Erin M. Evans got a degree in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis—and promptly stuck it in a box. Nowadays she uses that knowledge of bones, mythology, and social constructions to flesh out fantasy worlds. She is the author of the Brimstone Angels Saga, including Fire in the Blood and Ashes of the Tyrant. She lives in Washington State with her husband and sons.
When I tell people I write shared world fiction—a series for D&D/Forgotten Realms called the Brimstone Angels Saga—the assumption is sometimes that someone else is doing the hard work for me. The world is already built, the setting established–hell, even some of the characters have been lovingly crafted. Even the plot is sometimes decided beforehand.
If it were that simple, I’d have a lot more free time. Things have been decided, sure, but they’ve been decided for other books, other media. But five books in, I’ve realized, I’ve learned a lot about setting and world-building just by working with tools that have already been developed.
- The small stuff pulls more weight than the sweeping stuff. In shared world, the large elements of the setting are usually established. Magic works like this. That country is a monarchy. Here are the gods associated with the harvest. These things are important and decide a lot about the tone of your story, but often the finer details are left out of the sourcebooks—the words the people from this city choose as opposed to the people in that city, the sorts of foods one buys on the street, what the fashion this season is for the younger crowd and how their elders feel about that.
Those small details immerse readers more quickly and more completely in my opinion. Knowing how the magic system works matters to the story, but reading that casting a certain kind of magic makes your mouth taste like wintergreen and old wine puts you in that spellcaster’s place a lot more effectively than rules ever can.
- Call attention to the setting only when it needs it. Those small details say a great deal about your setting, but it’s worth noting that they’re pretty potent too. It’s possible to find places in a shared world that have been touched so many times, they’re thick with other authors’ fingerprints: The people have a distinctive accent, thick with slang. The inns are all named and they all have a signature brew. Someone’s gone and specified the color of every doorknob, plus the mechanism of the door, which is particular to that city. It can get a bit daunting. That level of detail isn’t found in any one book—novel or game supplement–because it would be overwhelming. Choosing the right details to immerse the reader and giving them space to breathe makes all the difference. The story’s about the characters, after all, not the doorknobs.
- Perception matters more than truth.Writing a D&D novel means combing through a lot of roleplaying game source books and other novels. Inevitably, with so many cooks in the kitchen, there are contradictions and impossibilities. The people of the city worship God A exclusively. The people of the city worship Gods B and C preferentially alongside a weaker pantheon. Which is it? Usually the best answer is to find a way for it to be both or neither. If a person comes into the city and is met by the upstart priests of god A, they might spin things in their favor, while the sluggish and established priests of Gods B and C pay more attention to their coffers than to their shrinking flocks. Neither source is wrong—both are just slanted to a certain viewpoint.
Carry that out into writing your own settings, and it’s a good reminder that facts are seldom black and white, that your characters’ experiences are really what’s paramount. It’s easy to get sucked into building an airtight world and forgetting that none of the setting matters except what your characters experience.
The boundaries and barriers in place when working in a shared setting may seem like a disadvantage when it comes to writing your own setting, but in many cases they’ve made me a stronger writer.