Curtis Brown Creative – Michelle Kenney
World building in the YAFantasy Book of Fire Series
Hi, I’m Michelle Kenney, author of the Book of Fire Trilogy, a dystopian YALit series published by HarperCollins HQDigital. I’m also a graduate of the CBC Writing for Children & Young Adults Course 2015 with the inspirational Catherine Johnson.
I should probably confess at the outset that I’m very much a debut author, so the building blocks of my world building knowledge have been laid by Catherine, while the rest has emerged from my writing whirlwind of the last two years. With this in mind, I’ve tried to include a ‘how I applied this to my books’ section beneath each point, which I hope will help make sense if the theory doesn’t. Hopefully, the dual approach will help light a starter path as you start to wander through this enormous subject.
World building is a massive, complex subject and there is no one right way – only a right outcome for your story. There are also many different types of world from imaginary, through alternative realities, to contemporary settings but the reality is, no matter your method, crafting a colourful functioning other world is a real challenge for any writer. Ultimately, you need to draw your world sufficiently to enable your reader to fully suspend disbelief and engage with the story. Not for the faint-hearted.
The Book of Fire series imagines a futuristic work after an apocalyptical Great War, and the most important piece of wisdom I’ve learned is that (even after three consecutive novels of 90,000 words) there isn’t space to record all the detail from your world on paper. And here’s the real shocker, no matter how much you wish it, the reader doesn’t need or want to know it all.
Sprinkle the detail lightly and where necessary, let the characters drive the plot and your world will come to life. Above all, make everything count.
I’m a big believer in making mistakes and learning through adventure, however a few golden rules can come in handy as checkpoints. Here are my quick and handy rules to world-building:
- Remind yourself that world-building is about establishing the background and props, leaving your characters free to drive the plot forward.
I often imagine world-building as painting a picture, using words instead of colour. So, this initial stage is just a reminder that while the background scenery and backdrop are important for setting, the real story is at the forefront of the picture, in the characters’ words, expressions and actions.
Only once you are content you setting up your world for your characters, ask yourself:
- What is important and different about your world?
This is the very pencil first sketch of your world, capturing the heart of every story: conflict.
> What sort of location or setting will best highlight this conflict?
> Who are the protagonists, and what is their relationship?
> How do they differ from the everyday people we all know?
> What role can the environment play?
How did I apply this?
I wanted the two worlds of Arafel and Pantheon to be as polarised as possible, one representing everything that was natural and sympathetic to a recovering world after a Great War, the other a dystopian, totalitarian regime driven by genetic privilege, biotechnology and Roman myth.
This translated into two distinct communities in Book of Fire:
Outsiders: a treehouse village community that has grown up after an apocalyptical Great War of 2025, and Insiders: a genetically modified Roman-inspired dystopian population who live in domes, unaware that the outside world has recovered.
(Or, conflict put most simply, nature vs science.)
On the outside there is feral mc, Talia, her animal-whispering twin, Eli, and a treehouse-building best friend, Max. On the inside, there is a genetically-enhanced Roman Equite Knight, the dictator Director-General Octavia, and a whole cast of genetically-engineered mythological creatures.
Their key difference between the communities is that they have lived 200 years apart, in separate environments with clearly opposed beliefs and priorities. The conflict and questions that ensue range from the simple (food & shelter) through to more complex philosophical questions including the race for life, the role biotechnology/genetic engineering can and should play, and ultimately what it means to be human.
Remember, you don’t need to explicitly create and explain all conflict and aspects of your world in the first couple of chapters. Allow the story to develop naturally, and weave in all your world-building backstory as the action unfolds.
- What is your worldview?
So, now your conflict has a setting and key protagonists, it’s time to add all important depth and shading. New communities are are made up of individuals who are all trying to do their best to survive, and (usually) take care of those closest to them. So ask yourself the basics:
> How do people live? Where does the food come? What about cloth and building materials? What wildlife are present?
> What cultural backgrounds are present? What languages are spoken?
> What social classes are present, and how do they interact?
This is a brilliant opportunity to reflect and experiment your own worldview! How is the society organised, what is their relationship with the environment and each other?
As I had two polarised societies, I went back to basics with Arafel, which is a small farming community reliant on traditional crops and hunting for food and survival. Thomas Hanway, the forefather of Arafel, creates Arafel based upon new utopian and idealistic pillars after the devastation and dust-clouds of the Great War of 2025. These pillars become the ‘community laws’, i.e ‘Every Arafel hunter believes in natural order, respect for their place in the forest, and takes only what he/she needs to survive.’ So, food, shelter and living in harmony with a recovering world are priorities for the outsiders, there is no hierarchy, and disputes are resolved by a Council or in open community vote in a cave called ‘The Ring’.
Conversely, I projected myself forward in the domed Isca Pantheon and, in a twist, Octavia chooses an ancient ‘successful’ civilisation to showcase her totalitarian regime. The result is a barbaric, classical hierarchy with technological and biological advances including ‘nutrition pills’, vaccines to suppress independent will, and Roman political arenas to decide disputes. Octavia also rules with propaganda and fear, utilising a complex media system to influence and report news.
- How has your world come into existence?
This feels a little like adding some background colour. So, it’s just as important to consider the past as the present, otherwise your world will feel as though it has just winked into existence at Chapter One. The more credible your timeline is, the more real your world feels. But you have to build rationally, even in a fantasy setting.
