Guest Post by Helen Lowe on Worldbuilding + a joint giveaway

I would like to welcome fantasy writer Helen Lowe. Her second novel, The Gathering of the Lost, is recently released by Orbit Books, and I’m pleased to be able to highlight Helen, her books, and her thoughts on world building.

Below the guest post you will find a joint giveaway. You need only comment to enter.


Building Fantastic Worlds—“It’s A Mystery”

By Helen Lowe


Over the past few weeks, at various stops on The Gathering of the Lost blog tour, I have discussed a number of facets of the story, including environment, war, romance, history, adventure and writing strong women characters. Yet all these aspects could equally well apply to any writing genre, from contemporary realism to crime to historical fiction. The element that really distinguishes FSF, especially when a story departs from this-world-as-we-know-it, is world building.

But how do compelling and intriguing worlds come about—the ones where arguably the world is as much a character as any of the personalities that appear within the story. Logic suggests there ought to be a formula, one any aspiring world builder can follow so that adding two and two will result in—hey presto—a fantastic world. Right?

Rather than an enthusiastic and positive “yes,” my initial response is more cautious. There are certainly ingredients that distinguish the worlds that have really seized my imagination. For example, an extreme physical environment dominates Ursula Le Guin’s Winter in “The Left Hand of Darkness,” as it does Frank Herbert’s Arrakis (“Dune”) and Robin Hobb’s Rain Wilds (The Live Ships series and now the Rain Wilds Chronicles.) But before we can go “extreme physical environment: check,” we have to consider worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The landscapes are reasonably diverse, but not extreme, yet Middle Earth has retained its place in our collective imagination for nearly sixty years.

When thinking about what makes the world stand out, I find myself coming back to Tolkien’s layering of myth and history in Middle Earth, which results in a sense of continuity beyond the present adventure. I also return to the strong association of “culture” with each new landscape: hobbits and the Shire; the differing elven cultures of Rivendell, Lothlorien, and Mirkwood; the dwarves of Moria and ents of Fangorn, the human societies of Rohan and those of Gondor. At one level many of these groups comprise separate species, but they are also distinct cultures; the way they both shape their world, and are shaped by it, reflects those distinctions.

Culture plays a vital role in defining Le Guin’s Winter and Hobb’s Rain Wilds, too, as does the historical and legendary continuum on Dune. So—a distinctive or extreme physical setting with a layering of myth and history, and/or culture. Perhaps some building blocks for creating fantastic worlds are emerging here.

But although the latter elements also form part of Catherynne M Valente’s Palimpsest, and to a lesser extent China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, they pale beside the sheer imaginative creativity of both worlds: the piling of the bizarre onto the weird or downright whacky. Another building block, right—only now the author has to juggle physical extremes with those of the fantastical and it would be very easy to drop any or all of the balls. Easier still if one begins to consider Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass worlds, which are based around playing cards and chess, or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Thailand where it is the vision of technological and bio-engineered genetic change that defines the world and compels the reader’s attention.

So how do the disparate elements that may—but don’t necessarily all, or always—comprise FSF world building get pulled together to create the worlds that absorb our attention and colonise our imaginations?

My short answer, culled from the film “Shakespeare In Love”, is: “It’s a mystery.” Because the actual answer seems nebulous and probably unsatisfactory—that the essential ingredient is a spark that leaps from the writer’s imagination, to the writing on the page or screen, and from there to the reader. In fact there is no formula able to guarantee that the necessary spark can and will be struck.

In terms of the “how to” employed by different authors, I suspect there are as many approaches as there are writers. Some will plan and design extensively in advance, while others allow the world, like the characters, to evolve as they write. My own world building is a mix of the instantaneous, the unexpected vision of a world or character that leaps into being, followed by the evolutionary—where the world unfolds, a little like a map unrolling, as the characters encounter it.

In terms of The Wall of Night world the first concept began long ago with a vision of a twilit, wind blasted environment garrisoned by keeps illuminated with inner light. Yet as to what lay inside the vast strongholds like the abandoned Old Keep of Winds—that knowledge only came when the storytelling began and the first characters actually went there. The world building evolved through their experiences: what each character saw, heard, smelt, touched—and was also touched by—and tasted, as well as her or his curiosity or need to learn what they did not already know.

Yet surely—you may argue—the world already exists outside the characters’ experience of it, in the author’s mind for example. And to an extent it does, in my case because of that first vision of the Wall of Night. Conversely though, the southern realms of Haarth, which come to the fore in “The Gathering Of The Lost” (The Wall of Night Book Two), and the romance of the road that stretches “from Ij to Ishnapur” evolved through the unfolding story, not via prior planning. Ursula Le Guin, in “Steering the Craft,” talks of the creative process in terms of ‘pulling ideas out of the air’—so perhaps the world of Haarth was there in the ether all along, waiting to be discovered. But after that initial flash of discovery, I had to begin the process of writing in order to explore its realms, cultures and frontiers.

