If you’re an SFF writer, you’ve probably wondered: how do you worldbuild for a Fantasy or Sci-Fi novel?
Well, today, I have two experienced writers who know exactly what goes into creating a book with great worldbuilding. Jason and Rose Bishop are the authors of the Storm’s Rising series (check out the first book, the Call!), where they’ve built an incredible world with an epic adventure. Find out more about them and their books on their website.
Below you can find the interview, where we’ll talk about their inspiration, how they went about creating their characters and world—even how they named their fantasy world.
Dive into our worldbuilding interview
Hi! Thank you both for agreeing to this interview. I’ll just dive right into it. Where did the inspiration for The Storm’s Rising books come from?
[ROSE] The books’ inspiration came from our tabletop gaming and our life experiences. Both of us had the good fortune of living abroad, and I love that the one thing that unites us all is our human experiences; we love, we lose, we weep, laugh, struggle, achieve, and build relationships with those around us.
[JASON] And all the different cultures, too! Germany, Switzerland, Iran, Thailand, and Japan are just a few of the places we’ve spent time in, and I think that colors what we write.
Yes, it’s certainly great to have the opportunity to travel and experience all those different cultures. I love how you say that we still have those unified experiences.
[ROSE] Every story we write has at its core the everyday struggles of individuals backdropped with the overarching events in the world. There is also the idea that past events may be horrible or pure drudgery at the time, but when you look back at the event years later, you realize they gave you the tools you needed to overcome something in the future.
For instance, there’s the healing that eventually begins between Lendil’s estranged parents, where his disgraced father finds out that it’s never too late to forgive and change course. Then there’s also a lack of forgiveness. I think about Phoenix and her bitterness towards her adoptive father and her inability to listen to her brother (Arthur) and take good advice.
Those were definitely defining moments. I loved how those two things parallel each other: the consequences of being able to forgive and start anew compared to what happens if you hold on to your resentment.
[ROSE] My favorite character from our games was an orphaned kid whose roguish sire turned out to be an heir to a kingdom. This kid winds up meeting his father (unbeknownst to him) when he accepts a hit job to take out his father’s best friend, who happens to be a renowned knight paladin and hero of the original Five, Beorn Heodin. Fortunately, the hit fails, and the knight decides to make his would-be assassin his squire, and the kid gets a harsh wake-up call to the events of the world.
The character I’m talking about here is Hawk. Hawk winds up being in the center of all the chaos that ensues over the next 800 years. His life is torment; it drags him down to the depths of depravity and the heights of esteem, and it’s really his journey that led to the Storm’s Rising series, where all the things that happened, good and bad, come to a head to prepare him to be who he was born to be. That’s where Storm’s Rising begins – we’re answering the question “why did this all have to happen” and sharing what comes next.
Building their world
It’s so interesting that all this idea and inspiration came from a game and the origin of a single character. So, how did you start building the fantasy world for your story from that?
[JASON] This one always gives me a moment of “Oh, crap, they’re going to find out I’m just a big goofy kid!” With both of us being professionals and managers with the State, trying to maintain images as respectable, mature adults, it’s sometimes hard to admit we love things like RPGs and dressing our family up for renaissance faires! But we do! We’re fantasy/sci-fi nerds at heart!
I think that’s nothing to be ashamed of. If anything, I think we should all just embrace our nerdiness—especially if it leads to cool new stories.
[Jason] Exactly! So it’s probably small surprise that much of the world of Cyrradon had its origins in our early gaming sessions when it was just me and Rose sitting around a table of character sheets and dice and figurines, escaping into our own fantasy world together. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were building Cyrradon and the Storm’s Rising story from those sessions, and what we loved most about epic fantasies we had read—the worlds of Tolkien, Eddings, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Tad Williams, and so many more.
A generational change came when we had kids, and they grew old enough to be interested in gaming along with us. We saw a whole new herd of heroes then, with wonderful personalities and quirks, and situations we couldn’t have dreamt up ourselves that deserved to be shared with the world. I think that was when we truly realized, “Hey, we should write a book!”
That’s really cool! Children can certainly make for good inspiration—they still have that naive and wonderful way of seeing the world that I always hope we can hold on to as adults. More hopeful, I suppose, that things will turn out all right more often than not.
