Jenn Lyons' "The Ruin of Kings", and the Challenges of Worldbuilding

The Ruin of Kings, a debut fantasy novel by Jenn Lyons, will be released next month. A free “extended preview” is available through Amazon, and I plunged into it recently. Immediately I was struck by the richness of the fantasy world Lyons has created.

I’ve posted a number of times about the challenges of worldbuilding. The new world an author introduces a reader to can be fantastic, but it must be credible. And to be credible, a certain degree of detail is needed. How people live, dress, eat, speak. Customs, culture, religion, government. Systems of magic, pantheons of gods, hierarchies of evil. But too quick an immersion into worldbuilding details can overwhelm a reader. Too many names, places, relationships may be introduced too quickly. Confusion on the part of the reader is a danger to be avoided.

But one can hardly expect a reader to absorb all the details and keep them straight if the author doesn’t! So authors develop all kinds of systems for structuring the details and managing them, especially as the details morph and evolve as a story is written. Lyons explains in a recent post on the website that she uses a personal wiki. People, places, things, they all have an entry.

As I’ve been working on the sequel to my own debut fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, I’ve tried to manage the worldbuilding using Evernote, even going so far as to create an Evernote template that looks like a wiki page. Evernote was an obvious choice for me because I am a heavy user of the software. But I’m going to try out the system Lyons uses, and see if it offers benefits.

Worldbuilding and Stephen King's "The Dark Tower"

Recently I checked my database on to see my “most-read authors” list. I was surprised to find that Stephen King was at the top of the list, with 31 books. This was surprising, because I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Sure, I like reading his stories, but there are aspects of his writing that I don’t care for. Many years ago I decided to try his Dark Tower series. I was making progress until he mentioned a body part of one of the Challenger shuttle astronauts washing up on a beach. I thought that was in poor taste, so, in protest, I stopped reading his books. Or, I thought I had.

When I learned they were making a movie of “The Dark Tower” I decided to go back and try the books again. This time I persevered, and read all eight of them. All 5,329 pages. And enjoyed them all.

One thing I decided to do, early on, was to pick up a copy of the “revised and updated” Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance, by Robin Furth. Why? Because sai King went a bit beyond worldbuilding in telling the story of the Dark Tower. He did worldbuilding on steroids. And I don’t know how he did it without Robin Furth’s book on hand to keep him honest. In the Dark Tower series there are locations in this world, and places in worlds like ours that have “moved on.” There are characters that appear under one name at one time, and another name at another time. There is time travel, and stories within stories. There is the author writing himself into the story. There are creatures humanoid and otherwise. There are connections to many other works in Stephen King’s canon.

Robin Furth’s Concordance includes information on (from the back cover)

  • Characters and Genealogies

  • Magical Objects and Forces

  • Mid-World and Our World Places

  • Portals and Magical Places

  • Mid-, End-, and Our World Maps

  • Timeline for the Dark Tower Series

  • Mid-World Dialects

  • Mid-World Rhymes, Songs, and Prayers

  • Political and Cultural References

  • References to Stephen King's Own Work

Of course, this only covers what’s been published. How much else regarding the Dark Tower lies sleeping in the author’s files? Will someone come along someday, like Christopher Tolkien did with his father’s writing and notes, and build on what’s already been built?

World-building was easy for God. Not so much for fantasy and scifi authors.

As I complete final revisions on my soon-to-be-released novel, The Ban of Irsisri, and continue outlining a sequel, I'm spending a great deal of time making sure my world-building is internally consistent. Many people have pointed out that world-building for scifi and fantasy stories is a herculean task. Not can be, but is. Virtually every other genre of novel out there has its world-building already done - at worst, an author may have to spend some time researching a location or time period or the customs and culture of a faraway people. But they don't have to come up with something completely new that makes sense and doesn't contradict itself!

I recently wrote about atlases constructed for imaginary worlds. The importance of geography and cartography can not be overstated. One need only study Tolkien's work to see how a carefully-thought-out body of world-building knowledge can inform and enrich the experience of viewing a new world for the first time. Tolkien developed a history for the peoples of Middle Earth, their mythologies, and their languages. Though some have questioned the robustness of the geographies he created, Tolkien nevertheless successfully established his famous stories in a world whose details supported those stories. I was not only exposed to Tolkien's world-building at a vulnerable age, but that of Robert E. Howard as well. Though many other authors contributing to the Conan canon provided input to building the world in which Conan traveled and fought and wenched, Howard gave us the Hyborian Age. The reason the Hyborian age succeeded so well is because it was deliberately constructed to remind us of the ancient history and geography of a world (our world) we already know so well.

History and culture and geography are key components of world-building, but other components include language, flora and fauna, systems of magic, and monsters. Two books that address components like this are

Fortunately for fantasy authors there are also books describing extensive world-building that spans whole series of novels, as in these reference works sitting on my shelves:

  • The Wheel of Time Companion: The People, Places, and History of the Bestselling Series, edited by Harriet McDougal et al., clocks in at 815 pages. The book jacket says the Companion includes entries for each named character, a dictionary of the Old Tongue, maps of the Last Battle, histories and customs of the nations of the world, the strength level of many channelers, and descriptions of unique flora and fauna. This reference work is organized in a simple A-to-Z fashion.

  • Robin Furth's Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance: Revised and Updated, is almost 700 pages long, and includes "Characters and Genealogies," "Magical Objects and Forces," "Mid-World and Our World Places," "Portals and Magical Places," "Mid-, End-, and Our World Maps," "Timeline for the Dark Tower Series," "Mid-World Dialects," "Mid-World Rhymes, Songs, and Prayers," "Political and Cultural References," and "References to Stephen King's Own Work." As a concordance, Furth's volume provides book number and page number references for each entry. Despite being comprehensive and detailed, I found this concordance a bit difficult to use whenever I needed to look something up.


Worldbuilding, Maps, and Atlases

Recently I posted on the creation of character names as a part of worldbuilding. Another major aspect of worldbuilding is geography, and sharing that geography using maps.

I remember as a young boy taking Shell and Esso roadmaps and plotting the route of our annual vacation to visit relatives. I would start from the dot marking Satellite Beach, Florida, and tally the mileage numbers from there to Cookeville, Tennessee, so I could create a table that would tell me, as we reached each major city on the route, how much further we had to go before we arrived. I remember noting each body of water we would cross, wondering where their names originated.

Maps of foreign lands, and lands of the imagination, were no less intriguing. I could follow the journeys in The Lord of the Rings using the maps tipped in to the Houghton Mifflin hardbacks, and the travels of Conan the Barbarian using the map shown in each of the Lancer paperbacks. Certainly, the more detailed and expansive a world a fantasy author creates, the more helpful a good map (or maps) will be.

Entire authorized atlases have been prepared for some fantasy fiction, giving fans resources that draw together not only maps but much background information as well. Some of my favorites are the amazing atlases authored and designed by Karen Wynn Fonstad, including

  1. The Atlas of Middle-Earth. (Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings)
  2. The Atlas of the Land. (Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant)
  3. The Atlas of Pern. (McCaffrey's Dragonriders)

Another excellent atlas is Barbara Strachey's Journeys of Frodo: An Atlas of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. (Unfortunately, it doesn't appear like Ms. Strachey published other atlases.)