Right now, I am more than delighted because I am finally nearing completion of Tournament of Witches, the third and final book of The Glimnodd Cycle .
The latest novel truly fits the mold of “epic” fantasy, weighing in at a healthy 95,000 words and featuring a multitude of characters and lots of background (aka world building).
Presenting this amount of information in a story is one of the great challenges of epic fantasy. Of course, the best way to present all of this backstory is to chop it up into little chunks and weave it into the narrative. In a past series of posts beginning here, I described Five Techniques for presenting backstory in this way.
Still, no matter how skillfully the author weaves in character descriptions and background details, readers will sometimes get lost. This is particularly true for readers who might start by reading one of the later books in a series.
To solve this dilemma, an author might provide additional tools that the confused reader can flip to to remind or re-orient themselves. One such tool is a Glossary, which can include definitions of things, places, and concepts that only exist in the fantasy world. Another such tool is a list of characters.
In Tournament of Witches I am including both of these, a Glossary in the back of the book and a character list in the front.
We’ll leave discussion of the Glossary for a future post. But here, in draft form, is the character listing. Since this is placed at the start of the novel, one thing I’ve tried to do is not only identify the characters, but give a little (hopefully intriguing) information about who they are and what their situation is at the start of the story. Because there are so many, I’ve also used the information designer’s technique of grouping them under subheadings.
Cast of Characters
Amlina – Wandering witch from Larthang, a nation of great witches. Victorious in acquiring the Cloak of the Two Winds, she now seeks to recover from what it cost her.
Eben – Warrior of the barbarian Iruk people. Inclined to poetry; squandering his loot on a life of ease; enjoying it less than he expected.
Eben’s mates, members of his klarn:
Glyssa (f), brave and loving. Trained by Amlina in the magical arts.
Lonn (m), the klarn leader, strong, passionate, stoical. In love with Glyssa.
Draven (m), Lonn’s cousin, brave and optimistic. In love with Amlina.
Karrol (f), brawny, decisive, outspoken. No longer sure where she belongs.
Brinda (f), Karrol’s sister, quiet and reserved. Loyal above all to Karrol.
Others related to Amlina or the Iruks
Kizier – Scholar and friend to Amlina. Ruminating over his past life as a sentient sea-fern.
Buroof – A talking book, once a human. Three thousand years old and full of knowledge.
Beryl Quan de Lang – Amlina’s great enemy. Now a ghost that haunts her.
Bellach – Iruk shaman and sometime mentor to Glyssa in visions.
Witches of Larthang
Drusdegarde – Archimage of the West. Supreme witch of the Land.
Trippany – Bee-winged lady of the drell people. Envoy from the Archimage.
Clorodice, Keeper of the Keys – Powerful and strict. Adherent of the austere Thread of Virtue faction.
Arkasha – Clorodice’s subaltern and member of her circle.
Elani Vo T’ang – Clorodice’s favored apprentice.
Melevarry, Mage of Randoon -Chief witch of that port city. Loyal to the Archimage.
Larthangan Military and Court
Duke Trem-Dou Pheng – Supreme Commander of the Larthangan Forces and leader of the militarist faction, the Iron Bloc.
Shay-Ni Pheng – Admiral of the Larthangan Navy and the Duke’s nephew. Unhappy with his current assignment.
The Tuan (Me Lo Lee) – Supreme Ruler of Larthang. A nine-year-old boy with access to the memories and knowledge of his 154 dynastic predecessors.
Prince Spegis – drell ambassador to the Court. Cousin to Trippany.
Ting Fo -gentleman tutor and interpreter for the Iruks at the Court.
Or how I won Aristotle’s approval for my novel in progress.
I am working once again on the Glimnodd Cycle, epic sword and sorcery set in a unique magical world.
Presently, I am in the thick of writing the first draft for Book 3, tentatively titled Tournament of Witches. And I don’t mind telling you I’ve had some trouble getting this one rolling. I have a pretty detailed outline, composed some time back, for the second and third parts of the book. The opening was the problem. I needed to collect my crew of characters (six warriors, a witch, and a wandering scholar) where I left them at the end of Book 2 (A Mirror Against All Mishap) and get them going on their next adventure.
Five of the crew are living in a remote colony in the south polar region of Glimnodd. Hiding out, because they now possess the Cloak of the Two Winds, an important magical treasure that , inevitably, powers from all over the world are looking to claim. Meantime, two of the warriors have returned to their former lives as hunters. The other warrior, Eben, has been living in the port city of the polar colony, squandering his loot on drink and dissolute living.
Since Eben is the protagonist of Book 3, I knew I needed to open with him and his sorry circumstances. I imagined him waking up in an alley, hung over and having been robbed. Poor Eben.
