The top 5 things you should consider when building fantasy locations.
By Kristy Nicolle
I get asked a lot by readers, who are slowly turning toward becoming writers and published authors, about how I build my locations. With the worlds in The Kristy Nicolle Fantasy Infiniverse being so large, and interconnecting, this kind of world building needs a specific type of finesse and care that other genres such as mystery or satire might not require.
So, I decided to give you the top five considerations I make when creating the worlds that so many readers have enjoyed swimming/flying/running through. This is by no means a definitive list, or the only way to go about crafting locations from little more than imaginary pictures. However, it might give you something to build your own technique upon or present you with new angles that should be considered when in the process of worldbuilding. In lieu of either of those suggested ways you take this post, I suppose you could follow this like I am the second coming of Ernest Hemingway and this is gospel. Your choice.
So, let’s begin.
Many writers will differ on how they approach building locations, but mine always start the same way, this being with the senses. I’m often complimented on how readers of my work feel like they’re right there with the protagonist, and I’d put that almost entirely down to this. When building locations, imagine yourself walking through the place yourself, imagine the scents, the taste of the air, sounds, what you see, and how walking upon the ground feels. Think about the weather, about how the location affects you physically, about what is distinct and that you want readers to remember. If you can’t picture the location, or need some inspiration, check out the Setting Thesaurus’ listed below. They’re truly worth their weight in literary gold
Senses are the key to the lockbox of human memory. Particularly smells. Using sensory description to trigger memories for your characters is an easy way to incorporate personal information about them without having an enormous info dump for the reader.
Ever notice how vivid my descriptions of food are in my books? This is because almost every memory I can recall has some kind of food attached. It’s weird, but I feel like this attention to the delicious or the rancid is something I’ve passed on to a few of my characters, especially Sephy Sinclair from The Ashen Touch Trilogy.
This is something that has always been natural for me, but I’ve noticed a lot of writers struggle with it, and so I’ve ranked it at number two on this list.
A rich history is invaluable. Of course, you can skip it entirely, but I think both you and the reader are missing out. This is because history and historical context is a rich mining vein for other stories. In Waiting for Gideon, I use the history of the Trident of Poseidon and craft an entire story around it. With Beyond the Shallows I take the history behind the Myth at the beginning of The Tidal Kiss Trilogy and flesh a story around a single sentence from the prologue. That’s two short stories that wouldn’t have existed if I’d omitted to tell the reader about the history of both places and objects.
History is, in essence, the stories we tell the next generation, and a provider of context for the narrative of everything that happens in the present.
I also find history interesting as it is so often biased because as Winston Churchill and Hermann Goring rightfully alluded- “History is written by the victors.” You can have great fun or make powerful statements deciding to show what really happened, and then explain how history has come to be what it is after the fact. I also find that this gives your story an extra dimension and leaves astute readers deep in thought long after finishing the final page.
It’s funny because when it comes to fantasy, logistics seems a bit counter-intuitive. Still, this consideration was started by the grotesque if not highly amusing question- “But where does all the poop go?”
It may seem like an odd thing, but I hear a lot from readers that while loving the fantastical, they also want locations to make sense realistically. For example, I keep my super trippy ideas for realms such as The Nether, a dreamworld that occupies the space between the higher and lower plains. This is because residents here exist as energy, not in physical form. Any location with residences, and characters with physical bodies must have some kind of sense. With my mermaids, they don’t excrete or eat during their time underwater, which essentially removed the challenge of explaining where and how the city of the Occulta Mirum removes its waste, because let’s be honest, mermaid poop is just a weird topic, even for a fantasy novel.
Anyway, moving on from mermaid poop, or lack thereof, I think it’s also important to think about the residents of your location. In The Ashen Touch Trilogy, the way in which the sinners are rehabilitated shapes the way in which the city itself is organised. Again, in The Tidal Kiss Trilogy, the buildings are vertically structured, with less emphasis on horizontal architecture as the mer swim in three dimensions, instead of walking in only two.
