How to Build a Fictional World: Animated Video Explains What Makes Lord of the Rings & Other Fantasy Books Come Alive

Today, I was eaves­drop­ping on a young cou­ple in a cafe. The man asked the woman to rec­om­mend a book, some­thing he would­n’t be able to put down on a long, upcom­ing plane ride. The woman seemed stymied by this request. Exhaust­ed, even. (A stroller in which a fair­ly new­born baby slum­bered was parked next to them).

It must’ve been obvi­ous that my wheels were turn­ing for the woman turned to me, remark­ing, “He does­n’t like books.”

“I’m all about mag­a­zines,” the man chimed in.

Hmm. Per­haps Kather­ine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools was­n’t such a good idea after all. What would this stranger like? With­out giv­ing it very much thought at all, I reached for The Spir­it Catch­es You And You Fall Down, Anne Fadi­man’s Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award-win­ning non-fic­tion account of a West­ern doc­tor’s tus­sle with the fam­i­ly of an epilep­tic Hmong child. It seems unlike­ly my impromp­tu ele­va­tor pitch con­vinced him to nip round the cor­ner to see if Green­light Book­store had a copy in stock. More prob­a­bly, I impressed him  as one of those New Age‑y matrons eager to pub­licly iden­ti­fy with what­ev­er trib­al cul­ture lays with­in reach.

(Lest you think me an insuf­fer­able busy­body, the man at the next table horned in on the con­ver­sa­tion too, rec­om­mend­ing a col­lec­tion of mod­ern-day Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries and a nov­el, which we all said sound­ed great. Because real­ly, what else were we going to say?

A read­er’s taste is so sub­jec­tive, is it any won­der I felt leery going into “How to Build a Fic­tion­al World,” an ani­mat­ed Ted-Ed talk by chil­dren’s book author and for­mer mid­dle school teacher, Kate Mess­ner? The titles she name-checks—The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix,  and the Har­ry Pot­ter series—are all wild­ly suc­cess­ful, and far—as in light yearsfrom of my cup of tea.

That’s not to say I’m opposed to fan­ta­sy. I adore Dun­geon, Lewis Trond­heim and Joann Sfar’s out­ra­geous­ly fun­ny, anthro­po­mor­phic graph­ic nov­el series. Ani­mal FarmA Clock­work Orange…all of these per­son­al favorites are easy to decon­struct using Mess­ner’s recipe for fic­tion­al world-build­ing. (Those whose tastes run sim­i­lar to mine may want to jump ahead to the 3:15 minute mark above.)

Kudos to ani­ma­tor Avi Ofer, for the wit with which he con­cep­tu­al­izes Mess­ner’s ideas. The way he choos­es to rep­re­sent the inhab­i­tants’ rela­tion­ships with the plants and ani­mals of their fic­tion­al world (4:13) is par­tic­u­lar­ly inven­tive. His con­tri­bu­tions alone are enough to make this must-see view­ing for any reluc­tant  — or stuck — cre­ative writer.

For those of you who enjoy fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion, how do your favorite titles cleave to Mess­ner’s guide­lines? Let us know in the com­ments below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed Video Explores the Invent­ed Lan­guages of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones & Star Trek

“The Tolkien Pro­fes­sor” Presents Three Free Cours­es on The Lord of the Rings

Free Audio: Down­load the Com­plete Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia by C.S. Lewis

Ayun Hal­l­i­day will be hon­or­ing fic­tion­al worlds with a trip to Urine­town this spring. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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