Welcome to April’s Special Feature! Today I’m talking with one of my great writer friends about how they create epic immersive fantasy worlds! Siarven is an incredible author and illustrator, and I’ve recently had the absolute honor of beta-reading their WIP, Dreams Shadow, which features in this interview. I’m super excited to share their cleverness and creativity with you all today! For this interview, my parts and questions are in the headings, and their responses are everything written below.
Question 1: First can you tell me about yourself and what you write?
Hello 🙂 I’m Jana, I go by Siarven online 🙂 I’m 24 and currently study VFX with a focus on Concept Art. Storytelling has always been my first and most powerful passion, from telling stories out loud to myself (and my little brother) when I was small, to visual storytelling in various different forms, to loving film scores most of all because they tell a story with sound. Besides art and writing, I also play the flute & piccolo and love to sing because music has always been incredibly important to me. I adore the natural world (plants and animals and fungi and such) because it’s deeply fascinating to me and am very passionate about protecting it from destruction. Also just in general, I’m absolutely obsessed with how our world “works” from a cellular level upward, geography, biology, physics, how everything interlinks to make our world the way it is. Most of this stuff ends up in my wips in one form or another 😀 I also love hiking and going places by bike, and usually take my camera because nature photography is also my favourite ❤
I’m from Germany but prefer to write in English because I like my writing style a lot more and the German publishing industry kinda sucks but that’s a whole other can of worms… I mainly write hope-punk dark epic fantasy stories, but, to be fair, they’re usually a very wild mix of things that interest me, so you can find elements from all kinds of genres in there 🙂 The general important things are that it’s all rather hope punk, both protagonists and antagonists have rather grey morality levels, there’s a variety of cool creatures, powerful platonic relationships of various kinds abound, and there’s an often rather mean magic system. Basically all my characters are some shade of queer because that’s very important to me personally. It also almost always spirals out of control because I love complex, interwoven story lines the most, which is very unfortunate for me. XD
Question 2: When you start a WIP, what’s your starting point? Do you build worlds from the ground up, or does the story come first, and you paint in the world as a backdrop as needed, or something in the middle?
Interesting question! 😀 I’d say it varies, actually? My main WIP Dream’s Shadow grew out of an image of a young boy’s ghost standing behind his grieving mother at his hospital bed. Like Dragons of Old grew out of roughly 20 paper scraps where I’d scribbled small random ideas like character names, character relationships, a striking visual, things like that. My newest WIP seed (I haven’t started writing it but I could in theory start now if I wanted to) grew out of an art I started for a uni course and two picrew portraits. xD In general, I think I start with two or three characters and how they relate to one another and the world around them, and all of that kind of grows organically at the same time. I don’t excessively world build, character-build, or plot before I start writing. I have a beginning, an ending (where the characters start and where they end up), I have a rough idea of what their world might look like, and then all of those things grow and develop as I write. But, mind you, I’m not sure how all of this will develop in future WIPs 😀 I’m still quite far at the beginning of this entire journey, and I usually only plan ahead a bit and then see how stuff works out 🙂
Question 3: So I recently read your dark fantasy WIP called Dream’s Shadow, and I absolutely love it so I want to pick your brains about this story. What was the initial idea for the world of this story, and how did it change as you wrote?
Thank you!! :DD I’m still so amazed to hear that people enjoyed the 4th draft despite all its flaws ;-;
So, in general, this is the synopsis:
When Ava and her parents arrive at the hospital, they find her older brother Ben in a deeply unnatural coma—and nobody can tell them what happened. Despite the magical abilities of the Asim Healers, there seems to be no way to save him. But then, why do they still keep him alive?
As Ava slowly learns the magnitude of how terrible Ben’s situation (and impossible his future) truly are, she finds herself embroiled in a larger conflict, ready to hook its claws into her as well. And the one person she cares about most—who always had her back—is gone.
