How to Create a Great Setting for Your Fantasy Novel

shutterstock_189557657Creating a believable, compelling setting is a key ingredient in helping readers to immerse themselves in your novel, regardless of the genre. But I believe that in fantasy novels, setting is even more critical. The rules of the world you create must make sense, and often the setting can be a compelling incentive to pick up your story in the first place.

Below are some tips from popular series that have nailed the task of creating a unique, fascinating setting.

Ensure that your setting reinforces the key concepts of your story.
Example: Divergent by Veronica Roth
In Roth’s world, people are split into five factions by personality types. The setting builds upon this concept and enables readers to understand the world better. For example, the people of the Abnegation faction, who value self-sacrifice, live in austere, simple buildings that don’t even have mirrors. The Dauntless, who value courage, live in an underground pit with paths along the sides that have no railings. Anyone could easily plunge to their death with one wrong move. The impact of Roth’s use of setting makes the world instantly feel more believable.

Reveal your setting slowly, letting readers absorb the nuances.
Example: Silo series by Hugh Howey
Howey is a master at leading readers expertly through his imaginative world. When readers are first introduced to the setting in the Silo series, which is an immense, self-sustaining underground building, it isn’t clear exactly how this world functions, or how it came to be. But through the point of view of different characters, the layers are slowly revealed. Readers see how the silo sustains itself, and how the very nature of the different levels of the silo creates divisions between people, and a class system emerges based on how close to the top of the silo people live. It is amazing how quickly the world makes sense, and as additional details are revealed, the setting continues to fascinate.

Hook readers with a mystery about the setting.
Example: The Maze Runner by James Dashner
The setting in The Maze Runner is very simple and contained, but even the characters within the story don’t understand it. The entire world is a small homestead surrounded by a giant maze that the characters can’t escape from. The only way into this world is from an elevator that only goes one way – up. Solving the mystery of who created this world and how to escape is at the crux of the story.

Create a setting that is a fantastic twist on on the real world.
Example: Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
I could point to a number of popular fantasy series for this example, because it’s a device that works well. A favorite of mine is Wicked Lovely, because Marr seamlessly weaves the world of fairies into the world as we know it, and the setting is a key component of making this work. Everyday places deserve a second look for the protagonist, Aislinn, because she is aware that an almost invisible world is overlaid on her own.

Indulge your imagination and don’t be afraid to take risks with your setting.
Example: Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I’m finishing with Harry Potter because Rowling created the most compelling world that I’ve ever encountered in YA fantasy literature. Staircases that move, secret passages, and pictures that talk all make the world feel incredibly fantastical, like imagination come to life. Fantasy-lovers are looking to be immersed in a world that is new and different, so let your imagination run a little wild.

Which fantasy novels do you think have done the best job with setting?

 

Modeling Your Novel on a Classic

shutterstock_189453926A great source of inspiration for me has always been looking at the classics. And I’m not alone. How many times have familiar storylines crept in to popular works of fiction? The best authors take certain elements from classics and do something so new that many readers don’t notice the references to the original.

I loved how Hugh Howey used elements of Romeo and Juliet in his Silo series. It was a completely original twist on Shakespeare’s classic. Howey used the device of two lovers who come from completely different worlds that are bitterly opposed to each other, but his characters were completely his own. Lukas stands in for Romeo, and while he shares Romeo’s dreaminess and romanticism, is also fiercely intelligent and loyal. Even better, Juliette is a far more compelling Juliet, taking her destiny and those of her people in her hands and leading them to their salvation. By the time I finished Howey’s books, I decided I liked his characters even better than Shakespeare’s originals.

Other authors take the reverse tactic, and choose classic characters and place them in a new setting. One of my favorite recent finds is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. This is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy series that takes characters from classic fairytales and gives them an extreme makeover. The first book in the series is a loose take on Cinderella. Meyer’s Cinder has a heart of gold at her core, just like her inspiration, but she is a cyborg who helps her prince charming to end a plague that is ravaging the population.

So what have I taken away from those who are borrowing from the greats?

Don’t make your adaptation overly faithful to the original.
It’s tempting to assume that when you’re borrowing elements from a classic that the genius who created it knows best. But it’s critical to bring something dramatically new to the story, or readers might as well read the original. Choose the elements that fit your story, and don’t hesitate to ignore those that don’t work.

Keep your references subtle.
Some of the best stories I’ve read borrow from classics in such a way that I often don’t realize the connection until after I’ve finished the story. It makes a second reading of the book that much better. If it’s too obvious or heavy-handed, the effect can be to dull the impact of your story.