I am forced to conclude that world building does contain an element of mystery. I can check all the boxes—yet still that vital spark may not be there. It occurs to me though, that I do not look on any aspect of storytelling as box checking. So perhaps that is the vital spark: whether manifesting in an instant or evolving over time, the worlds that I pull from the air have colour, texture and depth. In the moment they appear they are real. And although by no means assured, that sense of reality is the key to ensuring a world is also real on the page—and may become real for the reader as well.


Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer, and the current Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. She has won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for both Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009, and The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night Book One) in 2011. The Heir of Night has also recently been shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we. [In the Twitter handle, the 0 is a zero, not an ‘o’]




Everyone who comments will be in the draw to win one of two book packages:

1) A copy of Helen Lowe’s The Heir of Night and a copy (your choice) of either my Spirit Gate (Crossroads 1) or Cold Magic (Spiritwalker 1)

2) A copy of Helen Lowe’s The Gathering of the Lost and a copy (your choice) of either my Shadow Gate (Crossroads 2) or Cold Fire (Spiritwalker 2)

The draw will close on May 1 at 12 midnight (Hawaii time) with the result posted here the next day. The draw to be made by Random Number Integer.

45 thoughts on “Guest Post by Helen Lowe on Worldbuilding + a joint giveaway

  1. Your post is spot on – I was especially cheering at the comment that “You can check all the little boxes…”

    I know so many people who start their world building with this gigantic list of things to know about the world – hundred upon hundreds of things, and they have to get it just right before they start. But even with all that information, they still don’t quite *have it*. There’s something to be said for knowing the world, but at the same time, sometimes you just have to visit.

  2. Great post! Thanks. The books sound really interesting. I will have to check them out.

  3. Kaitlin, I have tried the ‘listing’ approach, but it really didn’t work for me–it turned my world building into a listing of “terribly important world building facts”, i.e. an infodump par excellence … (Which doesn’t mean that it might not be exactly the right approach for someone else, because writng is a very individual pastime.)

    Doug, I hope you may enjoy.

  4. Wow Helen! Just read the exerpt from your book (on the link above) and had to go buy it. I hope fishpond will deliver quickly!

  5. Thanks for your post about worldbuilding. I find the differing processes writers use very fascinating, plus you cited some great examples. I am familiar with some but not all the works you mentioned, recommended reading is always appreciated:)

  6. I enjoyed reading your article on world building. It gives the reader an idea just how difficult it can be to create a world that captures their imagination, and is worth reading about. I now have both ‘Wall of Night’ books on my list to be read.


  7. I loved reading this! Thank you for introducing me to Helen Lowe.

    One of my favorite parts: The world building evolved through their experiences: what each character saw, heard, smelt, touched—and was also touched by—and tasted, as well as her or his curiosity or need to learn what they did not already know.

  8. The element that really distinguishes FSF, especially when a story departs from this-world-as-we-know-it, is world building.

    And the element that I “first” came to in genre was worldbuilding. And it still has a strong role in determining if I like a book or not. (Like, say, yours).

    It sounds like to me, Helen, that there is a poetry to the way that you approach worldbuilding in a way that others do not. The end result may have similar depth and scope, but I find your process very different than others do it–or I would do it.

  9. I am always so impressed with both of these author’s world building. Within the pages of these series, it feels like the readers are transported there in mind with the complex and rich description and creation of these epic series.

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  11. Great explanation of your process. I have to say that what grabbed me most about Heir of Night and made me want to not only reread it, but wait impatiently for the next book was the well developed world. It was clear that you knew your world, that it had a rich history, and that there was much more to be revealed.

  12. World building and setting as character are two of the main reasons I love FSF so much. Every time I get a glimpse into the process it’s almost equally exciting for me as reading the author’s books. And as an aspiring writer, it’s reassuring to hear (over and over again) there is no one right way. Except to find the spark.

    I will definitely be checking out your books, Helen.

  13. How wonderful to wake up this morning and see so many great comments here–by way of a thank you I shall now reply. 🙂

    Sarah: I hope Fishpond deliver quickly too–& may you emjoy the adventure and the world!

    Maddie: I’m glad I’ve suggested some new worlds for you. I know I always love that voyage of discovery myself. A very exciting one I still remember well was when I first bgean reading Kate’s “The King’s Dragon.” The phrase “giddy with delight” *probably* encompasses the moment. 🙂

    Mark: As you’ve probably gathered, I don’t think there is a “recipe,” or “rules”–guiding principles yes, but sometimes the magic moment comes when even the guiding principles, usually so reliable, are turned on their head. And it is a mix of inspiration–the “fire from heaven”–and hard work, for example ensuring that consistency and continuity is maintained in terms of “how the world works.”

    Lisa: It’s a little like taking the back off the clock, isn’t it; fascinating but a little daunting at the same time, because look though you will, you can never find that helpful blueprint!

