We ask authors how they build the worlds behind their paranormal and fantasy novels. Is it just about rules? And how do you create something that seems believable in its own bubble?
V. S. McGrath: Magical Worlds Need Rules
When it comes to fantasy worlds, it’s tempting to let your characters and their actions dictate how the world works. Creating a fictional world can seem to give you free rein to do whatever you want “because magic;” it certainly seems easier on the creative process. But building a universe without giving it hard boundaries can make your story unbelievable, as well as boring.
In a lot of ways, creating a paranormal world isn’t unlike creating a contemporary world. Worlds have geography, natural resources, history, and are generally subject basic concepts of science, like gravity and light (the actual rules are up to you!). Populated worlds will have cultural communities, laws, government, beliefs, values, and codes of conduct, as well.
What’s important about creating your fictional universe is that your characters are defined by their place in the world—how they react and deal with the challenges they meet and the limitations placed upon them. Whether they’re magical beings or plain-Jane humans, we need to understand their everyday existence to grasp the importance of the goal they’re striving toward and the obstacles they’ll face.
If you build a world that doesn’t challenge your characters and simply clears the path for them to achieve their goals without struggle or sacrifice, you lower the stakes and create only weak conflicts and two-dimensional characters. If it’s too easy, it’s boring.
On the same scale, creating magical worlds without defined limits will make the reader constantly question why a character doesn’t simply wave their hand and magic a problem away. Magic must come at a price. What are the consequences to using magic? Who does it benefit, and who does it exploit?
When I first set out to write The Devil’s Revolver, I knew the world would be much like ours, where history happened mostly as it did in our universe, but with magic. That’s because the limits I imposed were that 1) what magic could achieve could also be countered by other magic; 2) metal can interfere with magic; and 3) magic is a finite resource, and the sorcerers are limited by their own skill levels and energy reserves.
That said, in my efforts to decolonize my own writing, I also had to take into account that magic in the spiritual sense is real to many cultures. Certain traditions, rituals, religions, superstitions, prayers, beliefs, artifacts, people, places and so forth are considered sacred, and subject to rules that can’t always be explained through reason or science. Magic is faith to some, and it needs to be treated with respect. It was my duty, then, to avoid appropriating any real traditions and turning real beliefs into fiction.
Worldbuilding means a lot of research, careful planning and notetaking. Keep a bible and know which magical laws you can bend. If you want a world readers can immerse themselves in, it’ll be worth the extra work.
V. S. McGrath also writes romance under the pen name Vicki Essex. Her debut young adult fantasy, The Devil's Revolver is available now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Debbie Herbert: Crystallising My Book Idea...for Paranormal or Any Genre
I love paranormal romance because the possibility of magic tingles my creative drive and curiosity. The speculation that there might be something more to reality than can be perceived through our senses provides a natural “what if” environment writers need to create stories. Plus – I’ve never outgrown my love of fairytales and mythology!
It all started with a dream. I was swimming in a deep body of water when I noticed a man dumping something from the side of a boat. Curious, I swam over. The man noticed me and his expression was so evil that it frightened me and I woke up. Like a typical writer, I started asking those ‘what if” questions: what if he were a killer? What if he was dumping a dead body? What if I were a mermaid and he caught me?
And from that one dream, I created a world in which a clan of mermaids secretly lived deep in an Alabama bayou.
Okay, great ideas are had by all writers. How do you begin the whole unwieldy process of stringing together thousands of words into an interesting, coherent story?
My starting point is answering these three questions:
1. What is the HOOK or PREMISE? What makes your book unique? What’s it about? Just write one sentence – the shorter the better.
2. What is the GOOD VERSUS EVIL in my world? I think for paranormal writers, this is important. Are your supernatural beings seeking power or dominance over humans or other creatures? For mystery writers, it may be an evil killer versus potential victims that provides this conflict.
3. What are the STAKES? The stakes are huge in paranormal worlds – it is often no less than world upheaval or human subjugation to supernatural beings.