[Jason] Right? I remember one encounter where our kids’ party was filing down a narrow tunnel beneath a mountain, with our son’s warrior right behind our daughter’s elf fighter. Then some deep-dwelling threat popped up ahead, I think it was an evil clan of dwarves. Our son’s character threw three daggers, hoping to throw past the slender elf and hit the bad guys. But as fate would have it, he rolled three natural 1s in a row (i.e., “critical misses”), and the DM’s decision was that they ended up being good hits…on her. He was devastated! Statistically, it had a 1-in-8,000 chance of happening, but there it was, three in a row, and the situation had gone from bad to horrible! The chaos that followed made for an epic gaming session and was just one of hundreds that had us convinced our story should be full of such gems.
I think that’s probably what makes those characters ring true as well. At the heart of it, most of them are just a bunch of kids who are more likely to take risks. Sometimes those pay out, sometimes they don’t. Seems like valuable life lessons were learned during those games! So, obviously, from those games and creating those characters, you still have to build an entire world. What do you think makes good worldbuilding?
[JASON] As readers, we crave a world that feels rich and deep without being forced to swim around in it. And more importantly, it must have a long history, where you’re literally tripping over remnants of a dark and mythic past. That’s the world we would want to visit, so that’s what we strive to build for our readers. Some writers build awesome worlds but bludgeon the reader with heavy stretches of verse that drag them away from the story. Tolkien is, without a doubt, a heavyweight champion of worldbuilding, but at the same time, reading certain parts of the LOTR series can be a grind.
Oh, yes, I agree. He was such a master at worldbuilding, but I’ve never been a fan of having too many details and descriptions when reading a story (let alone all those songs).
[JASON] The ones that went on for pages? Ha, ha, right. To our minds, the right balance has the characters in the foreground, doing all the things, having discussions, learning and growing and figuring stuff out, and all the while, they are tripping over little clues about a bigger world and darker than they knew. As the reader, you come to appreciate the world with the same wide-eyed amazement as if you were one of them. That’s the magic of worldbuilding. We’d rather have the reader say, “Hold on! I want to know more about that!” than “Okay! I get it! It’s a really neat tree!”
To do this, we invest the time to write up intricate histories and backstories that only peek through into the stories here and there when needed. These hints, we believe, give the world that old and mythic feel we’re going for, and the bigger stories that only we know help us keep everything consistent. One day we hope there’ll be a demand for us to publish all our histories and other worldbuilding writings. That would be a milestone, indeed!
That would surely be pretty epic! I definitely think you’ve nailed the worldbuilding in your stories. That’s my opinion, anyway. Now, one thing that always stumps me when building a world is that you also have to name things. So, how do you come up with the names?
[JASON] This one is mostly me, and it depends on the name. Sometimes it just pops out of the air, and we’re like, “Yep, that’s it.” Other times, it can be a process and include a lot of research.
In general, our characters got their names during gaming sessions, chosen by our kids or us. For instance, Derek and Antonio are characters our sons created, and these remain the same in the stories. Hawk’s incredible hounds Enjii and Dayrun are named after dogs Rose and I had in real life, who were named Enki and Daemon.
Quite a few names, though, had too much crossover to popular references in the real world. For instance, would you believe Hawk’s name began as Hawkwinter?
Ah, really? That’s a massive coincidence.
[Jason] Yep. Rose used that name back in the late 80s when she first started gaming before she even met me. But unfortunately, that name already appears in the Forgotten Realms series, and we knew we needed something that wouldn’t look to have been stolen. Similarly, our elf huntress heroine Dia and her snooty sister Mea weren’t always named so. Our daughter first named them Twilight and Moonlight, which worked just fine for gaming around the kitchen table, but the obvious overlap with teen vampire pop culture was too much to keep for the books. So we invented the elven words for “twilight” and “moonlight,” along with the rest of the elven language, and ended up with Di’an’ias and Mea’thinallea. Those, in turn, led to their informal versions “Dia” and “Mea.” And now you know.
Clever solution, I must say. Although creating a whole language must also be a lot of work.
[JASON] It is! And I want to talk more about that, but I also wanted to mention how we came up with the name of our world, Cyrradon. That actually found its inspiration with Krynn, the world of Dragonlance, a series we both absolutely loved. You know how some names just feel like they deserve to be the name of a world? Krynn has that quality, and I wanted that for our world as well. After dozens of attempts, when I finally typed out the letters for the first time, I just knew it had to be Cyrradon.
When things just won’t come together and I’m lacking inspiration, though, I resort to my caveman method. I literally start with a blank screen, and I bang randomly on the keyboard. Yep. And it works. I do this a few times and then take a hard look at the strings of babble I’ve produced for any inspiration. Believe it or not, the names of our unique races—the Tarkuurians and Jeborrhadim—were inspired by this method, along with the name of our shadow wyrm, Undreyddun. Interestingly, this method often produces doubled consonants or vowels, which you can see in all three of these names, and we think it adds a certain charm.
