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Author Raymond E Feist on the art of world-building

Andrea Simpson

The internationally renowned fantasy novelist reveals the magic behind his writing, and why it’s good to talk to your characters.
Author Raymond E Feist on the art of world-building

Cover art for Raymond E Feist's Magician by Geoff Taylor.

Whether you're an emerging writer drafting fiction, or a playwright wanting a different perspective for your theatre production, world building is a crucial step in creative storytelling.

By carefully crafting the world where your story resides you can give your characters a unique place to manoeuvre, allowing them, and in turn your story, to be shaped by the environment.

‘The environment will definitely constrain certain aspects of the story, and require you to come up with solutions,’ author Raymond E Feist told ArtsHub.

San Diego-based novelist Feist knows a thing or two about creating fictional environments. A juggernaut in contemporary epic fantasy writing, Feist has published more than 30 books worldwide and has sold over 20 million copies. A New York Times and The Times best-seller, his first novel Magician, published in 1982, has been translated into 15 languages. Now, 36 years on, Feist has released his new novel King of Ashes: The Firemane Saga.

ArtsHub spoke with the fantasy writer on the most crucial elements of writing, ahead of his seventh visit to Australia in June. He illuminates the alchemy behind his tomes.

Fantasy novelist Raymond E Feist. 

Story + Environment = Synergy

When it comes to creating a story, be it in a far-off imagined place or in a contemporary setting, Feist recommends writers take the time to think about the environment. ‘You know, stories and environments interact in a synergistic way,’ he said.

‘A lot of young writers don’t get that. You can make a pretty map with a forest here, and a mountain there and not a lot of concentration on the world building. Or, on the other extreme, they want to be planet geologists and spend an amazing amount of time creating this world, and there’s no concept of what the story is. It’s about being aware of both.

‘In Magician I had a scene where Lord Borric has to run off and warn the King. And, "Oh my heavens!" There are two ranges of mountains, a couple of oceans and a whole lot of nasty people between where he is and where he wants to go. So a large part of the narrative was influenced by how that world was built.’ 

The world according to the victors

After writing over 30 books centred on the Riftwar Cycle, Feist was eager to step away from his invented world of Midkemia to create something new. He found his inspiration from the past.

‘I based it [King of Ashes] on a combination of two weirdly very different time periods. One of which was roughly around the second and third century of Rome.

'Then at the same time I almost went further up ahead in history, and I was pretty much thinking about Pope Innocent, you know, the guy who commissioned Michelangelo, but he led his own army. He was out there banging heads with the secular leaders who, in his opinion, weren’t paying enough tribute to Rome and weren’t obeying Papal rules and orders the way they should,' he said.

Feist emphasised that world building is not just about plotting roads and cities, it's about creating nuance in the cultural and social world in which your characters' reside. 

'So it’s a mishmash, a bit of a combination of this and that. I wanted to stay away from questions of faith and really dig into the politics of a church as a rising power that was heavily influencing the cultural systems that had been the norms at the time.’

Complexities and simplicities

An imagined world is also shaped by its inhabitants. ‘What you need from your characters is they need to be dimensional,’ Feist advised.

‘You don’t have to necessarily write an entire chapter describing what somebody wore, and unfortunately there are some writers out there that do. But, you have to give the reader a sense of a person’s dimensions – their complexities and their basic straightforward simplicities.

‘Hava [from King of Ashes] is a character that was one of the most challenging to write because she would not behave herself. She kept saying, “No, no, you’re doing this wrong.” And originally she was supposed to be admired from afar,’ he said.

‘There was a point in the narrative when I was talking to my editor and she said, “There’s something missing here. You know we have 80% of Hava but we don’t have 100%, there’s one thing you need to do.” And that’s when I went back and wrote an entire chapter [on her].’

When characters invade your dreams

Feist said to be attuned to your subconscious, as it could lead to surprising conversations that may change your characters' trajectories. ‘I was trying to find that unique voice – then one night Hava wakes me up with a dream and says, “I want to be a pirate.” And I thought, what is that?

‘Now this is a part of my process – I really believe that my subconscious is working 24-7. Often my characters will say, “Oh you just think that’s what we are going to do – wrong, we’re going to do this other thing.”'

He noted, ‘The story is always better when I listen to my characters. Hava has gone from being this horrible character that I couldn’t get right to being pretty much the centrepiece character for the second volume.’

Collaborate and listen (to feedback)

Janny Wurts is an American fantasy author and has collaborated with Feist on the Empire Trilogy. He found her advice to be indispensable, and could not have envisioned the female characters in his novels without her initial contribution and feedback.

‘I knew what I wanted but I couldn’t get there. I needed Janny there with me as a collaborator so I could get the character I originally envisioned. I could not have written Miranda, or Sandreena for example if I hadn’t written Mara first … I didn’t want “chicks in chainmail”, I wanted a woman that was motivated by things that make sense to a woman, which is why I had Janny on board.

‘I knew the character wasn’t about power, or ambition, she was about something else and working with Janny, that began to emerge. Finally, I just realised she is taking care of the people she loved, that’s her entire motivation – caring for her own. A very matriarchal energy – she was Mama – and boy did that work. I’m very proud of that series,’ Feist recalled. 

On beginnings and endings

When reflecting on the craft of writing a story's beginning and ending – how you want the reader to enter and exit the world you have built – Feist said in fact, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

‘It’s a pretty organic process. I will say one thing though, when I started The King of Ashes I effectively was looking at a big empty piece of paper – metaphorically speaking. I had no idea what that world would look like. So I laboured through that.

‘The joy of being a writer is this: I know how the story is going to end. If a writer doesn’t know what the last page or the last scene, or the last chapter is – depending on the context of the story – then he or she is going to be wandering like Moses through the wilderness trying to figure out where to go.

‘So I always know when it’s going to end. But the fun part is sometimes I don’t know how I’m going to get there. So, often it’s like, “OK I’ll try this. Well that didn’t work. Oh, this over here looks striking... no, that’s a bad idea. Oh, that works,” and I’ll go to the next step. And often that process influences decisions that come later, and it’s the fun part. If I didn’t have that I think I would have given up writing 20 years ago.’

Meet Raymond E Feist as he tours Australia with his new book King of Ashes at Supanova Sydney (15-17 June), Melbourne (19 June), Brisbane (20 June) and Supanova Perth (22 June).

About the author

Andrea Simpson is ArtsHub's Feature Writer and Reviews Editor. Andrea is a Filipino-Australian writer with a love for diverse Australian stories. She is curious about all forms of art, though she has an especially keen interest in the publishing sector.

Andrea has had short stories published in various anthologies, and is currently working on her first novel.  

You can follow Andrea on Instagram @andi_jayyy