The moon which shackles waves liberates tides — who do we label as the assailant? World-building in fantasy is a similar manner; in the complete absence of restrictions, the only confinement is the reader’s mind, but the iron bars are thicker and denser than you would think. If it were any other genre — say, romance — a part of the world is already built into the readers’ mind as they hear the word romance. When their thoughts already linger around sunsets on bridges and kissing in the rain, it’s not that difficult to be, you know, romantic. But in fantasy, there are no rose-colored lenses, and the reader dives into the story with no knowledge of what to expect. The word fantasy itself means a thousand different things; hence, when you write, you not only get to start from scratch, but you have to.
This is part 1 in a series on worldbuilding in fantasy poetry — on setting.
You, as the writer, are the ocean longing for someone to envelope around. The art of allurement isn’t difficult, but it requires well-crafted thoughts as well as well-thought-out crafts. Using Victor Hugo’s A Sunset as an example, here is a chronological list to keep in mind while developing the setting in your fantasy poem.
You are the ocean; they are passerbys. Your potential audience encounters your work, be it on Tumblr or in bottled messages tossed into the sea. It’s up to you to weave them in. In fantasy, we don’t want tranquility — your readers are not the academic professors measuring the surface tension of your waters, but rather the reckless lovers and restless sinners looking for thrill, for glory, for a new, once-in-a-lifetime high. You need something to have them stand by the edge of the ocean, staring into the dark waters, thinking about jumping in.
Hugo starts his piece A Sunset with these lines:
I love the evenings, passionless and fair, I love the evens,
Whether old manor-fronts their ray with golden fulgence leavens,
In numerous leafage bosomed close;
The image of which the narrator describes isn’t uncommon, but the description he enforces is spectacular. From the first line alone, the readers can grasp a gist of what this piece will be about, and why Hugo had chosen to write about such. Then, the complexity behind the first line is revealed. As the saying goes, “it is ordinary to love the beautiful but it is beautiful to love the ordinary;” in this case, however, the narrator loves the ordinary in a beautiful way. These first lines hold a balance between accessibility and sophistication — they’re not a crumbling sandcastle built by a five-year-old with a bucket, nor are they treasure chests on the ocean floor that remain undiscovered for centuries. They’re a series of ripples, some bigger and deeper than others, forming an invisible bridge between what the reader can and cannot imagine, leading them into the ocean.
The Waves and the Currents
You are the ocean; they are surfers and divers. They can leave the waters any time– you have to make them stay. Now that you readers have walked from non-fiction to surreality, it’s time to deviate from the very world that readers read to escape from. The ocean is your tapestry — one that you can weave into any shades of blue, the waves crashing shore in any pitches known to mankind, the air lingering anywhere between salty and sweet — there are simply no limits to a fantasy setting, it’s up to you to present the lunatic in a tangible way.
Hugo accomplishes such in an elegant method: he describes something that readers couldn’t be more familiar with, in this case, a sunset, using imageries that are so intricate they appear to seem other-worldy. For instance, these are some lines from A Sunset:
The sun at bay with splendid thrusts still keeps the sullen fold;
And momently at distance sets, as a cupola of gold,
The thatched roof of a cot a-glance
As a reader, you know that these lines describe how the sun’s golden rays are casting a dome as it sets in the distance, yet in reading phrases like “splendid thrusts still keeps the sullen fold” and “as a cupola of gold, the thatched roof of a cot a-glance,” you stop and ponder why you haven’t seen a sunset through a lens like the narrators; you stop and you ponder what you have missed in all the years you were alive on this earth.
Here is another example:
Under its burnished belly slips a ray of eventide,
The flickerings of a hundred glowing clouds in tenebrous side
With scales of golden mail ensheathe.
What could’ve been stated as sunlight, the narrator has called “a ray of eventide” “with scales of golden mail ensheathe.” They’re bringing the reader into their head, allowing us to see the world from their eyes. This is especially notable in poetry, as unlike prose, there often isn’t a clear narrator, and thus the whole having-readers-project-themselves-onto-the-protagonist is not effective. However, by having the reader in the author’s mind, you’re giving them the perspective to understand why the piece was written in the first place, why you felt the need to compose what you composed. This ties back to the rippling in the beginning -- Hugo has started A Sunset with the phrase “I love the evenings,” which directs the readers down this stream of waves and currents.
You are the ocean; they are intoxicated and vulnerable. All it takes is a final pull to transform everything around your reader into the world of your dreams. Now, of course, there isn’t a formula for any of this, from the beginning to where we’re at right now, but this last part in particular, is a wild one. Hugo’s approach to this is quite a predictable one — the sun sets — yet his style still makes the readers see a whole new world:
Beneath their solemn beauty is a mystery infinite:
If winter hue them like a pall, or if the summer night
Fantasy them starre brede.
The basis of these ideas is that you want to do something with the setting, something beyond putting it down on paper — be it a salvation or an apocalypse. Write about the loss of glory and the glory of loss; write about holding onto the ruins of a fallen kingdom you once called home as a flood of cold, black waters rise above your chest; write about being a bubble created by serendipity, being tossed around the heavy waves in the aftermaths of a rainstorm, being sunken into deep sapphire then afloat to see the dome-like ethers again, with eyes that have never left the lighthouse whose silhouette could barely be made out in the darkness. A lot of writers see setting as the most boring part in world-building, but the thing is, it’s only boring if you make it so. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; in fantasy, write about what could not have survived to exist in reality.
Think about your favorite weather. Describe it, without directly stating anything, but guide your readers into your touch through symbolisms and metaphors. I know you already want to do it. Lastly, here are a few songs that flow in the same theme as this article: All Falls Down by Alan Walker, Dark Paradise by Lana Del Rey, A World Alone and Perfect Places by Lorde.
You are the ocean; your readers have drowned; but they feel like breathing for the first time.
A few years ago, Taiwanese writer Yun-Fei Wang had begun using fiction as an escapism from the overwhelming sadness of being alive. Now that she's 16, falling deeper than ever, she can fortunately affirm that literature has been, is, and will be the only fragment of sanity in her life. Find her at a silent midnight, or at @immortalrainpoetry on Instagram.