STEP THREE ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (PART 2)

Last week we revisited the section on worldbuilding, and found that there was too much to cover. Here’s the rest of . . .

Available now from Adams Media


We left off at the beginning of . . .

Chapter 17: Fill Your World With Monsters

This chapter made it into the book pretty much intact as written, but had I had unlimited time and space, I might have offered a little more specific advice on how to actually create plausible monsters. First, keep that word plausible in mind—a “realistic” monster is an animal—but monsters should follow your own rules as much as any other SF/fantasy element in your story. Notes are vital, and sketches (even if you have limited art skills) are recommended. It’s okay . . . you can keep your poorly-rendered drawings to yourself, but they will help you describe the same monster consistently from scene to scene and chapter to chapter.

By way of example, here’s a page of notes from one of my own works-in-progress:

Strangely, this was NOT nominated for a Chesley Award.

Yes, it’s called a nutchuck, and yes, I drew it all by myself.

On the first line I give away my continuing dependence of role-playing games. I’ve already gone out of my way here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook to recommend one MegaTraveller game product, so no shame whatsoever, people, that I used Traveller’s animal generation rules to guide me a little in terms of how big my alien creatures might be on a particular planet (big, in this case) and it helped me think about the balance of different types of herbivores, carnivores, etc. The Traveller stuff pretty much ends there.

We’ll get to the section of the book where we talk about weights and measures. This is a military SF/space opera project so I opted for the metric system. I may opt back to English units when I get to actually writing it. You weren’t supposed to see these notes!

This is just one page of a little notebook, with ideas jotted down as they occurred to me. I’ll need to know lots more about the nutchuck as I proceed. For instance, I haven’t pulled out my colored pencils yet—what color is it? What does it sound like? What does it smell like? As with setting, don’t forget to appeal to the five senses when it comes to your monsters, too.

I love the note: “Herds of up to a thousand!” Deserving of an exclamation mark indeed when you look at the little stick figure provided for scale and realize these things are huge. This is a novel I’m writing, people, special effects budget be damned!

Looking at this again is making me want to get back to that project, working title: Monster Planet!

And here’s this chapters sidebar, like the other sidebars, cut for space:

Example World: Let the Monsters Rage!

I like monsters, and have been a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs my entire life. That’s all I need to push me in the direction of creating a world in which the entire biosphere is entirely invented by me. I’ll assume my protagonists are human, but I’m going to make up everything else.

First, I’ll drag in the ridgebacks. That was a fun idea, giant beetles used as mounts. Having them crawl up walls, if they’re big enough to ride on, seems like a stretch to me, though—the image just doesn’t sit well. I’d rather they fly, and I can bring the clockwork/mechanical aspect back in and actually make them vehicles rather than mounts. That’s fun, but then if they’re mechanical, are they still monsters, or have I found a fantasy replacement for the airplane rather than a fantasy replacement for the horse? Good question. Let’s avoid it by saying they’re living giant beetles but with an intricate clockwork mechanism attached that allows the rider to control them. I can have loads of fun with that: The hero is flying along just fine until the villain manages to somehow destroy his control device, now he’s astride a wild giant beetle that’s trying to shake him off as they soar a thousand feet in the air.

If we have this clockwork technology, I can imagine a wide range of creatures that are a kind of fantasy robot, and assuming they aren’t sentient robots that are part of the prevailing society, they can count as monsters. If they aren’t independently sentient beings, what role in their society might these clockwork men fill? But wait, does a ubiquitous clockwork android just cut into the specialness of our hero’s mechanical arm? If there’s a world full of humanoid clockwork robots, and all he does is borrow the arms from one . . . okay, no clockwork androids.

You can see how this thinking process runs. Get an idea, think it through, reject it or think some more, repeat until you feel comfortable with it.

Another warning for a world of only created creatures: No one can say they have the eyes of a hawk or the memory of an elephant. And please don’t fall back on the prosaic practice of searching for the word elephant and replacing it with frozgrat, so people say they have the memory of a frozgrat, which is pretty much exactly the same as an elephant but just fills in the role of a particular animal that’s known for having a good memory, which then begs the question: why not just call an elephant an elephant? We’ll talk a little more about this idea when we discuss language and colloquialisms. If all you’re doing is changing the word, but the meaning is the same, what’s the bigger purpose behind that? If there isn’t any, don’t change the word.

And just an aside to say again how much I love monsters. I love monsters. Like, love love, not just love. Even though I spent almost fifteen years getting free D&D products I’ve only really kept all the monster books. I have a total of 39 separate monster books just for the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons alone. Monsters? Yes, please.