One of plot elements that intrigued me most didn’t appear until part 3 in the outline—people with bee wings. By that point, our heroes have arrived in distant Larthang and returned the Cloak to its rightful owners. Now they are embroiled in political and magical intrigue, part of which involves the drell. The drell are insect-winged people from a neighboring land. One of them, a lady, is kidnapped as part of the plot.
So how could I tie all this together and get my characters and story moving.? After worrying over this for some time, a solution came to me. The drell lady from part 3 is an agent for one of the factions searching for the Cloak. She appears in the opening scene with Eben. As I wrote on a social media post:
“Sometimes it’s takes a while to realize that the bee-winged lady from Part 3 is the same as the witch’s agent who discovers the hero drunk in the alley in Chapter 1.”
Shortly after figuring this out, I took it a step further and made the villain from part 3 one of the other parties searching for the Cloak in Part 1. These revelations not only introduce important new characters right at the start, they tie together the dramatic events from part 3 with the book’s opening. The whole plot is now much better unified. And didn’t Aristotle cite unity as a crucial element of drama in The Poetics?
My new book is now okay with Aristotle. What a relief!
Here, in draft form, is the opening scene for the new novel…
Cold wind tickled his forehead and eyelids. Eben blinked, painfully coming awake. Squinting into the gray dawn, he recognized the worn brick wall of an alley, smeared with frost. Rime and icy winds were normal enough in Fleevanport at the end of Third Winter. Waking from a drunken sleep in an alley was also, regrettably, typical for him these days.
Not typical was the sparkling woman floating over him in the air, her vibrating bee-wings blowing cold air on his face.
Eben shut his eyes and rubbed the back of his head. At least the drunken dreams were growing more interesting. Groaning, he reached inside his fur overshirt, fingers groping for his purse.
Gone. Robbed again, no doubt by some doxy he had stupidly followed from a tavern. How often had he fallen for that ploy these past two seasons—roaming the waterfront, drinking far too much, squandering his hard-won loot? At least this time the thief had left his fur cape and hunting knife.
Persistent humming made him open his eyes. Startled, he sat up then squinted hard.
The gleaming lady still hung in the air, her wings a blur. She had the body of a slim woman, dressed in gauzy garments that could have offered little protection from the cold. Black hair, banded by a gemmed silver crown, a slim and angular face, coppery complexion, eyes that turned up at the corners—eyes like black onyx bead, watching him.
Vision or real, Eben thought her the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.
She floated down, dainty belled slippers settling on the cobblestone. Bending to peer at his face, she spoke in halting Low-Tathian.
“You are … all right?”
Stiff and aching, Eben struggled to his feet. He was small for an Iruk warrior. Even so, the top of the lady’s head just reached the level of his chin. He examined her wings, still now, blue-veined, silvery, rounded like bee-wings, sprouting from her back.
“Oh, I am all right,” he said. “And how are you?”
She smiled, revealing white pointy teeth.
“And what are you?” he added.
The wings fluttered and she rose into the air, stopping when her eyes were level with his.
“I am named Trippany. And you are an Iruk?”
“That is so, my pretty flying girl. But from what nation do you hail? For, assuming you are real and not an illusion, I have never seen the like of you.”
Her tone grew solemn and proud, the words coming like a speech she had rehearsed. “I am an envoy from the House of the Deepmind in Larthang.”
That might make sense. Larthang was far away and strange, known to be a land of great mages. Who could say they had not bred such creatures as this by their magic?
“That is odd,” he said. “You do not look Larthangan.”
Her mouth quirked in a half-smile. “My people are the drell. You know … how Larthangans look then?”
Suddenly, Eben realized this was leading into dangerous territory. He rubbed the back of his head. “Well, of course. Their trading ships sometimes sail these waters.”
The lady seemed to sense his secretiveness—and was having none of it. “I seek the Cloak of the Two Winds,” she stated flatly. “Do you know where it can be found?”
Eben tilted back. He forced himself to show a puzzled frown. “Why no … How should I know such a thing?”
Of course, he did know. The Cloak was in the possession of the witch Amlina. She, along with three of Eben’s former mates, lived in hiding at a farmstead in the hills half a day’s journey from here.
The lady floated a bit higher, glaring down at him now. He hoped she could not read his thoughts
“I’ve head tales of it,” Eben muttered casually. “A great thing of magic, is it not? Stories have reached this port that it was stolen some time back, taken from some great witch of Tallyba who has slain in the battle.”
“Those same tales reached Larthang,” the bee-lady said. “Some of them say the Cloak was stolen by a witch of Larthang, in league with warriors of the Iruk folk. Others say that same witch used the Cloak to scatter a Tathian fleet … at an island called Alone.”
Eben shrugged, wondering if he should reach for his knife. He would hate to kill this lovely creature, but he was sworn not to reveal Amlina’s hideout. “You seem to know more about it than I do.”
