What I Learned from Building My First Fantasy World
“I think fantasy is best described as a kind of fiction that evokes wonder, mystery or magic, a sense of possibility beyond the ordinary world in which we live, and yet which reflects and comments upon that known world.” —Kate Forsyth
One of the best things about writing fantasy is the freedom to immerse my readers — and myself — in a different reality. It’s an amazing privilege to transport another person into a world which began in my mind. But it also means that the quality of my worldbuilding can make or break the reader experience.
Deep fantasy worldbuilding can be fun, satisfying, and even cathartic, but also overwhelming… especially when it takes over a decade. Though I didn’t worldbuild and plan continually the entire time, my first fantasy world of Arameth began for me in 2005, but I didn’t manage to complete (and indie-publish) the first book from that world until 2018.
I’d like to share with you some pieces of my world… and some hard-won epiphanies about worldbuilding and my writing process (and myself) I uncovered while building it.
I am not claiming to be a worldbuilding expert, by any means. But I have done it, extensively with the Arameth project and on a smaller scale with other stories since then. Your mileage may vary—every writer is different and you may have a very different process from me, a different writing style, or different goals. But I hope that by reading about my worldbuilding journey, you might get some ideas for where to start your own, if you’re struggling, or find a few tips to make it easier.
Worldbuilding Gone Wrong… Or Maybe Right? (i.e., Things I Learned)
Worldbuilding—For Them, But First For Me
Much of the worldbuilding I do for a story will never be seen by the reader; I know that. My first drafts are full of info-dumps I cut in editing, as I decipher how much info is too much to put on the page. During this process, I inevitably wonder whether my world is unique enough, interesting enough, fleshed-out enough, and a dozen more “enough” evaluations. If I let it, these worries and second-guesses could drive me mad… or at least drive me straight away from my computer and on to less stressful things, like professional napping. At some point during the drafting process, I have to find the confidence to embrace the world I’ve built because it’s mine, because it means something to me.
My goal is always to share my world with readers—eventually—but in the early stages, it is mine to do with as I am led, which can be both comforting and terrifying, at least for an anxious, over-thinking writer like myself.
In my opinion, strong worldbuilding, like the elusive sense of voice in writing, is not as much about creating a world that’s totally unique as it is crafting a world that’s uniquely yours, revealed in a way only you could or would tell it. A world where the author’s heart bleeds through between the edges of what’s shown on the page, infusing its very construct—that is a world that will feel alive, and rich, and real… and full of wonder.
Not every world I have built for my stories feels intensely personal or soul-baring. But some do. Some even feel like the culmination of entire segments of my life, distilled and channeled into something new yet somehow familiar. Arameth, for me, is one of those worlds—perhaps the world, the one which most deeply reveals bits of my heart and mind… the first fantasy world I ever created.
The full map of Arameth as revealed in book 3
A Thing I Learned:
I don’t need to create a world that’s better and more interesting and more unique than any other fictional world. That’s an impossible task. But if I focus on letting me bleed through into my plans, onto the page, into my world… then even if no one else finds my world interesting, at least I do, right? And usually that love for my world will translate onto the page, resulting in a world my readers can love, too.
Another Thing I Learned:
Trusted sounding-boards are extremely helpful to me while planning a story and its world—I utilize my husband and a few choice friends (who also happen to be in my Alpha reader group)—but not until I’ve already gotten a strong feel for the direction I’d like to take things, then use discussion to work through the sticky spots. These discussions are a huge help in evaluating how my world might come across to readers, but I still go with my instincts to decide which suggestions, feedback, or new ideas to employ.
Some Worlds Can Be Built in a Day, but Others…
Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? Yet I have tossed together a fantasy world in a day or so, when on a time crunch for a short story or flash piece or just eager to get started on my next series. It can be done, if the world isn’t particularly complex.
Arameth, on the other hand, was the kind of world that needed time to evolve. It emerged slowly, at its own pace, in flashes of inspiration and bits and pieces of ideas, over a thirteen-year period.
Arameth and its characters began in 2005, and I wrote draft after failed draft of the story, only to set it aside in despair. In 2017, I pulled out my Arameth files and repurposed pieces of the world and characters for a hastily planned NaNoWriMo attempt. That attempt was a mess which left me even more confused. Eventually, I realized Arameth and its characters encompassed both my 2005 and 2017 iterations, and that Arameth was far more complex than I’d imagined. Up to that point, it felt like Arameth kept trying to reveal its true self to me, and I was only seeing parts of it. But when I painstakingly assembled all the random pieces from both stories into a somewhat coherent whole, it began to make sense.