If I can grasp these, I can go on to develop character and romance ARCS and external and internal conflicts. The questions form my logline and blurb. This is how I start every book. It’s how my brain works. Here are some examples from my books:
1. Charmed and Dangerous – How can a teenage witch help an immortal on the run from another enemy immortal? Note: In Immortal legends there is already a strong, built-in good versus evil theme. The hook was combining the worlds of witchcraft and immortals. Stakes: Control of immortals and humans by an evil warlock clan.
2. Changeling –What happens to a child kidnapped by fairies and raised by them? Good versus Evil is between two warring fairy worlds. Hook is the reverse fairy tale. Stakes – if bad fairies win upcoming battle with good fairies, humans will suffer from bad fairies.
3. Familiar Magic – How can a magical cat help an outcast middle grade girl? The evil are the bullies. The Hook is that the book is written from a cat POV. Stakes: character and animal’s happiness and survival in MG school world. (not published yet)
4. Siren's Secret – Hook: What would happen if a mermaid saw a serial killer dumping a body at sea? Good versus Evil – serial killer versus cops. Stakes: Killer could expose mermaid world and endanger their species.
5. Siren's Treasure – What would happen if a mermaid was captured by modern-day pirates? Hook – treasure hunt. Good versus evil – kidnappers versus law enforcement. Stakes: Missing H-bomb captured by American enemies. Stakes: World peace.
6. Siren's Call – What would happen if a siren met a man not affected by her magic? Hook – hidden world of Okwa Nahallo – (Choctaw legend of mermaids in the bayou) and Indian lore. Good versus Evil: Female stalker versus cops. Stakes: Main character’s life and happiness of hero – prevention of future murders.
7. Bayou Magic series – All three books in this Harlequin series started with the question: What if the old Choctaw Legends of supernatural beings really existed in the Alabama Bayou today? How would you fight the evil spirits?
8. Appalachian Justice series – These books, to be published by Harlequin Intrigue in early 2018, examine the central theme of what it would be like to live in this economically deprived, though geographically gorgeous, area and what unique crimes are rampant there.
Once I’ve answered these questions I can go about the nitty gritty details of plotting a book. I’m pretty low tech. In the early days of writing books, I’d get a posterboard and divide it into 20 sections which represent each chapter. Then I’d fill in the turning points and any scenes that have come to mind. I didn’t worry about filling every square, I just filled in what I had and pressed GO. With several books under my belt now, the process is much more organic and less organized.
Hope you enjoyed this glimpse into a writer’s brain as she builds worlds! Many thanks to the fabulous Pink Heart Society who truly have a love for romance novels. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and to connect with you on social media.
Debbie's latest release, Bayou Wolf, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Jane Godman: Diversity in Paranormal Romance
Readers of paranormal romance know what they like. Many of them started reading this genre because they like vampires or werewolves and they still have a preference for their first love. They may stray and read mermaid or unicorn stories, but they will return to their favourite themes. Just as readers of contemporary romance know if they prefer billionaires or firefighters and historical romance readers know if their preference is for regency rakes or pillaging Vikings.
So what is it about paranormal? Well, the plots are unpredictable, the world building is phenomenal, and the characters are larger than life. When we pick up a paranormal romance, we know we will encounter superpowers, other worlds, magic and danger… all things we don’t see in our everyday lives. The characters are big, bold, bright and passionate. Everything is super-charged, including the romance. Emotions run high and so does the heat. The phwoar-factor in a paranormal romance tends to be off the scale. Larger than life extends into the bedroom (or the cave, crypt, enchanted forest… you get the picture).
Paranormal romance is one of the most popular genres to write, but, because of the world-building aspect, it’s also one of the hardest to do well. With great freedom comes great responsibility.
If you write historical romance, you are constrained by the facts. You have to stick to what actually happened and tell your story within those boundaries. With paranormal romance, as with science fiction and fantasy, you can let your imagination run wild. But it’s important to do it in a way that works. We owe it to our readers to write characters who are—not always believable (because that’s not the point of paranormal)—but who work within the genre.
In a paranormal world, the author creates the rules, so there is no reason why that world cannot be diverse. Sadly, the majority of paranormal romances (I’m holding my hand up here and including my own) remain non-diverse. As I was writing this post, I realized how hard I work to create exciting, otherworldly characters in my stories. As well as werewolves and vampires, my books feature faeries, elves, dryads, necromancers, phantoms, even gods and demons. Yet a diverse human character is not other. A POC, LGBTQ+, or disabled character does not require any stretch of imagination from me, the author.