Ask yourself: How long has your world been in existence? How did it get here? What are the big events that have shaped people’s behaviour?
The prologue to Book of Fire was actually added after the book was written because my Editor decided we needed to set the scene for precisely for this reason. Prologues aren’t always popular but can work in certain instances as long as they don’t read as an information dump.
The opening line to Book of Fire reads ‘In the old world, people foraged for food in cities the size of the forest, and rode toxic boxes on wheels instead of running wth the sun.’
I can pick a million faults with this line now, but it does at least provide a sense of timing, and make us suspect we are looking back from some point in the future. It also gives a sense of the different expectations this new surviving population has about how human life should coexist with nature.
The only surviving relics from the war are a library of old world books, rescued from the dead city, which is how Thomas’ research into the Voynich manuscript has been kept hidden.
By contrast, on the inside Octavia attempts to control the population using fear techniques and propaganda about the outside world remaining poisoned after the Great War. A planetary system in the dome sky that also gives the impression that Isca Pantheon is a whole world in its own right – arguably an attempt to change the course of history entirely.
- What can you see in the detail?
Now we’re into the real fun. Having sketched, shaded and created the world, it’s time to start thinking about your colour palette. After all, it’s aways the sum of the little details that makes any world come to life.
So, start thinking about distinctive dress details or unique behaviours. Try analysing other cultures. What makes them different? And think about how you might use variations of what you learn in your world. How do the people relax? How do they express themselves creatively? To what do they aspire?
Don’t forget that all of this needs to continue to support the characters, who are always the focus.
In Book of Fire, Arafel hunters wear simple tree-flying tunics and take part in regular forest trials which test their skill and prowess in running through the trees that have become their home. (The motto through the series is ‘why run when you can fly,’ which gives a flavour of the theme of the books, but also relates to a childhood story between two of the main characters.)
In Isca Pantheon, the Roman Equite Knights wear full military regalia, and are branded with small genetic enhancements to identify their role. Eg the Commander General August Aquila bears a small ring of saturn on his shoulder, a tattoo made from jellyfish protein and the mark of an Equite.
Isca Prolet, or genetic rubbish tip of Isca Pantheon, comprises all the discarded genetic experiments from Isca Pantheon and life there is colourful and varied. Behaviours are unique and vary while the mythological creatures always have a genetic weakness, one of the frustrations that drives Octavia to find Thomas’ research into the medieval Voynich manuscript.
These are just examples of little details that help to make a fantasy world more believable.
- Who are your power people?
You’ve sketched, shaded, added background and colour, but every new world system needs powerful people with needs and goals.
Who are these people? Are they worthy of their role and influence? What are their strengths and flaws (the more interesting the flaw, the better!)
What is their past? What do they think of the big issues and the conflict at the heart of your story?
As your story unfolds, the reactions of these opinion leaders will help to drive the story forward, so stay on top of what they are thinking and doing, even if it is off the page.
Talia’s grandfather, George Hanway, is Arafel’s Leader and last keeper of the Book of Arafel before Talia takes on the responsibility. He is elderly and revered for his wisdom and his blood connection with Thomas, founder of Arafel. He also volunteers to join the first taskforce in response to the Sweeper intrusion, so leaders need to show strategic control in conflict and defy expectations.
Octavia and Cassius are scientists, as well as leaders of Isca Pantheon which adds depth to their role. Cassius also turns out to have a blood relationship with Thomas, founder of Arafel. Be careful powerful villains don’t become pantomime characters, try to use unique characteristics and backstory to distinguish and justify them. Get to know your key political characters by using a profile checker, or at least keep tabs on what they’re thinking/strategising in your favourite notebook as you write.
- Bring on the storm!
We’ve sketched, shaded, mixed, painted and ensured our powerful people are showcased in our new world, but still there’s something missing if we’re to hook our reader in and never let them go.
The chaos or storm factor.
So far, we’ve created a colourful, but stable, society. Conflicts are inherently destabilising, so throw in new factors and the result can be a real storm. The nature of the storm is entirely up to you, the most important thing is the reaction of your world and the people in it to the chaos that ensues.
In Book of Fire, the invasion of a Pantheonite Sweeper in the forest results in Talia’s grandfather being taken by the insiders. This is the single pivotal event which sees Talia and Max abandoning the only safe home they’ve ever known for the silent, sealed lifedomes of Isca Pantheon, an unknown world from which no outsider has ever returned. It is the catalyst which starts Talia’s adventures, and eventually leads to the Voynich’s last secret and Talia’s real legacy being discovered.
And now you’re set to go. If you follow all of the above you should be halfway close to building a new multi-layered, complex and believable world. But remember, the rules only help establish the world, the rest is down to your characters taking their rightful place in the spotlight and driving the plot forward.
Word by word by word.
Thanks for reading, dream hard and and happy writing!
In between scribbling, Michelle loves reading, attempting to play bluegrass and treasure-hunting on deserted beaches with her children. She also hold a LLB (hons) degree, an APD in Public Relations and is an Accredited Practitioner with the CIPR (with whom she has won a few awards for Magazine & PR work), but she is definitely happiest, curled up against a rainy window, with her nose in a book.
Michelle is represented by Northbank Talent Management, and loves chatting all things book-related at www.facebook.com/BookofFireMK Twitter: @mkenneypr and Instagram: @michken01. Her website for news and events is at: www.michellekenney.co.uk