Treading the Tightrope Between Worlds

I’ve just started reading a new vampire novel. Sunshine by Robin McKinley. It’s made me contemplate the world-building that happens within the genre of urban fantasy in series and standalone novels like Sunshine and the Hollows (Kim Harrison) and Anita Blake (Laurell K. Hamilton), etc.

Urban fantasy is interesting because it explores worlds within our own, and has to walk a fine line between making the reader feel at home in our world while simultaneously changing certain aspects and creating a believable reality subsumed within it. Throw too much “other” in there, and readers will be lost or lose their SOD (suspension of disbelief, not rolled up sheets of grass).

Not this kind of sod. Image from

I realized while reading, that it took me about fifty or so pages into Sunshine to realize how different the world of the story is from our world. Yes, there are vampires, etc., but the protagonist works in a coffeehouse and goes to the library, and for the first chunk of the book, there are very few hints about the extent of the world. The odd bit of slang that doesn’t quite fit 21st century speech, a few other little things.

If you want to bridge our world and a fantasy world, you first have to lull the reader into a sense of comfort. Even if you introduce the fantastical right off the bat, you still have to show enough “normalcy” to entice your reader to believe your story, whether that’s setting, description, or the every day life of the characters. Writers even do that in epic fantasy when they are creating a whole new world with a completely different history and landscape and everything. How many fantasy series begin with a rural hero living a quiet life on a farm? I can already think of three, and I’m not even trying. Because while we may not immediately “get” Middle Earth or Emond’s Field or Sendaria, we get farms as being something normal. When the magic starts happening, we’re already invested.

So when we write urban fantasy, we may not know off the bat what a writer means by “sheer” or “bad blood cross” or “Hogwarts” or “the Hollows,” but we get cars and bars and rush hour and the home of that anal-retentive aunt. As a writer, the more you pad your way across the tightrope stretched between this world and yours, the more you see of the new. It might come in bits and bangles at first, but if you take the time to build a world block by block, your readers will be steeped in it before you know it, and they won’t want to be evicted.

Good world-building is what keeps readers immersed into the wee hours of the night. Sometimes it happens quite by accident, as it was with the creation of Aloria and the world of David Eddings‘s Belgariad. His began with a doodle on a napkin that he didn’t expect to become anything until he realized that The Lord of the Rings was in its 78th printing years later and discovered that people enjoyed fantasy. From that napkin doodle came this world:

Not bad for a napkin. Image via

As I revise Primeval, one of the big texturing projects I am undertaking is to ensure that as my protagonist becomes more embroiled in a new type of world, the more quirks of that world she begins to see, then use herself as she adapts. I want to make sure the reader can take that journey with her. There are some structural things that need work, but I look at this revision time as sort of sitting on my egg. Most of the structure is there, but I have to keep it warm and cuddly so that life peeks out of it when I’m through.

How do you build your worlds? How do you decide what to introduce and when? How do you keep from overwhelming your reader even if you need to overwhelm your protagonist? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Keep creating.


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on December 12, 2011, in writing progress and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Ugh, world-building is actually one of my greatest challenges. I have a tendency to want to explain EVERYTHING as soon as my character is deep enough into the new world to realize she’s not in Kansas anymore. To gift-wrap all that exposition into a tidy little package instead of spreading it out in little nuggets for the reader to find and savor.

    But realizing I have a problem is the first step, right? It is definitely something I need to work on, but I’m slowly getting there as I revise and write. Thanks for a great post!

    • I have a tendency to info-dump as well. “You could have a trail of bread crumbs, but instead, I give you: a DUMP TRUCK FULL! Voila!”

      Cue avalanche.

  2. The first thing I believe all fantasy and sci-fi writers need to keep in mind is not the magical element of their story. It’s the human element. The reader needs to connect with the character on a human level. Otherwise, what’s the point? I don’t know how an alien or a vampire reacts/lives. I DO know and relate to humans, and that’s why I read. I want to hear of a vampire who feels guilty for sucking blood from humans (cue ‘Twilight’, anyone?). I want aliens who have feelings (hem, hem ‘ET’? lol). Sorry if I babbled. Loved this post.

    • Woops. P.S. I missed the question from your post.

      I try to use characters’ actions to describe. I.e. why they wipe the beads of sweat from their face = they can’t keep their house organised. Then I dribble in more info about their house later.

      Anyway I’m very sneaky, I try slot in info via any method I can. Hint through dialogue, etc.

      • I like to do that too — the whole “show, don’t tell” sort of thing.

        “It was cold outside” just doesn’t have the same ring as saying that “the frigid air made snotcicles form in her nose hairs.”

        I don’t know if I would say snotcicles.

        But being from Montana, I have experienced this phenomenon. It usually happens around minus 20.

      • ‘Snotcicles’. I absolutely love it. That sentence alone would make me read at least a full page even if the writing after wasn’t too good — gotta give an author a go after a stunner like that!

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