People who are marginalised in real life deserve better representation than elves. Our fantasy worlds should reflect our reality. I create the world, so I get to decide who fights the monsters.
Contributing to this post made me think about my own practices. From now on, every time I include a fae or a demon in a story, I’m going to check on the diverse make-up of my other characters. Perhaps if every author of paranormal, fantasy, and sci-fi romance did the same, we might bring about a real change...
Jane's latest book, One Night with the Valkyrie, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Trakena Prevost: Varied And Colorful Worlds
When I first decided to put pen to paper and settle into the highs and lows of this journey called writing, there was one thing of which I was absolutely certain: I wanted to write all things fantasy, more specifically, paranormal.
Maybe it was the freedom to explore mythical creatures. Maybe it was the magic and ability to delve into the impossible.
Who am I kidding? It was definitely the ability to create new societies and peoples and to explore who they were and what stories could be told there. Does this desire to create, observe, and manipulate hint at a bit of a God complex? Probably. But you’d be hard pressed to find any writer without a little of that complex taking up residence in their psyche.
World building is as varied and colorful as the many flavors of Ben & Jerry’s. This variety is one of the things that gives the writing process so much energy and life. From magical realism, where your world is rooted in reality and you seek to reveal the magic that’s hidden from the rest of us, to high fantasy, where everything from setting, to people, to elements of day-to-day life are placed in an alternate world filled with magic and wonder; the options are endless!
With all the flavors of world building available, the worlds found in paranormal fiction have always been my favorite. Where else do you get to play around with ghosts! And fae! And vampires! And werewolves! Paranormal fiction really does have it all, but what are some of the things a writer new to this genre needs to know when it comes to world building?
Whether you’re a plotter or a panster, it’s important to develop the background of your world when working within paranormal fiction. The great thing about going with a genre not bound by “reality” is that you can do whatever you like, but you need to maintain some consistency when it comes to your world, or your readers will call you on your ish.
The first thing I think about when world building for the paranormal is the feel and people of the world. Is the world light and airy? Magical and whimsical? Dark and foreboding? How did the paranormal groups within the population come to be in this world? Were they there from the beginning of time? Or did they come to be by some means of evolution or magic? You’ll want to set a consistent tone and feel for your world, regardless of how your main character and cast fits into it.
You will also need to establish how your world looks to the physical eye. Are the streets clean or grimy? Is the architecture modern, full of old-world charm, or just plain archaic? Or is it a mixture of these, providing an array of locals depending on social or socioeconomic structures that are in place?
One of the last things I like to consider when world building within paranormal fiction is the government structure. This could be as simple as a werewolf society hidden within the confines of the world as we know it, where pack leaders govern their regions with a strict hand and answer to no one. It could also be as elaborate as an entire world of fae beyond the veil of our own world, where the land and people and government structures are completely independent of what goes on here.
Each of these questions and resulting answers require one common thing: rules. When world building, regardless of the genre, you have to determine the rules that establish and solidify your world. Without these rules, it can become easy to write yourself into a corner that you cannot escape from. If you do this you run the risk of losing your readers' trust, and as with all things in life, once trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain.
There are so many resources available to writers who are in the midst of world building, such as question lists you can use to help determine all of the things that will give your paranormal world the layers and vivid imagery it needs to jump off the page. The Pink Heart Society is a great place to start. Or just ask your friendly neighborhood author. I’ve found no other group of folks more eager to help each other grow and succeed! Happy writing!
Trakena’s debut novel, Cursed, is available for preorder now. For more information about her writing, check out her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Anna J. Stewart: Creating a Paranormal World
As an author currently published in contemporary romance as well as romantic suspense, I was a bit hesitant to take on this particular topic of creating a paranormal world. For about ten seconds. The truth is, when I first got serious about my writing (and stopped playing around), I was writing paranormal and urban fantasy and had been for a number of years.
