding on the legends and myths of every culture, delivering a prose on the economic or political upheavals in Kingdom X, or nerd out over how the gods were misconstrued until religion transcended from holy to folly. In fact, I spent years doing this and had a hard time understanding why my beta readers were becoming bored with my story. Really, how could they not be interested in the past five generations of the obscure NPC of the random town the adventuring party was passing through(!)? By and by, I eventually learned that my extensive world building was distracting to my story, which stole focus from my characters and themes. Whenever, I was telling stories within stories, I was leaving the reader bewildered and frustrated.

It was a little over a year ago that a reader commented that they liked how I interlaced world building within dialogue snippets without lengthy exposition. [It was exciting because the reader linked my writings on one blog to another just based on the writing style.] At that time, my jaw dropped and I had to ask myself if I had really – finally – mastered the art of balancing world building and character development and plot progression, the essential elements of story development. The answer was ‘no’, because honestly, I still break the rules of good writing. But, I had found simple ideas that resonated and that was reason enough for frolicking and brew. I had something to reference when I became so caught up in my world that I lost sight of the characters and the story. I hope these few pointers help each of you as much as they have me.
1.) World Building is Flavor

An epic fantasy writer cannot forget that their character comes first, always. The world gives the time and place to allow for the growth of the character. Despite whatever epic situation is occurring in your book, the character’s growth is what the book is REALLY about. Sure, there may be other undertones or themes, but no one is going to read the book if they are not connected to the main character. If the world building information does not directly advance the plot (which should advance the character) then it is likely not relevant. It is meant to give the reader a sensation that they are walking with the characters throughout the world. Unless you are writing a character in a world that goes beyond the five senses, the thoughts of the character should reflect on what they can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. If you find yourself giving lengthy dissertations that are outside the character’s knowing, then hastily find your delete button. [Note: Omniscient 3rd Person are tough sells these days]. You have all heard this before but ‘show, don’t tell’.

2.) Inference is Your Friend

Readers of epic fantasy, for the most part, have been readers for a while. Do not underestimate their ability to find conclusions in basic conceptualizations. They know what horses and swords are, and do not require a full page description to get the gist (especially when you might lose the sword or kill the horse in two pages). As an author, you may have gained a full understanding of the relationship between a King and a Duke in medieval times, but that does not mean that your reader needs a three-paragraph explanation. The duties of each ranking don’t need to be clarified in an expository fashion, nor does the many scenarios that could result from their compliance or lack thereof. Tell what is relatable to the plot and character, and beyond that, let the reader’s inference be your guide.

3.) Reader Learns with the Character

Authors of epic fantasy are very familiar with their worlds. The reader is not. The only way they are going to learn about your world is through your characters. Now, I do not know many people that find joy in listening to a character think about all the things they know about the world. I can tell you why. It is not realistic! It is not considered normal to go through our day contemplating about all the things we know. We generally talk about the things we know when it comes up in conversation. So, whether your character is experienced or not, use dialogue to teach your reader about the world.

Joshua Robertson

Melkorka Back Book Cover Blurb

Joshua Robertson
Joshua began crafting the world for Melkorka in 1999, and has since continued writing flash fiction, short stories, poems, children’s books, and epic fantasy novels. Joushua is the author of the transitional children’s book, Bo Bunny and the Trouble. He is also the co-creator of the fantasy tabletop game, Thrice Nine Legends, due to be released in 2015. Joshua currently lives in Alaska with his wife and children.

Keep up to date on Melkorka’s release by liking Joshua’s Facebook page.

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5 thoughts on “Epic Fantasy–Balancing World and Story

  1. Thanks for writing this! I have just started writing and found this most helpful. I am writing in the SciFi genre and while the initial part of the story involves Earth, much of it will revolve around alien races, cultures and technology. I’m sure I have many hidden gems to uncover as I stumble my way through my first of what I hope is many writing endeavors.

    1. Thanks, Shawn. The author is Joshua Robertson. I hope you had time to check him out.

      I’m sure this will really help you with your context development. I use it for world building even when I just move into dystopian. It’s still Earth, but enough of the rules have changed that I have to communicate the details through the story.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. How did I end up here so late?! Oh yeah, Joshua. He’s so dreamy. So are you, Christine. Awesome post. Love it. A problem basically all fantasy writers struggle with. I don’t think it helps that our fore-bearers loved info dumps.

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