That’s a very interesting method. I’ve never actually tried that before—but now I will!
[JASON] No matter how we come up with them, we try to do extensive internet research for each to make sure we’re not inadvertently using a word that has some meaning we’re not aware of. Could be embarrassing if we named a race after another culture’s word for “elephant dung!”
Yes, you definitely can’t have that. Although I’m sure you wouldn’t be the first to have that issue. Now, you mentioned the name for Undreyddun, one of the Wyrms. I found them quite interesting. The Wyrms are very similar to dragons, yet they do have some different characteristics. What was your inspiration for the Wyrms, and what was your process in creating them?
[JASON] We always knew there would be dragons in our world, but honestly, we weren’t sure at the outset what they would look like or how we would integrate them into the story. In the beginning, we were tempted to go with the chromatic dragon model, like those of Dragonlance and the AD&D monster manuals. But again, we didn’t want our world to be a rip-off of another, and we didn’t like the idea that dragons or wyrms were automatically good or evil based on their sub-species (e.g., all red dragons are evil…isn’t that some sort of dragon racism?). Inspiration of a different sort came from the Banished Lands of John Gwynne’s writings, where there were two basic models: large, winged snakes (“wyrms”) and giant land-based lizards (“dragues”). Both had animal intelligence, and the dragues were trained as mounts or beasts of war. These worked for Gwynne’s world, certainly…but we wanted intelligent and capable dragons, worthy of being respected, feared, even worshipped, and fully autonomous in terms of their morality.
While drafting The Ascension (book 2 of Storm’s Rising), I took a side-quest to work out the Ages of Dragons, how they came to define the eras of Cyrradon, the major historical events that precipitated them, etc. I ended up “uncovering” the creation story of the dragons and how they related to the other elder races of the world. There’s an awful backstory here that grew into a pivotal anchor point for the central plot of the story. Readers who want to know more can read the prologue to The Tome of Wyrms, linked on our website.
Which people definitely should do, by the way.
[JASON] What we ended with was a race of dragons whose variants are based on the environments they are best suited for. Not an entirely original idea, we admit, but it felt like what Aralieth, the Father God and Creator of Cyrradon, would have wanted. There are wyrms of mountain, forest, swamp, aquatic zones, deserts, and more, with appearances and attributes suited to their home environs. When they are young, they begin with little more than animal intelligence, but as they grow, they become stronger and smarter, and can eventually learn to harness magical, clerical, and druidic powers. When they become exceedingly old and venerable, they are referred to as wyrms and are some of the cleverest and most potent creatures of Cyrradon.
Well, I certainly thought they were quite original. I think you can never fully escape some overlap with dragon species from other worlds—there have been so many done already, after all.
[JASON] A final note on dragons in our world. We both decided early on that we didn’t want Cyrradon to be lousy with dragons. Dragons everywhere. Many novels feature warriors raised alongside infant dragons who become their partners for life and so on, with dragons as commonplace in everyday life as a favorite dog or horse, and everything in the world swimming in dragon lore. We chose a different path. While there was a time when things might have been close to that in Cyrradon, at the part of the story, we introduce the wyrms, there are only six left in the entire world. The reason there are so few, and the path they follow after, you must discover for yourself within the books!
Well, if you ever decide to write up a story of the time before, when there were many Wyrms, I’d certainly read it. (I do love dragons). Now, those were some important worldbuilding things: creating a world and characters, giving them names, and devising new creatures based on several sources. But when you say fantasy story, you also say map. I know I love them, and I know many fantasy readers do as well. Any advice for people on how to create a fantasy map?
[JASON] Absolutely, though I hardly claim to be any sort of expert on it, and I’ve made many mistakes.
Many fantasy maps look wonderful at first glance. And to tell you the truth, we think 99% of readers just appreciate being able to follow along with the main characters’ journeys. But some will really examine them, and if they find your map makes no sense from a climatological, geological, or water flow standpoint, will you be okay with that? Look closely at Tolkien’s Middle Earth map and ask yourself: Do mountain ranges form at right angles? No, my friends, they do not. And there are very sound geological reasons why. Other maps you may find have rivers that stretch all the way from one ocean to another. How? How would this be possible?
That’s very true, actually. Tolkien’s map doesn’t make the most sense, but you’re right—most readers don’t much care about that. As long as they can follow along the journey. But say you’d want to make a more accurate map. How would you go about that?