    Carolee: My writing has been described as “sensual” by a number of commentators now, I think because of that use of the five senses in creating the world. And the vital sixth sense, kinesthesia, the characters’ spatial awareness of themselves, in this case in their world.

    Paul: well, I am also a poet, as you know, but also I suspect you may have heard me refer to the Gerald Edelman quote, that the brain is not like a computer, but a rainforest. I feel it is a good image for my style of world building as well: it’s multilayered, dynamic, colorful, with mysterious rivers, many liana creepers and winding paths–and perhaps the jaguar cough of danger as well…

    TeriC: If the worldbuilding works, then that is exactly “how it should be.” 🙂

  14. The best genre books are the ones that tend to read like they are “real”, and “it is really occuring” which means a certain degree of credibility and consistency is also important.

    Good post – thanks.

  15. What a fascinating post on world building! I think you can tell quite often when authors have looked on world building as just another item to tick off – there’s far less depth to it in those cases. Your books look fascinating, I will have to check them out some time.

  16. Thank you, Jeff: that is a great compliment and I hope you will enjoy “The Gathering of the Lost” just as much if not more.

  17. Thank you, Nicole–and even if the spark is “fire from heaven” and the finding therefore in the nature of a cosmic accident, I always take comfort from the words of zen teacher, Aitken-roshi, that “practice makes us accident prone.” 😀 So keep writing, Nicole.

  18. Absolutely, June–the rules of a fantastic world need not follow the rules of ‘this world,’ but must certainly follow whatever rules pertain there, or if they are upended, then an internally coherent rationale must form part of the storytelling.

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  20. Great well thought out post on world building. Words by themselves are just that it is the way they are put together to create a story that has that little bit of magic/mystery to it that I think plays a part in world building as well.

  21. Thanks to you, Helen, for a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the writer, and to you, Kate, for once again introducing me to someone whose work needs to go on my ever-growing list of must-reads.
    I have to say that, while I love reading about how FSF writers develop their worlds, it remains a mystery to me how world-spanning stories like Kate’s CoS or Crossroads (and too many other authors’ to mention) are ‘born’. When writers say ‘one day, the story / a scene / a character / a line popped into my head and demanded to be written’, all I can do is sit back in awe and wish that spark of imagination were inherent in my own brain. I would love to write, but since no muse has ever knocked on my mental door and demanded entry, I guess I’ll have to continue immersing myself in the worlds you fabulous people dream up 🙂
    Happily frustrated,

  22. Emma–I think it’s very true that all the writers I’ve referred to also have a decided way with words. I don’t think I’ll ever forget China Mieville’s image of the abseiling librarians in “Un Lun Dun,” for example, and the richness of the language is one of the distinguishing features of Catherynne Valente’s “Palimpsest.”

  23. OMG, thank you for sharing “practice makes us accident prone.” That is perfect. I’m taping it to my computer.

  24. Nice article.
    I agree that getting a ‘sense of continuity beyond the present adventure’ helps to make a world more real and to give it more ‘weight’, thus creating a more lasting impression.

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  26. Thank you, Naugem. I’ve also heard the journey of a story described (by Kate Atkinson?) as being like a train journey–eventually there comes a stop (station) where the author has to get off, but the train and the other passengers continue on… I’ve always liked that analogy.

  27. wielli, while sorry for the frustration, I would only say that writers very much need readers, too–as do the stories we tell.:)

    “But, but”–althouigh it is not my approach, a very gifted poet I know sometimes kickstarts creativity (if I have understood her correctly) by the ‘whiteboard approach’: covering a whiteboard with random words/images/ideas. She says it is amazing how the connections start to “spider’s web,” despite the apparent randomness of the process. And then who knows what may happen?

    The poet, by the way, is Joanna Preston and her website is here:

  28. I enjoyed the insight into your craft. I look forward to reading your books, whether I win them or not. 🙂

  29. I’m glad to hear there isn’t a formula, because that would make writing more like chemistry than like magic. I haven’t tried to write a world yet, but I’m also relieved to hear you don’t need to have “thought through” all the details ahead of time, as I am not a planner. I create from the bottom up, and I never “know” (nor want to) how things will turn out.

    I’ll be checking out your blog, and will have to see if my library carries your books. Thanks for posting here!

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  31. I like world building that engages the reader in a subtle mystery, that gets the brain working. Just reading King’s latest Dark Tower story and there’s not a lot of info dumping, but there’s hints in the language characters use, the names that help to slowly build a picture, that gets me thinking about the world and piecing it together. I think a tick box method is too structured and comes across as lacking verisimilitude. Real world history is not a tick boxed collection, its elements stitched together to give a certain appearance. I think I subconsciously pick up on too structured a world build.

  32. Insightful comments, thank you, Sean. I suspect you may be right that we subconsciously pick up on the too-structured approach which we recognise as ‘false’ to the universe around us.

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