E.L. Tettensor likes her stories the way she likes her chocolate: dark, exotic, and with a hint of bitterness. She has visited more than fifty countries on five continents, and brought a little something back from each to press inside the pages of her books. She is also the author of the Bloodbound series, writing as Erin Lindsey. She lives with her husband in Bujumbura, Burundi.
by EL Tettensor
One of the things I like best about writing fantasy is the chance to dabble in what ifs. Anybody can play this game, and you can go big or small. A big what if might be something like, “What if humans shared the planet with an aquatic race similar to our own?” Whereas a smaller one would be, “What if winter lasted years instead of months?” As this second example shows, even a relatively small change can have huge implications, and it’s this type of what if that I like to play with, starting out with a world that’s very like our own, and then giving it a twist. Altered geography, say, or a fork in the road of history. It’s a creative exercise, but also an intellectual one, because rather than starting with a blank canvas and letting my imagination run wild, I tend to take a pretty linear approach, developing a logical chain of if/then statements. If I changed X, then the likely result would be Y. Strategic planners everywhere know this approach as “theory of change”.
That might sound a bit dull, but trust me, it’s anything but. Let me give you an example.
Let’s start with Britain at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Mass production powered by machines is just becoming a reality, one that promises to fundamentally change the British way of life. Cities are expanding at an explosive rate, with slums sprouting up everywhere. We know this place, this time. It’s familiar.
Now, let’s mess with the geography a bit. Suppose “Africa” and “Europe” aren’t separated by a sea like the Mediterranean; instead, an isthmus forms a land bridge between the continents, sort of a chunky version of Panama. Now suppose that the world map is flipped upside down, and instead of the warm equatorial climes lying south of Europe, they’re north. Pastoralists from “Africa” (we’ll call it “Adaliland”) cross the land bridge during the dry season to graze their cattle in the milder, wetter climate of the south; in periods of drought, they’re pushed all the way over the land bridge into “Europe” proper (we’ll call it “Humenor”). The isthmus is thus a frontier between ‘modern civilisation’ and the wild lands of the north.
Welcome to Braeland.
Now that you’ve got your subverted reality, the real fun begins. How do these different circumstances affect familiar societies and institutions? How, for example, does the annual invasion of pastoralist Adali into the farmlands and cities of Braeland affect relations between the races? How does the friction between them change both cultures over time, and what are the social consequences of those changes? How does Braeland’s position as not-quite-Humenor affect its place among the other nations of the continent, and what might be the knock-on effects in terms of science and culture? Asking these questions – as many as you can think of – and reasoning through the answers based on logic and real-world parallels is what fleshes out your new world. Now throw in some supernatural finishing touches, and you have yourself a proper playground.
This is the exercise I went through in creating the world of Nicolas Lenoir, and I think it gave me a much richer, more authentic setting than if I had simply let my imagination soar. It’s the combination of imaginative ifs and logical thens that gives the world its depth. In the case of Braeland, it’s a world of fear and prejudice, but also of discovery and change. Of the familiar sprinkled with the exotic.
Not only does this approach to world-building give you a textured, believable setting, it also offers some interesting insights into our own world, and just how fragile and chaotic the course of history can be. How a relatively small detail, like a land bridge between continents, could have fundamentally changed the world we live in.
Of course, just adding a land bridge between Africa and Europe wouldn’t have given us Braeland – not quite. The real world lacks that dark undercurrent of the supernatural. (At least, I think it does.)
This isn’t the only approach to world-building, of course, and depending on what type of story you’re going for, it might not be the best one. It tends to yield lower magic worlds heavy on realism and light on predestination. It would take a helluva long time, and bushels of what ifs, to end up with a Mistborn or a Fionavar Tapestry. But for a Master of Plagues, it works better than anything else I’ve tried.
For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.