Study Earth first. Do some research to understand how mountains are formed, how river systems flow, and how weather patterns influence climate zones. Once you’ve studied Earth, determine how your planet operates and how that would affect its geological formation. Understand why, and then start painting in the details.
So in order, I recommend:
- determine the outline of your landmasses,
- trace where the fault lines lie and deduce where mountain ranges would form,
- decide how the weather patterns move and where the rain falls,
- plot where and how the rain would flow to form rivers and lakes, down to the sea,
- determine what areas would retain moisture or not, and then
- decide what types of vegetation would grow in each area (if any).
And all this happens before you put down the first city or road!
That’s a lot to take into account! But sounds like solid advice.
[Jason] Thanks! And it goes further, too. When deciding where cities and roads should be, decide first why the civilizations in that area would have chosen to place them there. We love images of cities perched on incredibly inaccessible cliff faces or picturesque river islands, don’t we? But practically speaking, they make no sense unless there was some factor that drove that civilization to figure out how to live there. People don’t just look at a vertical cliff face and decide to build their town hanging off of it for novelty’s sake. They’re usually faced with an existential threat of some kind. Otherwise, a nice fertile field with some good hunting or fishing waterways nearby will be much more suitable.
And before you try singularizing your world by deciding it should rotate twice as fast as Earth or not at all, or be in the shape of a disk spinning like an eternal penny on a countertop, think again. These changes come with devastating consequences to climate and gravity and can even render your world inhospitable to life.
More About Their Novels
Or just a disk carried by elephants riding on the back of a turtle through space. Massive consequences there. Anyway, we’ve talked about some of your writing processes, mostly in creating. You’ve clearly put a lot of effort into these stories, which means they’ve probably gotten a place close to your heart. So, next question: what is your favorite thing about the books?
[ROSE] I think my favorite thing is seeing the characters grow. I love the humor that is interspersed in the books, the richness of the meals they share, and the ongoing heartaches and struggles they experience. It’s so hard to get all the head-cannon events into the books because there is just so much of it!
The nuances, like the “almost-brother” relationship between Armondus and Hawk, are things that I could (and probably will) write novels about. The reader finds out in books four and five that there was a period of years when Hawk willingly submitted himself to serve Armondus to learn from him, and the reader is left wondering what in the nine hells could convince him to do that. After all, a half-demon inquisitor is not a very pleasant master, and there are only so many ways you can torture someone for information…aren’t there?
[JASON] I love that relationship, too. And especially that the more we write about either one of them, the more incredibly unique and twisted I realize their relationship is! It’s a model I highly doubt can be found in any other story.
I would read those novels (just already putting it out there). There might be something wrong with me, but I love reading about twisted relationships.
[ROSE] I love the richness of the characters’ history, too. For instance, when you look at the twins, Mea and Dia, and realize there is a painful history between Hawk and their parents, Miralana and Pontius, it helps to explain the mage’s relationship with the girls. There’s an almost-uncle relationship there, and a lot of frustration when it comes to the older sister, Mea, and her tendency to act like her mother had. Hawk had no patience for Miralana’s nonsense, so it’s like seeing history replay itself!
Another relationship I love is between Alec and Elise, Lendil’s parents. They have gone through a lot together. When they were young, they had everything, including naivete and inexperience. Then they lose everything, and their life spirals quite literally into the gutter. Pride, blame, lack of communication, and the hoarding of secrets destroy their family and send Lendil packing for the hills, quite literally. Yet, in the books, the reader is allowed to watch them slowly heal, pick up the pieces of their family from the ashes, and regain the dignity and love that was lost. It’s really quite sweet, and there are many lessons to be learned from their story.
Yes, I loved reading about that as well. So many things can ruin a relationship, and I think we see that all too much in life. It was very heartening to see that it’s possible to start again if you really make that choice. Since we were talking about Hawk as well, I’ve found him to be my favorite character in the series; it seems I quite love dark, tortured characters. Who is your favorite character, and why?
[JASON] First of all, we’d like to hear more from you, Iris! Why do you like Hawk so much? We can’t deny his appeal, but we’d really love to hear what draws you to him! Was there a scene in particular?
Ah, I really set myself up there, didn’t I? I think it’s that it feels authentic to me—there’s a darkness inside all of us, and I love it when there’s a character in a story that helps us explore that duality. Or rather, that it’s not a duality at all; life’s a lot more complicated than that. He aims to do what’s right, but he’s also forced to live a cursed life, and he’s suffered a lot. He does things that are both good and bad. It’s like he’s both sides of the coin if you get my meaning. I think what stuck with me most was when he was walking with those elves and the woman alongside him who started to care for him. You could sense that longing within him to be able to love again, but knowing he can’t have that. It’s just so human to want love and to give love in kind. To be robbed of that is just a whole other level to the curse that makes me just hope that he might find happiness at some point.