Don’t choose multiple classics to borrow from in one novel.
A rookie mistake that I made in my writing was to incorporate inspiration from multiple texts into my writing. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to do this, but it takes a masterful hand to incorporate different references expertly. Often the effect can be confusing or overwhelming. And remember, it is your original content that will bring readers back, not what you’re borrowing from the classics.

Have you borrowed from the classics when writing your novel?

The Ticking Clock

shutterstock_100477396In expert hands, the device of a ticking clock can add urgency and keep readers turning pages. A personal favorite – will Harry Potter destroy all of the horcruxes before Voldemort attacks Hogwarts? On the other hand, in the wrong hands the ticking clock can feel forced. Every author wants to make their readers feel something when they read their work, but we’d rather it not be annoyance. At least, not annoyance at the writer.

I recently encountered an example of the ticking clock that I found original in the young adult sci-fi novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman. The premise is that parents have the option of having their children “unmade” part by part between the ages of 13 and 18. The first book in the series centers around three kids slated to be unwound, who all escape before the procedure can be performed on them. The very effective ticking clock that runs through the entire series is that if they can survive until they turn 18, then they’re safe. One thing I loved was that the ticking clock keeps ticking, even at the end of the story. It made me instantly download the next book in the series. I was invested, and had to know that the characters I’d come to care for would survive to adulthood.

I’m currently writing the first draft of the third book of The Conjurors Series and decided to add a ticking clock. As the book draws to a close, I find myself uncertain as to whether it’s functioning the way I want it to. It’s possible to start the ticking clock too early, and it adds pressure to every scene. It feels like my protagonist can’t take moments to relax when she knows something big is about to happen.

And readers need those breaks from the action as much as protagonists do. I relish the pauses in my favorite novels, where characters have a chance to feel and aren’t running to the next action scene. Imagine if Edward and Bella never had their moment in the clearing in the woods where they finally admit how they feel? I think Twilight is a great example of a ticking clock gone wrong. The moment that the book becomes a race to save Bella’s life, it loses the heart-rending romance that makes the series compelling.

What books do you think do the best (or worst) job of employing a ticking clock?

How to Create a Series Bible

shutterstock_166195055I remember hearing a story that J. K. Rowling would use reliable Internet sites when she was writing the Harry Potter series to recall specific details from prior books in the series. At the time, I was a little shocked. Shouldn’t an author be able to keep all of the characters and locations they’ve created in their heads? It’s like forgetting that your mother’s eyes are blue or that you’ve been married for five years. There are somethings you should just know.

Now that I’m writing a series of my own, my perspective has completely changed. I can see the value in having a logical way of tracking the details of the characters and world that you create. Searching through prior books in your series, especially if the series is lengthy, is incredibly tedious. By the same token, if readers find little inconsistencies in your story, it can break their suspension of disbelief. Just because you didn’t remember that your protagonist had crooked front teeth doesn’t mean that an adoring fan won’t be horrified when you contradict yourself later.

That’s where a series bible comes in. I first heard about TV writers using it to track various episodes and seasons of a show. But it has been fully appropriated by authors to track their book series as well. Every author has a different technique, but the basics are the same. You have a binder, Excel file, sticky notes on a wall, or handwritten or typed notes, that track the characters, settings, and key plot points of each of the books in your series. The more organized and thorough you are, the more useful a tool your series bible can be.

I began my series bible as a list of all of the characters in each book, in no particular order. I listed their backstory, appearance, magical powers (since I write YA fantasy), and key information about what had happened to them so far. Sometimes I also included notes about what would happen in future books as well.

However, as the series has progressed (I’m now in the process of writing the third book in the series) it has helped to be more organized. I personally think Excel is the most logical way to keep track of a wide range of details. In addition to tracking characters, I also keep a map so I remember the geography of the world I’ve created, and details about the culture, landscape, and history of various countries that exist in that world.

Even with these details, I occasionally find myself returning to the first two books in the series for little details, so in the future I plan to be more rigorous about what I record. At its best, a series bible can be a roadmap that allows you to look backward and forward in your series and make adjustments as your story progresses.

Have you created a series bible for your novels? If so, which format did you find to be the most useful?

