“Good fantasy fiction: … explores real human conditions through fantastic metaphors which universalize the characters’ individual experiences to speak personally to us all.”
― Laura Resnick
A writer of fantasy fiction will always keep the setting of his or her tale in mind while placing characters within it. But as I come across comments on forums or within articles, I see that many build the setting before understanding the characters who will populate it. World-building is certainly an art, and there are rules to the worlds we build that must be followed by its inhabitants. But I’ve often found that starting with a world — whether it be new or old, far away in space and/or in time — limits the story that will be told. So many want to re-capture the imagination that Tolkien used to build Middle Earth, but starting there, on the outside looking in, with god’s brush in hand, calls into question exactly what will happen in the world being built.
Stories are about characters, who are people. Many of us have arguments with our characters, or find ourselves wondering what this one or that one would do in certain situations. If caught in a traffic jam, would Alynna just get out and walk? Possibly. Almost certainly if the distance were not far. 🙂
The difference between fantasy fiction and general fiction comes down to how your characters interact within the world you’re building. But first there must be characters, and they must have goals and ambitions, a reason for being alive. And those ambitions must be placed in direct conflict with the ambitions of other characters, who want goals that are the opposite. In conflict there is story, and conflict is not created by whether a wizard can shoot fire from his hands or whether a river forks just so around a mountain pass on a map, thus creating a border between battling nations.
Understanding who your characters are and placing them within your world, at the right time, where an event will serve as a catalyst to the tale, that is the foundation from which to build a world. Cast your hero on his quest, but keep in mind his strengths and weaknesses. Find him friends and enemies, but always understand why those friends would provide aid, and why those enemies choose to thwart.
In short, build from the inside out. Start small, in the thoughts and aspirations of a single character with a single goal, and allow the world that character will inhabit to develop around him or her. That is where the story begins… now where in the world will it lead?