So despite everything, there’s only really one choice. Find out how to save him and try anyways.(For context, Ben is 18, Elinor is 16 and Ava is 10)
Now, originally Dreams was set in our world, in some unspecified city in the UK. In the very first version, it was just about Ben, an 11-year old boy who wakes up to find that he’s a ghost now, and has to deal with his grieving family, the concept that maybe he won’t make it back, and having to deal with all the complex emotions of that. In that first version, ghosts were capable of some “magic” abilities like the usual–passing through walls, learning to manipulate physical objects with practice… and weaving dreams for people close to them. That original story ended up too short for NaNoWriMo, so his little sister Ava (8, mentioned in a few side sentences) got promoted to second main POV character, who has to save him with their family guardian cat after his ghost gets abducted by a demon. It was overall rather simple, cute and a totally reasonable length. But because I needed a reason why a tiny 8-year-old child would be allowed to go on a journey like that, I made their parents terrible at their parenting job, and Ava got a magical connection to Uriel and Azrael, the Archangels (but based more on Peter Mohrbacher’s Angelarium series). And because she had that connection, Ben obviously needed that too–so his “ghost powers” were now not something all ghosts had, but something he had because he had the misfortune of being bound to Michael and Lucifer, because I was also obsessed with CW’s Supernatural at that point (not that their og characterizations were influenced by that though, I only took the names).
Unfortunately, me being me, I sat myself down when I started thinking about Draft Two, and thought “well, what if I put this in a fantasy world?” I’d also gotten the feedback that his parents and their relationships should probably be fleshed out more, and that Ben’s and Ava’s plot lines should be more interwoven. I’d also started worrying that the magic stuff was too boring, and wanted to do something more interesting with the whole “angel” concept.
At that same time, I also got invited to a steampunk game project by a uni friend (that, in the end, never ended up happening, sadly) but all the research into that made me extremely interested in steampunk as a genre, as I’d never really thought about it before. And as I’d recently re-read Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series (the 2nd book had just come out :P) I had the Realization™ that actually you can worldbuild whatever you want.
So I transposed the whole story into a fantasy/steampunk world that was controlled by a huge, sprawling Empire that controlled its population with enslaved magic-user children, and introduced the third sister, Elinor, as the sibling who’d been taken as a child, thus creating a Reason why their parents were depressed and bad at parenting (it’s the Trauma™). And as it didn’t make much sense to have “our” angels in a fantasy world, I renamed them a bit. I didn’t really flesh out the magic system or world much beyond that yet though, Draft 2 was more about figuring out how to interweave Ava’s and Ben’s story lines. It did introduce the concept of nonphysical worlds beyond Aelaris (the physical world), though, in which the Ellariel (the no-longer-angels) resided. After writing the first half of that story, I sat myself down to develop the magic system and find out how the Ellariel and the Asim (enslaved magic users) worked. So that was most of the worldbuilding I did for the second draft.
The people who read that version gave me some extremely helpful feedback, but they unfortunately also said that Elinor was too interesting and that I should put her and that whole Asim concept more in the actual story. I’d previously thought I’d have Dreams be a prequel and then a trilogy set 10 years later that explored those concepts, but that feedback made me realize that I should maybe merge all of that into a series.
So after that, Dreams was officially a trilogy, and Elinor got her own POV. I started plotting, interweaving plot lines in excel tables, but it took a while to actually start writing the third draft. (I also got rid of the steampunk aesthetic and only kept “there are steam-powered machines”).
And then my family and I went hiking in the US for a month, and I was extremely amazed and awe-inspired by the national parks we ended up visiting. One of them was Sequoia National Park, another was Canyonlands. Canyonlands (it must have already inspired the shattered plains in the Stormlight Archive series, right???) ended up inspiring Undrar and the Maze, one of my non-physical not-places. Sequoia National park made me introduce a tree-based religion. Ava and Ben hadn’t previously been particularly religious, but now there was this ancient history of their people, the old religion (that had been mostly erased by the Empire when they invaded) and the new religion, the parts that survived the Empire and that were practiced by Ben and Ava in-story. Basically, I spent all my not-hiking-time worldbuilding. I rethought the whole city Dreams takes place in as actually being a tower built around a grove of magical, impossible trees far to the north where trees shouldn’t even be possible, which in turn impacted the whole multiverse thing Dreams has going on, which also impacted the dragons of that world (that had existed since the second draft) and the Ellariel and the entire plot and depth of the world and people inhabiting it. I’d previously made up a whole calendar (as counting time was rather important for my plotting and I’d used the irl western calendar in the first draft) so it had already been set far enough north for long periods of “basically no sun” in winters, but I did some research into all of that after we’d gotten back home. I also developed a few other religions, as well as the history of the world to fit the Ellariel and Asim and the entire Empire more into everything, especially as I’d finally started to map out the overall themes and arcs of the entire trilogy.