My point is, that things might be magical, but they still need to fit together and make sense in some practical way. Readers like something they can follow, and building locations around logic, even if that logic is based off made up mythical lore, is important.
Some practical questions to ask yourself:
How do people get around?
Do they grow their own crops?
Who tends to the crops, how are they harvested?
Is there a monetary system at play, how are things paid for?
Do people trade?
How do they earn money?
How was the city/location originally built?
Where did the materials come from?
You get the idea.
There are hundreds of logistics questions to potentially ask and answer, but this gives you a starting point, and includes the cornerstones that any society is built on. Agriculture, Economy, Transport, Culture, and History. These are also potential plot points on which to build a story, or spin-off and can help in building a reliable and realistic history for your location. Despite being Fantastical, the answers to these seemingly mundane queries should not be underestimated in value when it comes to building a story.
This one is a good tool for not only building locations but can also aid in character creation too. People are shaped by their environments to some degree, so when considering the ‘feel’ or ‘theme’ of your locations, consider how it will affect the residents. For example, characters who have grown up in a cold climate, with sturdy buildings will be considerably hardier and might have a baseline of physical fitness not seen in residents of a tropical climate who live in much more flimsy beach huts. I also think it’s important to use theme in fantasy particularly, because of the sheer vastness of the worlds we find ourselves creating. For example, many people remember the Underworld’s Exilia Multum from The Ashen Touch Trilogy for its smoky quartz floors and walls. I am able to drop in this specific material in other locations, such as Atargatis’ apartment. If we can be specific about the materials we use, the colours and sensory experience of each place, we might create a notable aesthetic from not one detail, but several that work together to give an overall feel that is more than its constituent elements. Using this aesthetic it can be made easier for readers by the author to discern between a large number of locations. Another great example of thematic location building using aesthetic can be found in Sarah J. Maas’ A court of Thorns and Roses series. Each court is representative aesthetically of its season. If we hear moonstone and jasmine we automatically think of The Night Court, if we are introduced to buildings made from sand stone the mind will interpret the character’s surroundings as being within the domain of The Summer Court.
Atargatis tells us she has been given a smoky quartz chandelier by her brother-in-law as a wedding gift- and from the material we get the hint that the brother in law is Haedes, rather than Zeus. She also notes it’s expensive, alluding to Haedes as the god of wealth, yet the reader might conclude, and rightly so, that in Mortaria smoky quartz is so abundant it is worth less than dirt. So, perhaps, the conclusion drawn might be that this gift is more of an insult than anything else.
This consideration, for me, comes when all of my locations have been built separately. It’s the way in which my worlds really come together after I’ve constructed each puzzle piece and show the complete picture. It’s time now to consider how locations relate to one another. Do they trade goods? Do they have enemies in other locations? How does each location figure into a bigger system of geography, economy, and populace? Take everything you have built so far, especially the history for each location, and find links or threads that you can weave together. Also make sure that the histories of each location line up, or how one location’s past might affect another.
This is not an exact science, and for me, I honestly find most of my links during A-HA moments, where the muse has decided to throw me a bone. However, if you’ve considered much of what I’ve already talked about, you’ll no doubt find the process easier than you would otherwise.
It’s a funny thing, this job of creating worlds. Some days you will look at a project for fifteen hours straight with no insight into your next course of action. Other days a thought will pop into your head while you’re brushing your teeth for no good reason. The key is to be consistent, with your notes and planning, with your sensory details and aesthetic theme to create a truly immersive, desirable and believable experience for the reader. As a world builder, your work might never be really done, as there will always be stories that come up and surprise you, but honestly, planning out these details in advance will save you a lot of work in the long run, especially when it comes to the vastness that is Fantasy.
Anyhow, that’s my two cents on building locations. As of right now, I’ve built a total of 90 individual fantasy locations and counting across 7 realms that make up one Fantasy Infiniverse, so I’d like to think I know a thing or two. That being said, the most important thing to remember in creativity is to keep an open mind, keep making mistakes, and keep learning from them. Oh, and of course, keep writing!
Happy world building!
Kristy Nicolle x