Chapter 18: Fill Your World with People

I’m not sure I have much more to say in terms of races/sentient species. In truth, the development of those comes from all the stuff we’re about to discuss: culture, religion, politics, etc.

I’ll toss the missing sidebar out at you, though:

Example World: Do You Really Want to Know What a Zylvaani is?

I think a high fantasy, created world setting like we’re creating for our Armless Swordsman story needs at least a scattering of non-human civilizations. I’m going to drag the word zylvaani into it. It doesn’t make any sense—I just made it up off the top of my head as an example of a sentient species that wasn’t one of the mythological archetypes. But as I was giving examples above I really like these ancient wise men living in the thin air of the highest mountains. I’ve already drawn a map that includes two big mountain ranges, so that’s there, and I have these cool flying mounts, so I can get characters up and down from mountains, and clockwork technology that might help my lowlander hero breathe up there. . . .

I’ve also been thinking I need a place for Armless Swordsman to hide out. The way I’ve been talking about him, he’s pretty famous, right? Widely acknowledged to be a hero of the empire, all but betrothed to the princess, then maimed by an enemy of the state. This isn’t a guy who could just go home and be left alone in peace to build his mechanical arms. What if, like many heroes before him, his defeat at the hands of the villain sends him into a period of self-imposed exile? Disgraced, he makes his way to a zylvaani monastery high in the highest mountains, where they nurse him back to health, both physically and spiritually, and maybe help him build his arms then also help him to recognize that it’s his destiny to return to the human empire and face his arch nemesis one last time.

See? Now I have a reason for a new intelligent species. They do something for the story, and the fact that they aren’t human and are not a part of the human empire makes them a good neutral ground for the hero, who feels (no pun intended) cut off from his own people.

Do I need any more? Maybe. I’ll ask myself questions about each character that will help determine his or her species and/or race. I know the villain is a human—she comes from the same empire as our hero—but was her forbidden love an elf? Humans in the real world have never had too much trouble finding ways to fight each other, but in a world with more than one intelligent species, would the various races of humans be more unified against the elves, dwarves, or . . . hmm, Neanderthals? After all, a genocidal war between homo sapiens and Neanderthals might have happened, millennia ago, in our own world.

Good enough?

Chapter 19: Take Us to Their Leader

This is a tough chapter to review, because there was just no way to write this without really just spanking off the very top surface of a deep issue. The fact is, this book would have been entirely overwhelmed with all the subtle nuances of the entire history of human politics, much less the myriad untried philosophies, fictional nations, and so on. I guess the moral of this chapter is: Do your homework.

Here’s the sidebar:

Example World: The Emperor Needs an Empire

Maybe the reason I kept falling back on the word “empire” in this chapter is because I’ve been talking about an empire and its emperor in these sidebars. The Armless Swordsman served an emperor, who I’ve already called “he,” though certainly there could have been an empress instead. Still, I want my Armless Swordsman to have been on the fast-track to becoming emperor by being a faithful champion and marrying the emperor’s daughter, so even if I hadn’t charted that out in so many words until now I think I’ve created a patriarchal military dictatorship. Though those three words could be used to describe Nazi Germany, I want my patriarchal military dictatorship to be a positive, civilizing force for the world. Have I lost every female reader in the world now? I hope not. I think we all know that behind every patriarchal society is the other half of the population, thoroughly subverting the whole shebang. And I promise to explore that if I ever actually write this book.

The as-yet-unnamed Armless Swordsman, then, is a citizen of the empire, maybe also a citizen of some kind of other smaller political division like a duchy or barony, but in my mind I see this empire being pretty stable, with a popular emperor who people like and respect, including our hero, which is why we care about this story: if the evil villainess wins, this great empire will fall. Oh, crap, am I being sexist again? Probably. I’ll try to fix that—I promise!

Anyway, I think I’ll go with baronies that are generally homogeneous in nature, like Illinois and Wisconsin, so I have a plausible feudal society in place, but I won’t spend too many words on the barons.

The Armless Swordsman was certainly a member of the military, so I’ll do some research on medieval military organization so I can get some idea of how this works—more detail on that later. Once he’s “disarmed,” is he booted out of the military? Do they have some fantasy version of the Veteran’s Administration, or is part of the reason he wanders off in disgrace due to the fact that this military is less supportive of their soldiers so that if you’re too wounded to fight, it’s the boot and best of luck to you? Our benevolent emperor wouldn’t let that happen, would he? I’ll have to sort that out—how? By asking questions. You know the drill.

Whew. That’s Step Two. Stay tuned for Step Three, and as always, comment away. . . .


—Philip Athans




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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