Tips on Writing Series Backstory

shutterstock_103729193I’ve begun writing the third book in The Conjurors Series, and in the opening chapters I’m running into an issue that I remember from writing the second book. How much backstory should I include from the prior books? I flipped through some of my favorite YA fantasy novels, like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and found that the authors made subtle references to the prior books, but it was done in such a way as to not interrupt the flow of the story.

Since I don’t have J.K. Rowling’s phone number, I tried to work backwards to see what was working. I researched what other writers recommend on this topic and was surprised to find that there weren’t a lot of tips out there. Below is the list I’ve compiled on what has worked for me when writing series backstory.

Include brief reminders of who characters are and any defining characteristics when they are introduced for the first time.
Whether it’s a defining physical characteristic, personality trait, or supernatural power, a phrase or sentence about the basic essence of who characters are can help readers flash back to the earlier story. This is especially critical for minor characters.

Only recall plot points from prior books when absolutely necessary.
If readers will be confused about what’s happening, it’s okay to include a brief sentence or two referencing key events from past books. But don’t feel you have to rehash the entire plot – new readers may be intrigued enough to go back and read prior books in the series. I know when I read books by my favorite authors that I love little Easter eggs that reference earlier stories. It’s okay if continuing readers don’t catch all of your references during their first read, as long as they can follow the plot.

Let critical backstory emerge through dialogue and action where possible.
Rather than telling readers what they should know about your series backstory, let your characters ask the questions, or subtly weave in critical information into dialogue. Even better, let it emerge during the action. For example, if your character was seriously wounded in a prior book, reveal the persisting weakness or pain during a current battle. The old scar will make sense for new and continuing readers alike.

Even if you don’t mention information from past books outright, make sure prior events still inform how your character behaves.
One thing that I noticed worked incredibly well in successful YA fantasy series was that even when events from prior books in the series weren’t explicitly rehashed, the ways the characters had evolved stayed true to the story. Any way the character has matured, grown, or perhaps fallen apart, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, is carried through. I try to think about how my protagonist changes over the course of the novel, and how that ties into the larger change in her character arc for the entire series.

Ask your beta readers to flag places where they were confused about who characters were or past plot that was being referenced.
The most important source of advice for how much backstory from prior books to include was from my beta readers. Even my own father, one of my most trusted and valuable beta readers, struggled to remember the nuances of the plot and the details about minor characters from the first book when he beta read book two. Knowing where he was scratching his head let me know the places that needed me to invest some time referencing past plot points.

Do you have any additional suggestions for how much backstory to include when writing subsequent novels in a series?

Motivation vs. Inspiration

shutterstock_81172669For self-published writers, a lot of deadlines are self-imposed. This can be a blessing and a curse. It allows for flexibility, but it also enables us to procrastinate, since the only person we answer to is ourselves. Sometimes we’re waiting for inspiration to strike, but at least for me, I think that the real culprit is motivation. Do I have the energy, after a day of working my day job and a night with my adorable but rambunctious toddler, to sit down and write a couple thousand words? Or would I rather finish the Divergent trilogy? Perhaps if I had an editor breathing down my neck that would be the motivation I need to channel my inspiration and write.

However, motivation won’t be a problem for me in 2014. I have a unique deadline that is compelling me to finish writing the third book of The Conjurors Series. I’m having a baby in the middle of March. After my little bundle is here, I question whether, for at least a few months, coherent writing will be possible. So it’s up to me, right now, to admit that being pregnant is no excuse for slacking off. But having a newborn and a toddler might be a compelling reason to take a break in a few months.

Knowing that this deadline is coming has been both motivating and inspiring. It’s immovable, and every time my baby kicks inside me it’s a reminder that time is ticking by. But rather than feeling that the pressure of the deadline is leaving me blocked, I’m finding that my inspiration is there when I focus on it. I suspect it’s been there the whole time, and the only thing holding me back was finding the motivation to tap into it.

So once I land back on Earth and juggling two kids instead of one feels possible, I’m wondering how I can find the motivation to always chase after my goals this aggressively. I don’t think my husband would be on board with having babies every time I’m getting lazy with my writing.

What do you do to motivate yourself to adhere to your deadlines and keep writing when you’d rather be playing Candy Crush? Please tell me, because I’m going to need all the motivation I can find to write pretty soon!

Deconstructing Hunger Games Heroine Katniss Everdeen

Hunger GamesA few years ago I stumbled upon a series that I knew was special. Before the movies, before the screaming fans, when I first read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins I knew I’d found something special. It wasn’t the premise that drew me in – I almost didn’t read the book because it sounded too gory for me – it was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She was tough but vulnerable, self-sacrificing but a survivor. I had already finished the first book of my own series, The Conjurors, and it made me rethink how to create a memorable, compelling YA fantasy heroine.

