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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