A Thing I Learned:
For me, plotting and worldbuilding take time. Not always decades (thank goodness!), but stories seem to come to me in layers. I’ll think I have it all figured out, only to be hit with a revelation which changes everything yet somehow makes it truer to itself, as though a layer of fog has cleared from the story. With shorter stories, sometimes there are only one or two layers of this fog, and the whole process is fairly quick. With Arameth, it was a thick wall of fog that cleared one paper-thin layer at a time.
The clarity of another layer of fog clearing almost always hits me suddenly and when I least expect it, triggered by some life event or conversation or piece of entertainment. So I just keep pondering the story, working new versions and drafts, praying for clarity, and waiting for my aha moments. The waiting is frustrating! But for me, it’s necessary—when I try to rush a story, it usually falls flat.
Building the World, or Discovering It?
Many things changed about Arameth in the years I spent working on it. New characters emerged, some old characters were (*gasp*) deleted or assimilated, details got fleshed out, and things which hadn’t quite made sense before clicked together until finally, the “true” form of Arameth emerged, both in my mind and on the pages.
Some aspects of Arameth and of the Lex Chronicles storyline came to me with such sudden clarity that I almost wondered if Arameth and its characters existed somewhere and I was being sent glimpses of what they were up to, while other elements of the story nearly had me in a mental breakdown with dozens of outlines and drafts just trying to puzzle them out. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but looking back at the series, I can see how bits of me emerged in its creation, and how it grew as I grew. I joked with my betas about how the craziest parts of the Arameth world are the weirdest parts of my brain put into story form, but there’s some truth to that.
Many smaller elements of Arameth—in fact, some of the pieces that became most popular with readers or most important to the story later on—popped up when I least expected them to. And many elements that I wrote in on a whim, upon later reflection contained deeper truths or revelations that it seemed my world and characters were teaching me.
A Thing I Learned:
Trust the story.
I went through a phase with Arameth where something just still felt “off” about my planning. I had no idea what, but I just had a gut feeling I was missing something or had taken part of my worldbuilding and plotting in the wrong direction. I had outlines, detailed maps and backstories… but in the writing itself, new things emerged. I’m part Architect/Plotter and part Gardener/Pantser. I do a lot of my discovery in my planning and plotting, but I’m often surprised by what the story itself reveals to me once I begin writing. Sometimes the world and characters seem to want to do or be something far different than I’d planned, and in those cases, I let the story lead.
A Driving Theme or Feeling
I’ve noticed that my various story worlds have certain commonalities. Even though the worlds themselves are different, certain aspects of the feel—I suppose what you could call the nuances of my particular “brand,” things like mood and themes and subtleties of how I piece together my stories—seem fairly consistent. But Arameth is perhaps the truest example of this, the world that contains the most of “me.”
Arameth’s world is not a utopia—it has darkness. It has scary things. It contains danger and loss and struggle. But it also has heroes and fierce friendships, triumph and redemption, and settings, creatures, and characters which lit my imagination afire all those years ago.
A Thing I Learned:
I had to embrace my fictional signature, the way small pieces of me seep through into my stories. In a sense, Arameth is me—a strange, fantastical expression of what I learned during that difficult decade which gestated Arameth, and the emergent truth of what my own Creator tore through those hard moments to show me. Every world I ever make seems to contain these two truths: (1) that darkness exists in the world and sometimes life is hard, and (2) that there is always hope. Always, even when things seem darkest.
What Is This, Even?
The Lex Chronicles (including books The Edge of Nothing, The Path to Paradox, and The Ends of Exile) is the trilogy which introduces my world of Arameth to the world… and because of that, I fretted much over how to present these books and whether I was doing the world and story justice. I’m happy with how they turned out, but sometimes I wonder if anyone will love them as I do.
What I first imagined as a typical epic fantasy world later threw things at me like myopic portals and who-invited-this-guy-he’s-so-strange charactersand what-in-the-world-is-this-thing creatures. They are a bit quirky, these books, and though I think that’s their charm, it also means they don’t quite fit into a clear marketing mold. I never set out to make my world or its story quirky. It just kind of… happened. I’m not sure there is a genre my books truly fit in, as they ended up sort of an epic-fantasy/portal-fantasy/soft-sci-fi mashup.
A Thing I Learned:
This is an aspect, perhaps, I would do differently if I were to start over… but I’m not sure Arameth would have allowed it; it may have asserted its quirky self as being just fine as it is, thank you very much — and I suppose I would have acquiesced, marketing complications notwithstanding. But still, I guess this would be my advice-to-future-self… don’t squash your worldbuilding creativity with marketing concerns, but don’t, like, not ever think about marketing at all, either.
Which Came First, the Plot-Chicken or the World-Egg?
Plus, Accidental Risks (Oops.)