Below are some of the lessons that I took away from my analysis of Katniss.

Serious flaws make for a more compelling protagonist.
I think most authors know that their protagonist can’t be perfect. But at least for me, I find myself not wanting to make my heroine, Valerie, too flawed. I am afraid she’ll be unlikable. But analyzing Katniss taught me that this is a mistake. It is because Katniss can be angry, weak, and even lose track of her moral compass that I felt like she was so powerful. When she indulged her flaws, like when she got drunk and wound up in the fetal position in a basement after finding out she would be thrown into the hunger games for a second time, she felt human. When she overcame a flaw, like when she found the courage to inspire the rebels with her words in Mockingjay, it felt like a greater triumph because it didn’t come easily to her.

Protagonists don’t always have to take the moral high ground.
From the time in The Hunger Games when Katniss uses trackerjackers to attack her enemies to the end of Mockingjay when she assassinates the new president, Katniss doesn’t sit around over-analyzing the moral implications of every decision. She is a creature of action, which is part of what makes her so fascinating to watch. She isn’t like Superman, who refuses to kill. She is willing to do what it takes to survive and protect the ones she loves, even if her conscience is tortured by her decisions later.

Romance should not be the protagonist’s primary motivator.
I am willing to admit that I love romance, no matter what book I’m reading. Would I have objected to a few additional tender moments in The Hunger Games series? No. But I love that for Katniss, romance is always secondary to greater concerns. She’s not a girl to wallow and make all of her decisions based on the whims of her heart. Contrary to what I would have expected before reading this series, this makes the romantic triangle in the story more compelling, because we care more as readers what Katniss’ decision will be than she does herself. She’s too busy trying to save her district and fend off insanity.

When pushed past what she can stand, it’s okay to let your heroine break.
So many heroines and heroes come close to being broken by their experiences, but it’s not every day that you see a protagonist who truly is destroyed. The series is as much about Katniss rebuilding herself after extreme trauma as it is about breaking down in the first place. And though many of my friends were not fully satisfied with how the series ended, I thought it was courageous. It was the happiest ending possible for her character. PTSD doesn’t vanish overnight, it is a lifelong struggle. But I felt that Katniss didn’t give in to her tragedy, she fought to make a life for herself that was full.

Who are heroines and heroes in literature who have inspired your writing?

How to Name Your Protagonist

shutterstock_136700621When my husband and I decided to name our now-toddler Jacob, it was in the middle of the Twilight craze. You have my word that I didn’t choose his name because I’m team Jacob, though I have a feeling that I may field that question for the rest of my life. Really, Jacob is a name my husband has always loved and dreamed of naming his son some day. How could I say no to that? It was an easy choice.

Naming the protagonist of The Conjurors Series, Valerie Diaz, on the other hand, was much more difficult. I trolled websites, favorite books, and even newspapers for the right name. I wasn’t choosing a name that I loved, I was choosing a name that encapsulated the person I wanted her to be. I hoped that my final choice reflected her ethnic heritage, courage, and uniqueness. But as I start to think about the next series that I’ll be writing, it got me wondering if there were other ways to find the perfect name for my protagonist. Below are some of the techniques that fellow writers have found helpful, and a couple that I use myself when naming key characters.

Consider the regional origin of your protagonist and her key character traits.
A great place to start your name search is on a baby-naming website like Baby Names. What I love about this site is that you can search by region, if you’re looking to name your character something that would suit a particular part of the world, by popularity, or by meaning. This can also be a great place to finish your search for a character name. If you’ve found the perfect name that completely suits your character, it’s worth checking that the meaning isn’t something like “harbinger of doom”.

Borrow a name from history or literature and give it your own spin.
Whether it’s heroes from Greek mythology or your American history textbook, famous people’s names immediately come with an innate depth. But rather than simply calling your protagonist “Beowulf”, consider tweaking the name so that it sounds similar, but has its own twist.

Choose a name that inspires you personally.
Another, sometimes overlooked option is to name your protagonist for a particular hero or heroine in your life. Sometimes a name resonates with you for personal reasons, like the name of a teacher who inspired you. Even though the name may mean nothing to readers, you will unconsciously imbue your heroine with the good and bad qualities of the person they are named after, and can result in a more rounded protagonist.

