How Character Belief Shapes Your Fantasy World
Creating your own world to set your story within is a lot like attacking a blank canvas with a paintbrush. The canvas itself can end up looking like anything, but if you want it to look good, it can’t look like everything. So you pick and choose what colors you use, you decide on the subject, and hopefully, after several hours, you have a finished masterpiece. Now imagine that you know what your masterpiece looks like, but your next task is to describe it to someone else who cannot see it.
It can feel overwhelming. You have a complete picture in your mind of what your world is. You know what its people are like, what the societal rules and social beliefs and narratives that keep the world running are; you’ve fine-tuned all the details down to what fashions are trending and what slang is popular. But you can’t unload that information on your reader all at once. Or you can, but I know nothing makes me put a book down faster than an info-dumping first chapter.
So how do you share your masterpiece with your readers in a way that keeps them engaged with the plot and your characters?
Obviously, there are many ways you can do this, but one of my favourite ways (and the way I want to share with you here) is through character belief. What we know about the world we live in shapes our perceptions and beliefs of the people in it. If your fantasy world has a drastically different belief to the real world, it’s important to recognize that readers will need extra help putting aside their own biases to buy into the ones in your world. In my novel, Contest of Queens, the story is set within the Queendom of Frea, a matriarchal society with just as many issues as our patriarchal one (but in different flavors). So my main challenge was to subvert my reader’s internal expectations of gender norms and roles.
One of my favorite characters to write was Chivilra Amber Everstar, one of the most decorated knights of the Realm and youngest recipient of the Soterian medal. She is a very likeable character. She’s got gumption and swagger, a “spitfire with a heart of gold.” She quickly befriends our protagonist and is instrumental in her success, and she also has a very problematic prejudice against men joining the military. This prejudice is a direct result of her growing up in a matriarchal Queendom. My hope with Amber is that the reader is able to agree with and root for her in all areas except this one because they recognize that this prejudice she has is problematic and harmful. So the reader has to come to terms with the idea that this likeable and honorable character is flawed, and this flaw is a result of the social narrative within the world.
It would have been very easy to have a hateable character hold this view and have the reader think, “well, of course, she’s wrong. She’s dreadful and wrong in all areas.” But to have a likeable character hold this view prompts us to pause. “Hang on, she’s not terrible, so why does she have such a terrible belief? What is it about this world that has given her this belief?” Thus (hopefully), the reader gets more of a taste of what it’s like living in such a world.
The section in my first novel that has been most divisive for readers is, unsurprisingly, the moment Amber and Andromeda (a fellow knight) discuss their views of men. Because we, as the reader, have agreed with them thus far, right? So why does this make us feel so uncomfortable? I’ll also add that this scene wouldn’t work as well without Jacs, our protagonist, lightly contradicting these beliefs. A segment out of context is never as powerful, but have a read and see what you think:
“Guard training is hard enough,” Amber was saying, “The pair selection process itself takes months. Then the additional training it takes to be a knight. . . It’s no wonder we’re having trouble finding new recruits.”
“I heard they were toying with the idea of letting men apply,” Andromeda said in a low voice, as though nervous of who might hear.
“You’re not serious?”
“Argument is they’ve got the physical strength for it.”
“So does an ox,” scoffed Amber, “but if it was down to brute strength, I’d be out of work. Plus, they don’t have the mumma-bear instinct. You can’t teach that.”
“Exactly,” agreed Andromeda.
“They need to stick with what they’re good at. Simple manual labor. They don’t have the biological instincts, the mental and physical finesse, the blood bonds, the . . .” Amber paused. “Men becoming guards, honestly.”
“Not just guards, but they’re thinking they could eventually become knights.”
There was a longer pause. “That’s just stupid,” Amber supplied finally.
“Nothing will come of it,” Andromeda said calmly. “But you know how it is, these fancies come and go. The bottom line is, if you can’t create life, you can’t be trusted to take it.”
Jacs frowned. She thought of the way her father used to play the fiddle around the stove on cold winter nights. The way his fingers danced and flew across the strings. Her father had been a gentle man. Strong, yes, but not the brute strength Amber had shown so much disdain for. And the way he had pushed her out of the river . . . no one could argue he didn’t have the momma-bear instinct. Her mind fluttered to Phillip before she could dwell too much on thoughts of her father. She saw in her mind’s eye the way he pulled her to safety from the writhing mob around the broken fountain. There were a few men she wouldn’t mind seeing in armor. She thought of Connor’s earlier letters where he shared his wish to be a knight one day. Why had that seemed so farfetched? She thought of the cruel beating Phillip had suffered at the hands of the guard pairs.
A few male guards might shake things up, she thought. Even if only to keep the guard pairs in check.
Before she knew what she was doing, she had risen from her bench and made her way over to the knights. Amber greeted her warmly and made space for her on the cushions lining the benches. Andromeda nodded curtly to her. Jacs knew the knight well enough by now to realize that this was her version of a warm welcome.
“I was eavesdropping,” Jacs said unapologetically. “What’s this about men becoming guards?”
“Just a rumor,” Amber said quickly. “As if that would ever work,” she scoffed.
“Why not?” Jacs asked innocently.
Amber shot her a look to see if she was serious. Andromeda replied bluntly, “They’re just not built for it. It goes against their nature. Imagine a man in the heat of battle and his anger takes over. Then you have an unpredictable recruit on a rampage. A wildfire that puts himself and his team at risk.”
Jacs nodded thoughtfully. “But surely with training and discipline they can tame that fire. Learn to control it. Couldn’t their natural strength be an asset?” The knights looked at each other, then back at Jacs. She shrugged and continued, “It just seems a waste to deny half the population the chance to defend their Queendom based on their sex.”
“Jacqueline, that’s just how it is. Plus, can you imagine how distracting it would be for the guards to have a bunch of fit men walking around the training grounds?” Amber said, shifting forward in her seat.
Jacs laughed lightly. “I’m guessing the guards who like women get along just fine, so why would those who like men be less able to control themselves? What about you, Amber? If you don’t mind my asking, are you more attracted to women or men?”
“Both,” Amber said with a slight grin.
Jacs settled into the cushions. “And as you’re a medal-winning knight and a role model to the realm, I’m guessing you’re able to control yourself around your fellow females?” she asked.
Amber raised an eyebrow. “Of course.”
“And you hold your troops to the same standard?”
“So if men were allowed to train as guards, you’d have a greater variety of people to control yourself around, but do you think you could do it?” Jacs asked.
“Of course! That would be extremely inappropriate,” Amber said, “and irresponsible.”
Jacs swept her open palm in front of her in a, “well there you go” gesture. Amber looked uncomfortable but not completely convinced.
Andromeda looked thoughtful. “We’d have to change their style of fighting,” she said after a time, “to optimize their natural strength and force. We train our women to harness their speed and agility. If—” she paused and stressed the word “—If men were trained to join rank, it might be an opportunity to expand our fighting styles.” She tapped her chin, contemplative.
“It just . . . it doesn’t seem right,” Amber said doubtfully.
Jacs shrugged again and commented mildly, “To progress, we need to accept change. If we don’t, we don’t grow.”
My advice, then, for writers wanting to convey a core value or belief of their fantasy world is to consider: what characters share that belief? Why? And how does that add to a reader’s understanding of the world itself?
As always, live most magically x
Contest of Queens is the first of the Frean Chronicles Trilogy and is available anywhere books are sold. The sequel hits shelves March 14, 2023, and the third is currently in the works.
Check out the trailer for Contest of Queens here.