The plot for the Legends of Arameth series evolved over time, too, growing and morphing alongside the world. Once I learned more about story structure and leveled up some of my writing skills, I realized some aspects of my world just wouldn’t work, while others were solid. I ended up changing both the larger explanation for Arameth and the plot for the series over a dozen times before everything clicked. Through all that, however, my map and the basic magical races of Arameth never changed. They have been my constants—well, they and a few specific characters—even as the story and world around them got torn down to the foundations and built back up from scratch. I suppose they were the foundation — everything else was built upon the map, a brief history of three magical races, and two or three characters.
The Edge of Nothing opens like a typical epic fantasy, but as I mentioned above, the story itself is a portal fantasy/soft sci-fi/epic fantasy mashup. I worried a LOT about whether some worldbuilding and plot elements of these books would fall flat or perhaps confuse readers. As Arameth grew more expansive in my mind and the story became more elaborate to support the weight of that complex world, it was a challenge to figure out how to present it well, as it deserved. It worked, I think—reviews look good, with one person even commenting that I took some “risks” with my worldbuilding but managed to pull it off.
A Thing I Learned:
I didn’t mean to take risks. To be honest, the story kind of just flew off the rails and took on a life of its own. But, hey, I’ll totally take that as a win! (And a reminder to trust the story.)
The characters hold my strange world together and make it all work. But the characters also impact worldbuilding elements, which in turn impact them as characters… I’m not sure it’s possible to fully separate the two.
I love the characters in this series fiercely, but the story doesn’t always go easy on them.
(Please direct any hatemail regarding characters’ fates should to the story itself, not to me; I’m innocent!)
A Thing I Learned from One of My Side Characters:
After a lot of stress and rewriting the story so many times from all different POVs and starting at all different places in the timeline as I figured it all out, I realized something—nothing is wasted. Every scene I wrote in Jana’s POV made me understand her and the world I was writing a little more, and though nothing ended up being told in her POV in the book, those “deleted” scenes made the world and the story a lot richer… even though I initially felt like I had wasted time writing them. In writing, nothing is ever truly wasted. If I don’t end up using something in the story at all, I still learn something by writing it. (Even if sometimes what I learn is “Well, that didn’t work how I imagined—time to rethink this!”)
A Long Gestation, then a Hurried Labor
The Lex Chronicles was both immensely rewarding and hugely stressful to write. It is the first of what I hope will be several series set in the larger Legends of Arameth story universe. After spending so much time building the world of Arameth—and truly believing it held stories which needed to be told—fear often crept in as I wrote this first series, anxieties over whether I was presenting the world in the best way, or whether anyone would even want to read the thing. In the end, though, I wrote it because I needed to write it, because it wouldn’t let go of me after all those years, and because—after much prayer—God continued to nudge me to finish it. And when I did finally hit a stride on it, all three books just sort of poured out of me over a matter of months.
I don’t know what may become of The Lex Chronicles in the future. So far, the series has a small (but enthusiastic) audience, far smaller than I’d originally hoped. But their response has been encouraging—some have even messaged me to tell me how much they loved the books or how parts of the story impacted them. When I think back or read over parts of what I’ve written about Arameth, I find things I could have done better, of course! I’m always growing as an author. But I also find a world and characters I’m in love with, and I know, had I not written them, they would still be shoving at the edges of my mind, begging for release.
A Thing I Learned:
Doubt is an inevitable companion on my journey to grow as an indie author, but with Arameth, I believe I at least got some things right. Arameth deserved to exist—that much I know, and the characters of Arameth and The Lex Chronicles deserved to have their story told. I hope I did that story justice.
The Impact of Making Arameth
Through creating and writing Arameth, I learned so much about myself as a writer, and about what works for me in the writing process. My first-worldbuilding experience was challenging, and it took a long time… but The Lex Chronicles (and the larger Legends of Arameth series) also made me officially a “fantasy writer” and confirmed my love for writing the genre. Although the series isn’t perfect, it’s a reflection of who I was at the time and where I was as a writer, and the first stepping-stone in what I hope will be a continued journey upward in honing my skills and craft.
I will always think of Arameth as my authorial home-world, even though I’ve already created a few others. I have plans to write many more stories and series in the Arameth universe, and to continue to create new worlds beyond that… but Arameth is the core, the world which began it all.
About the Author:
Crystal Crawford is a homeschooling mom of four, part-time writing teacher and non-profit Director, author, former animal trainer, and full-time introvert. Her imagination is her happy place! (But a deserted beach is nice, too.) She writes fantasy and YA, with a smattering of other genres, and she believes in meticulous creativity — carefully crafted stories that impact and entertain readers. She strives to provide quality, clean fiction with strong values, and books that take readers on an exciting ride and deliver all the feels.
She also loves connecting with her readers! For more information, visit her WEBSITE or follow her on FACEBOOK or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other places you can find Crystal around the interwebs include:
Amazon Author Page
And if you enjoyed this post on the world building of Arameth, check out the first book of the trilogy, available on AMAZON.