Don’t pick a name that’s super hard to pronounce or remember.
As much as I enjoy unusual names, it is possible to go overboard. I’m a huge fan of The Chronicles of Prydain (especially The Black Cauldron) by Lloyd Alexander, but to this day I have no idea how to pronounce some of the names, like Eilonwy or Fflewddur Fflam. If I decide to write a rave review about a book where the characters have difficult names, it’s a huge deterrent if I have to go back and remind myself of how to spell the their names and remember who’s who.

Make sure the name makes sense for the setting you’ve chosen for your novel.
If you’re writing a medieval fantasy, for example, choose names that were popular at that point of history. It lends authenticity to your story. Also, don’t give all of the sub-characters unusual names if your protagonist has a name outside the norm. It dilutes the impact that you’re going for.

How did you name your protagonist? Any advice on other sources of inspiration for naming characters?

The Curse of the Whiny Protagonist

shutterstock_148391531I’ll never forget reading book 5 of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Suddenly, sunny, kind little Harry was a brooding teenager. I remember thinking that I didn’t like him as much anymore. I understood that he was evolving as a character, and part of being a teenager is embracing angst – especially if you’ve just witnessed first-hand the death of a classmate. But his likeability factor plummeted. Of course, in spite of this change, this book is still incredible. I cried at the end. But it always stayed with me as the one book in the series where Harry didn’t feel like Harry.

So you’d think I learned a lesson from reading that, but after sending the second book in The Conjurors Series to beta readers, everyone said the same thing. My protagonist, Valerie, was too angst-ridden. And as I re-read and made edits, I realized they were right. Low self-esteem is part of her character, but it was over-the-top. Maybe massive low self-doubt is a natural part of being a teenage girl, but it didn’t read well in a heroine.

That’s when I realized that we don’t want to read about people who are exactly like everyone we meet in daily life. We want heroines who are exceptional, who, in spite of their flaws, rise above petty concerns and are capable of a depth of compassion or bravery or intelligence that we hope we are capable of, but we know most people aren’t. Maybe this isn’t true for every genre, but I truly believe the best YA fantasy books I’ve read all adhere to this idea in their protagonist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior – I could go on and on – all tap into the best versions of themselves under difficult circumstances.

That being said, I know this opinion isn’t one that everyone shares. The Twilight Series or even The Catcher in the Rye prove that you can be successful with a whiny protagonist who is written well. But I confess that these books are not on my favorites list. However, if you do love super-angsty protagonists, check out this Goodreads list on popular whiny protagonists – it gave me a good chuckle. It’s a definite counterpoint to the heroes I mentioned above, and proof that in the hands of a skilled writer, any protagonist can be compelling.

Of course, the danger is going to the opposite extreme and making protagonists too perfect – something that can be equally annoying. Finding that tricky balance with my own heroine is something that evolves with every chapter I write. Hopefully, after hundreds of hours of writing and edits, Valerie will come across as a real, but exceptional, teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances who rises to the challenges she encounters.

I’m Cheating on my Protagonist

shutterstock_69810904I have a confession. I’m in a long-term, committed writing relationship with the current protagonist of The Conjurors Series, Valerie Diaz. She’s great – loyal, smart and filled with integrity. I’m not ready to end our affair – we’re only two books in to a four-book series. But I can’t stop thinking about someone else. While I should be plotting Valerie’s next move, I’m fantasizing about the heroine that I’m going to write about next.

I’m afraid that if I don’t get a grip, I’ll lose the momentum I need to finish my current series, which is planned to be completed at the end of 2014. By that estimate, I really shouldn’t be daydreaming about other heroines at least until book four is drafted. But it’s tempting. My favorite part of the writing process is creating characters and planning plots. All of the characters and plots in The Conjurors Series have been developed, at least at a high level. What’s left is the execution, which I also love, but doesn’t have the same thrilling joy that only giving characters life can bring.

Then, of course, come the comparisons. Valerie’s much nicer than my next heroine, but I think I actually like the new one more. In real life we could totally hang out, whereas with Valerie I’d have to be on my best behavior. Which naturally makes me feel more guilty. They’re both my creations – shouldn’t I love them equally? Of course, I’m aware that the new heroine and I are still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship. I’ve yet to become bogged down in the day-to-day grind of hurtling her into strange and painful situations and then carefully extricating her.

How do you stay focused on your current project when the next is luring you with its siren call? Do you give in and cheat, or stay the course until your current writing project is completely finished?