In 2012, I finaled in RWA's Golden Heart with an urban fantasy romance (in the strong romantic elements category). Despite much interest in that story (series, actually) from various publishers, New York didn't get my world; it didn't "fit" into a box. Since I wasn't yet ready to make the dive into self-publishing and the goal was to be traditionally published, I changed genres. A year later I sold contemporary romances to both Berkley and Harlequin.
But, and here's a secret just between you and me, if you were to ask me where my heart truly lies, it's in paranormal and those magical, amazing, fantastical worlds.
The world building alone is probably the part of the process I enjoy the best because I can just let my imagination fly without being tied to any rules other than the ones I set for the story. But, and here's the kicker, whatever genre you're writing in, there are rules.
Here in ordinary land (the one currently surrounding you) they're called laws: natural laws, legal ones; common sense. In contemporary and romantic suspense, I can't have my heroine all of a sudden call to the Four Towers and create a windstorm to wipe the evil drug lord off the face of the planet (okay, I could try, but I don't think that would get past my editor). What I am allowed to do is what reality and current day situations tell me I can (while also finding that all-important twist to make the story anything but predictable).
Now take that same heroine in perhaps the same situation and place her in a parallel universe where things are a bit topsy-turvy; where drugs might be currency rather than illegal. Where she might be the outcast or even the criminal as she hunts down those she believes to be responsible for her family's death...oh, boy. Hang on a second, I think I've stumbled onto some...
*scribbles down notes for new story*
Okay, I'm back. Whew. Even within the confines of the world you create, in paranormal, the sky is literally the limit. As long as that sky has its own set of rules; rules you've set up from the very beginning. Rules that will remain in place for however long your story (or series) lasts.
Just as in real life, rules don't change just because they make things difficult for your characters. That's important. Real life or paranormal, there are no do-overs; you don't get to change the rules in book two (or beyond) because the rule you set up previously screws up another plotline.
In paranormal you are always, always, having to think ahead, but in a different way than in real world stories.
You have to think of every contingency every twist or at least be aware enough that you could be writing yourself into a corner (and no one wants that). Once you've established that rule, you have carved it in stone (just as our real rules and laws are recorded). If your "rule" costs a character something in book one, it better cost a character the same if not more in subsequent stories. Sounds a bit daunting, doesn't it? Then think of it this way: consider the rules a challenge--because humans (or whomever you're writing about) are always looking for ways around them.
I've often joked with my writer friends that what I love about paranormal is that I don't have to rely on facts or research to tell the story I want; I get to make it all up. That is true. Historical accuracy can take a bit of a tumble in this particular genre, keeping in mind it might take a bit of explanation and finagling. You definitely can't take such liberties if your stories are cemented in everyday life or if you're writing say, Regency (do not get your facts wrong there!). I do far more research for my contemps and romantic suspense than I ever did for my magical stories. I have to, because I can't get it wrong or I'll get called out either by my editor or a reader.
You'll notice I said research because with the paranormal, there's still as much if not more work to be done on getting the story (and world) ready before the first word goes on the page/screen. For instance, I need to know if the normal (human) world is aware of the magical goings on that take place in the story? Is magic a secret? Are there protections in place to keep the worlds apart. If there are magical creatures and species, do they interact? How do they interact? How do they feel about the hidden, human world? If they're magical, what are their powers, how do they benefit the characters and more important for the story, how could they be used against them? If the worlds are separate, how are they kept apart or why?
All those questions you'd never have to ask yourself in just about any other romance genre are the ones you'll need to address. And more.
Think about all those questions J.K. Rowling had to ask herself when she created Harry Potter (and a few I think she might have missed). However one might view those books (I have my first editions in a glass bookcase by the way), they are, hands down, a master class in world building.
So just keep all that in mind when venturing out of the norm. My one bit of advice, whatever genre you're writing, but especially if you're diving into the magical world of the paranormal: start a bible. From day one! All of those quirky creations you come up with, the laws, the rules, the wacky food or drink items, character names, places...keep track of each and every one (or find someone who loves putting bibles together) because at some point you're going to need that information and you will want it close at hand.
Anna's latest release, Gone in the Night is out now. For more information about her writing, check out her website, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
What do you think makes the perfect fantasy world? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or use #FantasticalWorlds to join the discussion on Social Media.