The author of Seraphina, Rachel Hartmann, gives Movellas some advice on writing fantasy fiction, how to build worlds and how not to exceed your weirdness budget. You can read the prologue to her new story on Movellas here and get involved in the fantasy competition she is judging here.
When it comes to fantasy writing, I feel my particular strength lies in world-building. It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing for me; I soak up details of the world around me, refine and transform them into something new. It’s easy for world-building to become an exercise in self-indulgence, but a friend once gave me some advice that helps me curb my excesses by keeping the reader in mind.
My friend told me books have a weirdness budget, the amount of strangeness that readers will tolerate before they begin to find the book overwhelming or incomprehensible. Obviously, readers expect different amounts of strangeness from different genres – that may be part of why some readers prefer fantasy while others prefer realism. An author has a much larger weirdness budget when writing fantasy, but that doesn’t mean readers will put up with absolutely anything. Writers need to figure out which new concepts are most crucial to the story and then weed out the rest.
When building a world, the temptation is to create everything anew. Why should weeks have seven days or years be divided into months? That stimulating beverage they drink at breakfast would surely never be called coffee. This is fantasy land! Why should any of it be familiar? Those are excellent points, and I would never dream of quelling anyone’s creativity, but bear in mind that if you re-name the days of the week, that’s something new for readers to adjust to. You’ve spent a chunk of weirdness budget. Make sure you spent it wisely.
The world of Seraphina is, at first glance, a bog-standard Medieval fantasy setting. That’s deliberate; I wanted there to be an abundance of familiar and unchallenging elements, in hopes that that would give me more leeway for adding unfamiliar details later. There are knights, dragons, castles, cathedrals, royalty, all the basics. On top of that familiar framework, I then added oddities. The knights are banished and practice a dragon-slaying martial art called dracomachia; the dragons can take human shape, which has a lot of interesting neurological implications. A second, more iguana-like species of dragon hides in the cracks and crannies of the city, emerging to pan-handle and eat garbage. The ditzy princess is not as vapid as she appears. And so on.
This is not to say I always get it right. My world has many named Saints; I considered them colourful background embroidery, but some readers have found them an obstacle. Things I didn’t consider strange at all, because they exist in the real world – architectural details, Medieval musical instruments – have tipped the balance toward overwhelming for some folks. Live and learn, I guess. Like all aspects of writing, world-building is something you figure out by doing, and there is always more to learn. Luckily, that’s a process I enjoy.