Recently, I was dealing with a bad case of writer’s block. My mind was blank, and I was stuck staring up at the ceiling as if the texture of it secretly contained the words I needed all along. Although, if I’m being honest, I shouldn’t be surprised. I experience writer’s block trying to formulate an email, or a text in the group chat that is equal parts funny and moving. This case of writer’s block came about as I attempted to write a fantasy piece. Every description felt unnatural, disjointed, or just plain dull. Nothing was working. So, I pulled out some of my old favourites and tried to work out what they had that formed the core of a successful, engaging text.
What came to me was a consideration for the kind of reader I am. What it was I looked for, and what it was that really drew me to the novels. I realised that it was two perfectly straightforward aspects that connected me with the fantasy genre: world-building and character.
World-building is the creation of a world within a text, that is often different to our own. Not only referring to the geography and climate of the landscapes within a novel, world-building also covers religious structures, class divides, and gender identities, to name a few. Even the food eaten on the protagonist’s quest is part of the overall structure of the land, and can often tell us lots about culture and landscape too. Character, on the other hand, refers to the emotional and physical presentation of individuals central to the text. Their inner monologue, their traumas, their relationships with other characters, and actions in the face of conflict are all part of character-building.
I began to think back to the books from when I was a child, that had simplistic settings, but engaging characters. I still remember the formidable Gruffalo and the mouse’s wit from the Julia Donaldson book, but not the animal’s hiding places quite as well. So, I began to wonder, is this the case for more readers? Are there two flip sides? Is it possible that we are either character readers or world readers?
I decided to take the question to those most qualified to answer (totally not just because they were in my immediate vicinity). A group comprised of two overwhelmed lit students, an art history buff, our affectionately known beauty-school-dropout, and a mathematician. I sat everybody down at the debate corner – our precious, sits-two-maximum JMS table, that we’d fought for that morning and which was at that moment buckling under the weight of six laptops. I was expecting a harsh battle for both sides, except every single one of them agreed that they were character readers too.
Many of them felt that characters possess more power to drive the story, whereas world-building is in a sense powerless without them. Something to be manipulated by the character’s engagement with it, and empty without this engagement. It was interesting to consider the idea that political systems, culture, and landscapes within text are shaped by the character’s relationship to them. If we look at fantasy such as The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, despite the complex political systems and cultures in the text, it is the characters that bring them to life. I suppose it makes sense that as reader’s we engage with the protagonist’s perspective on the world more than the worlds themselves sometimes.
We also decided that seeing yourself reflected in character through the exploration of inner thoughts and feelings, is important for a reader’s investment and connection to story. Similarly, witnessing a character’s development throughout the text, for example, looking at the psyche of the protagonist and watching them grow and change within the world, was more engaging than the landscapes and political systems they were placed in to force this change. The relationships between characters were also considered to be more important than the world-building of a piece. A love triangle and its conflicts can carry a story without the need for vast landscapes, systems, and cultures. Comparatively, a text about the world alone reads more like a history or wildlife documentary than a fantasy novel. A lack of convincing character means a disconnect from the story itself, and can the world really be realistic if there are not viable characters to engage with it?
This focus on character has made me view my own writing in a completely different way. Instead of getting so attached to the minute details of the landscape, or creating a unique and complex magic system from the get-go, I began to look at who I was introducing to the story, how they might feel about the landscape I was introducing them to, and how reader’s might find something to relate to. There is definitely a pressure for writers placing their work in the fantasy genre to be complex and thorough with their worlds. While I am not taking away the importance of world-building, or the spectacular worlds that have been created, I definitely experienced a sense of freedom putting it aside. The end of my writer’s block was finally getting the character floating around in my brain onto the page, and hearing their voice come to life.
(A Novel Idea is a monthly literature column by Georgia McHaffie, exclusive to the qmunicate.com. Stay tuned for more installments!)