In the case of my Antasy series, larger than life worldbuilding meant getting very small. I imagined a distant future where humans evolved to the size of insects and then intertwined with their world. But as different as this world is from our own, it’s still a recognizable place, one that can be assimilated.
I was worried when I finished a draft of Prophets of the Ghost Ants that a reader wouldn’t be able to follow their way in my world, and at first, they couldn’t. My worldbuilding was too alien and it wasn’t “user friendly.” It took a lot of polishing before a reader could enter into Antasy and see their way through my microcosmos. Here are my five tips for crafting a world of your own.
1) Show your world, don’t tell it
Readers want to be immersed into a different world and not reminded of the real one by a narrator speaking from our own time and place. In my distant future, humans are a tenth of an inch tall but it would have been a jarring mistake to describe them that way.
To get across the scale of this world, I started my story with a typical day for Anand, my low born protagonist. He is hauling human waste to a dump in some distant weeds when as usual, he’s bugged by some noisy blowflies waiting to lay their eggs in some fresh muck. One of the flies knocks Anand down and then slobbers on his face with its pulpy mouth parts.
Moments later, Anand sights some boys whose upper caste status allows them the leisure of climbing the stem of a towering dandelion turned to seed. The boys clutch a few seeds in each hand and then use them as a kind of parachute to jump and then float on a breeze. The modern word ‘parachute’ had to be excised and became “seeds with their fluffy domes of threads that caught the wind.” When these same boys are attacked by a marauding band of fleas that suck all their blood and turn them into husks, the reader is shown that this is not a world of giant insects but of very tiny humans.
2) Do your research
If my world was to be credible, it was important to read the works of entomologists, botanists and anthropologists. For each of the tribes in my book, I created something like an ethnography. Their religions, languages, arts and traditions would be an outgrowth of their adopted insects.
One of those tribes are the Hulkrites, a former termite-eating people who have parasitized the ghost ant. The ghost ants are an imagined species, but they are a blend of real ants that attack at night, make slaves of other kinds of ants, and they have a clear exoskeleton that renders them ghost-like. The behavior of the Hulkrish humans who have adopted the ghost ants is much like them: they are nocturnal warriors painted in white who conquer other nations to take their land, steal their goods and enslave their women and children.
All fantasy worlds are based on other worlds, both real and imagined. In creating a new one, you must establish its details for yourself before writing about it for others.
3) Don’t use too much jargon
Many science-fiction and fantasy novels include created or obscure words which can be an effective means of worldbuilding. But it’s a mistake to crowd your prose with difficult scientific terms or the words of an imaginary language.
A well crafted sentence is one that is understandable on its first read through, so something technical and complex may be better off as a convenient slang term or as a compound word. As an example, the tiny humans of Antasy have to disguise their humanity with the odor of the ants that they live among. At first I called this chemical a “super-colony identification pheromone” which was lofty and out of this era. Later I called it pargen gahnd, from the dead language of the tribe’s magic-practicing priests, but that came off as confusing and pretentious. I simplified it to “kin-scent” which was self-explanatory.
When it comes to using language in your worldbuilding, be unexpected and fresh and true to your unique world, but err on the side of clarity.
4) Root your characters and your events in real life
The appeal of speculative fiction is that it takes you to strange worlds, but it will fail if it does not include relatable characters or recognizable events.
Every character in my series is inspired by a real life counterpart and yet all of them are me. That would include my flawed heroes and understandable villains which meant connecting with my Shadow, the id or my primitive animal instincts.
As well, the events in my epic have a historical basis and reflect a deeper truth about human behavior at its worst. In the Antasy series, I have attempted a grand allegorical question rooted in the principles of evolutionary biology: humans, like ants, are intrinsically territorial and war-like —so what are we to do about it?
A substantial fantasy is one that says something about our real world as it renders an imagined one.
This is the hard one in worldbuilding. The capacity for invention may be a genetic trait, or what some might call a gift. But inventions are seldom ever perfect in their first rendering and the best writers work at polishing their visions.
Worldbuilding is both the natural expression of a writer’s unique personality as well as the combining of unexpected elements into a new whole. When I am writing, what I have read, seen on screens or experienced directly flows in a blended stream. This raw concoction from the unconscious needs to be shaped, sheared and given a presentable form.
The world of my books is detailed and expansive but it’s consistent and has its limits. The climate, trees, plants, and insects I use are largely grounded in the Southern California that I live in. But the worlds within the larger world of Antasy are salvaged from the ruins of past civilizations. My bricks, timber, mortar and paints come from the Toltecs, the Moors, the Carthaginians and the ancient Koreans…to name but a few.
When worldbuidling, make it something that surprises you as you write it. If you succeed in entertaining yourself, you might make something that fascinates others.
Clark T. Carlton is the son of a barefooted, Floridian cowboy and a beauty queen from the Land of Cotton who ventured North to raise their children in the long shadow of New York City. When he was a teenager, his family moved from a blue-collar melting pot to a segregated and conservative enclave of Southern California, an event which forever altered his world view. He studied English and Film at Boston University and UCLA. He has worked as a screen and television writer, a journalist, and as a producer of reality television in addition to a thousand and one other professions. He has always had more blue than white in his collar. You can connect with Clark on his website at clarkthomascarlton.com.