In my experience, there are some questions a fantasy writer is told to ask themselves right from the start. And one of the most important is: What is different or unique about my setting?
What is it that sets the world I’ve created apart from any or every other fantasy work?
In other words, “Give me a reason to pick up this book.”
So much has been done before that it’s hard to come up with an idea that feels original. When you say, “elemental magic,” people say, “Like Avatar?” When you talk about rampaging hordes of savages, people say, “Like the Reavers in Serenity?” Bring up corrupted, shadowy creatures, and D&D players ask about displacer beasts or doppelgangers. And that’s without the standard sword-and-sorcery tropes that conjure images of Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and countless other fantasy settings.
How does a writer set their world apart? How do you highlight what’s different?
I knew I had a few differences I really liked: a religious system of Gracemarks that bestow divine power, a system of elemental magic fused with a material or technological component, and a problem of a broken world where rifts of chaotic energy twist creatures into corrupted, destructive versions of themselves.
In the process of revising and tightening my first fantasy novel Diffraction, it hit me that what I liked most in fantasy settings wasn’t the sort of book that called all kinds of attention to “Look how strange and fantastic this is.”
Much love to Narnia, but I didn’t want a ‘magic wardrobe’ book or some “fish out of water” contrivance like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
What hooks me in worldbuilding done by authors like Sanderson is how the unique quality of the setting is adapted and utilized as a part of the world.
Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives is a great example. The world is ravaged by frequent powerful storms, and almost every living thing has adapted in some way to this rather negative quality. At the same time, gemstones gather energy from these highstorms, creating sources of magic power as well as a monetary system (the larger and better quality of gem, the more stormlight it holds, thus the more valuable it is). And this stormlight fuels both magic and the limited technology of the world.
In other words, it’s all connected. The unique “problem” in the setting also serves an important purpose and acts as a solution of sorts to other questions. It’s a testament to human determination, survival instinct, and ingenuity.
As I thought about the various unique qualities I liked for Diffraction, I realized something very similar from a worldbuilding perspective would work in this setting.
The rifts of energy that cause trouble by corrupting animals into powerful forces of destruction are also the source of magically-enhanced conductive metals necessary for the religious orders and Arcanists’ Hall to function. What’s a problem from one perspective is a solution from another. It feels more natural, since things in our day-to-day lives are rarely entirely good or bad. More often, the critical factor is how we react to the circumstances around us.
This to me feels like a natural way to look at a fantastic setting. It’s less about “what kind of quirk can I put into the world to make it special” and more about making a world that feels real… despite the quirks that set it apart from the worlds of other novels, and from our own.
Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback from Amazon. You can find it (and my other books) on my author page.