“I am not so sure.” the lady peered hard into his eyes. “You are Iruk. And you were heard in a tavern last night, boasting that you had seen an entire Tathian fleet blown away by magic.”
Casually as he could, Eben slipped his hand toward the knife handle. “I don’t remember saying that. To be honest, I’ve been told I am a terrible liar when I’ve had too much to drink.”
She eyed his hand on the knife hilt. “I see. Perhaps also you lie at other times?” She flew higher, floating out of reach. “So then, you cannot help me find the Cloak?”
“I fear not.”
“You … disappoint me. But I shall keep looking.”
The angle of her wings changed, and she looped away, higher into the air. Light flashed, and Eben thrust up an arm to shield his eyes. When he looked again, the lady was gone.
Eben wiped his forehead and heaved a deep breath. He glanced suspiciously up and down the alley.
Had the winged lady been real? Certainly the conversation was too prolonged for a simple drunken dream. But perhaps she was a vision, sent by some sorcerer or witch to interrogate him? Amlina had said that many mages would seek the Cloak of the Two Winds, once it became known that it was loose in the world.
Eben vowed to be careful … and avoid so much drinking.
But imagining an entire world is no easy task. For all the great resources available, writers often struggle. In this post, drawing on examples from expert authors, I’ll provide three tips for setting up a fantasy world that is both imaginative and unique.
1. Story Before World
World-building can be great fun. It can also be a rabbit hole. Many people spend endless hours defining every nook and nuance of their world—history, climate, geography, sentient races, religions, magic, technology.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But if you want to write fantasy stories, you need to put the story first. Put your focus on the primary elements of story. Who are your characters? What are their goals? What are the obstacles to those goals? How will they seek to overcome those obstacles? Let all your world building efforts be driven by those questions.
Take for example The Queen’s Poisoner by popular author Jeff Wheeler. The story takes place in a pretty standard medieval-style world (with a few unique and intriguing elements). But the focus is first and foremost on the characters—as we follow our young hero Owen through the tribulations of being held hostage in the castle of a tyrant king. The history, politics, and other background information are revealed gradually and always in terms of how they relate to the dramatic story.
Or consider the massive and massively popular The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss constructs a complex and richly-detailed fantasy world. But again, the setting is only gradually revealed in the midst of dramatic action. In this case, we are presented with multiple narratives—the first, a framing device that introduces the hero, then multiple sequential stories as the protagonist relates his history to the “Chronicler.” This is also a truly epic example of story construction.
2. Make It Distinct
For all the efforts spend on world-building, many writers fall into the trap of imitation. All too often readers find themselves in worlds that seem like copies of Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons: orcs, witches, werewolves, elves, dragons, shapeshifters, vampires…
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But the best fantasy worlds have something that makes them unique and special.
In The Name of the Wind, we find (among other things) a complex set of “arcanist arts” (including Sympathy, Sygaldry, Alchemy, and Naming) which function according to precise scientific laws.
Or take NK Jemison’s award-winning TheBroken Earth Trilogy. In Book 1, The Fifth Season, we meet the orogenes, a unique kind of humans with the power to sense and tap the tectonic forces of the Earth. These books might best be called science-fantasy, since the orogenes’ powers are linked to a biological explanation. But the author’s depictions of how these powers feel and are experienced are nonetheless fantastic.
In world-building for my own novel, Cloak of the Two Winds, I tried to imagine one thing to make the setting unique. The world, Glimnodd, is a place where arcane arts have been practiced for ages. Part of the legacy of all this witchery is that magic winds blow over the seas, changing water to ice or ice to water. Yes, I came up with that on my own!
3. Make it Relevant
Fantasy is escapist literature, and I’m all for it. But unless a story is relevant to readers, they won’t care about it. And for a fantasy story to be relevant, the experience of the world and the characters must be relatable.
In other words: What about the current state of our world does this fantasy world portray?
I learned this lesson when a friend read an early draft of Cloak of the Two Winds. The freezewind and meltwind in the story were created in ancient times as a kind of pressure-release. So much magic and sorcery were practiced that their cumulative effects had plunged the world into chaos. To keep the world in balance, the two winds now bleed off excess magic energy.
In the story, the Cloak of the title can control these magic winds. But it has been stolen and is being misused by a mad sorcerer intent on bringing the world back to chaos.
What about all that is relatable to our world? I didn’t realize it myself until a friend referred to the story as involving a “climate emergency.” In our world, overpopulation and technology are threatening us with chaos. Perhaps technology, wisely applied, will help us restore the balance.
As another example, consider Jemison’s The Fifth Season. The treatment of the orogenes by the dominant humans is relentlessly horrible—and depicts how oppressed people are and have been treated throughout history. The depiction is powerful and brutal. Jemison herself discusses this in a thread on her Twitter feed.
Best of All Possible Worlds
So, if fantasy writing is your thing, consider these three tips to make your world-building and your story as great as they can be.