[ROSE] Well, it seems that we have the same favorite character! Hawk is struggling to find balance and endure the long life he’s been given but doesn’t understand the purpose of yet. He’s patient yet irritable. He’s a stickler for proper grammar, is critical of those around him, and yet the reader finds out that he is personally funding a network of temples that serves children and the unfortunate. On the other hand, he not only has served Armondus the Inquisitor but was once an inquisitor himself known as the Red Mage. In his fury, he burns down a solid stone prison and everyone in it, yet he is also excruciatingly tolerant of Lendil’s bratty, flippant demeanor, so the question becomes – why? Why does he save Lendil on the ship, using blood magic that was hard-earned and that he can never replicate? Why doesn’t he just let the string-bean die and go find a new one?
And again, the relationship Hawk has with Armondus is just delicious. They’re sort of step-siblings. Armondus is a half-demon whose human mother was Queen Gabrielle, the wife of the ancient Druid King Tayrin Willowglen. Tayrin is Hawk’s father, but his mother was just some tavern wench from before Tayrin and Gabrielle were wed, one of probably many. One of Armondus’ first assignments from Gabrielle was to root out all of the King’s bastard children and kill them so that they wouldn’t be a threat to her children and their claim to the throne. The only reason Hawk survived this purge was because the queen thought his arrival to the palace was designed to endear him to Tayrin and thus steal the throne. In fact, Hawk knew nothing of his lineage, and he’d been employed to assassinate the king’s best friend and knight protector, Beorn. Gabrielle wished Hawk to be properly tormented before being killed, which ended up being the reason he survived. Anyway, the long-lived relationship between Armondus and Hawk becomes a brother-like bond despite their differences because in all their centuries in the world, they had only two constants: their duty and each other. No one understands them as well as the other does, and that plays into the resolution of the Storm’s Rising series in the last few books. I may have said too much.
Ah, that sounds really, very interesting. I must say I’m curious to see how that’s going to play out. Now, I have one final question, which just seems to be the one question to always ask a writer: which books or writers are your inspirations and why?
[JASON] I have a few. In terms of creating that world I spoke of earlier that feels very old and layered, I would say the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series by Tad Williams was my inspiration. In terms of worldbuilding in general, there is none greater than Tolkien. After all, who else wrote the exhaustive history of the world before writing the story of its ending? But a third that deserves mention is the Belgariad and subsequent Mallorean by David and Leigh Eddings for two reasons. They were a man and wife writing team, which was only revealed in later years. So I feel a kinship to them with what we’re doing here. And second, they later released a book called the Rivan Codex, which exposes how they built their world and much of the lore found within it. There’s an introductory chapter in that book where Eddings challenges us rather boldly that writing high fantasy is harder than it might seem because you have to create a world first, and it has to be deep and rich enough to be believable. I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge, so I have Eddings to blame for telling me I should probably just take up nuclear physics instead.
Ah, yes, I’ve only quite recently been introduced to Eddings’s work (by my dad; I steal books from him sometimes). I had no idea they wrote those books together. In any case, I think the challenge paid out!
[ROSE] I really like long series, like the Dragonlance saga and the Destroyer series. I like being able to continue with certain characters for a long time. I’m not crazy about being introduced to a new set of characters with each new book. I enjoy the works of authors like Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, John Flannagan, Simon Hawke, Judith Tarr, and David B. Coe. But really, more than other books or writers, my inspiration tends to come from real life. The best stories do!
Couldn’t agree more!
And that concludes our interview
I hope you found the interview inspiring and helpful when choosing how to create your own world for your story.
Be sure to check out Jason and Rose’s book The Call, the first book of the Storm’s Rising series!
When her sister, the Elven Princess, gets caught and sold to a decrepit king seeking immortality, Dia is willing to do anything to get her back. Even work together with two half-elves. Meanwhile, Lendil, a young rogue, gets his hands on the brooch that was carried by Dia’s sister. Little does he know that it’s an ancient and powerful artifact. He also didn’t expect it to draw him into an insidious web of danger. It doesn’t take long before the paths of the four are entangled, drawn together by the magical amulets that have been handed down through generations. A legacy of betrayal and loss. They have been called, and it’s their task to reunite the five, rescue the elves, and stop the king from receiving his immortality.