And then, I listened to the The Magnus Archives podcast by Rusty Quill (and the Mechanisms, which is an amazing concept band TMA’s writer is part of), which ended with me remaking the Ellariel between 2 and 6am on the Saturday before Quarantimes started in Germany, and then painting them and their new designs the following week while re-binging TMA in less than 5 days, basically a season a day. And writing a whole song that made me realize and develop some of the old, pre-Empire history of the Merreki people (whom the kids belong to). And then, I wrote draft 3. Unfortunately that one was 111k long after I was done with just 1/3rd of my outline, so my Designated Writer Friend and I talked about what I could change to make it stand on its own, and I rethought a bunch of other stuff, and finally sat down to write draft 4 as a version of the story that would hopefully work as one book. Almost all of the worldbuilding was done by that point (it was mostly characters, finding ways to “semi-end” their arcs so the ending of the book wouldn’t be too obviously cut off, and plot stuff), but even in this version, I ended up changing and shifting some things when I had better ideas 😀
As you can probably see, my worldbuilding, characters and plots are basically the same thing, so changing one thing creates this ripple effect that also ends up changing everything else. I do a lot of wholesale rewriting, draft 4 was the only one where I kept 1/3rd of the previous version
Question 4: What are some of your major influences/inspirations for worldbuilding?
I kind of semi-mentioned that already in the last question but, in no particular order:
- Visiting amazing places in nature. Doesn’t have to be far away. I go for a walk every day and take photos of plants and the sky and get ridiculously excited over birds nesting in the courtyard in front of my window. I live in a big city so it’s hard to come by nature here, but there are surprisingly many opportunities even here.
- Watching documentaries from all over the world, AKA the cheap version of “travelling to other places”
- Reading nonfiction books about topics that interest me (I read a book about insects my mother got me for my birthday that’s responsible for one of my MCs in another WIP being an insect enthusiast™; before visiting Sequoia NP, I read another nonfiction book about redwood trees and how they got “discovered” and first explored as a biome. This ended up in me developing a huge fascinating with trees and was one of the reasons why we went to hike in Sequoia NP)
- Long Wikipedia binges on natures, cultures, people, animals, etc.
- Watching series, reading fiction (stuff other people make is extremely inspiring because sometimes it makes me realize that Actually, I Can Do That!? Esp regarding things you thought were “too out there”.)
- More specifically, I already mentioned The Magnus Archives and The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson. TMA (also its fanfic) made me realize that I really like body horror and creepy horror in general, and Branon Sanderson’s worldbuilding made me realize that I can do anything in worldbuilding if I want to, and that the only limit is my imagination. German fantasy books are usually pressed into this tolkien-esque fantasy worldbuilding, and it was a huge thing for me–to realize that I didn’t have to write dwarves and elves and rural England. I could just make up my own worlds and do whatever I wanted … incredible.
Question 5: What did you focus on the most in your worldbuilding and why? (geography, politics, religion/culture, magic system, flora/fauna, etc.)
Hm, another great question! The first things I usually develop properly are the magic systems because they’re usually a big part of my WIPs and I want something that feels different from what other books do. I’ll spend a lot of intense braining on that. I suspect that this is because of Brandon Sanderson, too 😛 Apart from that, my biggest love is creatures, so those usually get developed properly too, even beyond the needed areas. As you can see from how the worldbuilding changed over time in Dreams, culture and religion are very important to me too, but unless they’re a big part of what makes the character “them” at the start, I won’t focus on that until later. I kinda hate politics and it doesn’t really feature much in Dreams, so I’ve procrastinated that part until later books. I have a general idea of what’s going on and it’s definitely going to become more important then, but my POV characters are kids who don’t care about that stuff yet, so I don’t have to spend thoughts on it yet 🙂 I have a pretty concrete idea of what the geography of places featuring in Dreams looks like, but only a very general idea of the rest.
Generally speaking, only the things that are relevant to this story get developed, so it’s usually what’s relevant to the specific characters. Ava is obsessed with animals, so I spent a day developing the local fauna because that’s probably something she knows a lot about. Ava and Ben are kids, so I had to develop how the school system works in that world. Elinor is Asim, so I had to spend a lot of thoughts about how Asim see the world, how they work, what the hierarchy etc looks like. Things like that 😀
Question 6: Are you continuing to worldbuild on the fly as you make the series, or did you figure out everything for the sake of book 1 and you know exactly where this is going in the end?
Kinda answered this one already too 😀 I figure out the things I definitely need pre-writing, but only generally. Then I make up everything specific on the go, or after finishing that draft in time for the next version. But like. I don’t know if that’s going to change with the next WIP. Dreams got written over the course of 6 years. I’ve grown a lot as a writer in that time 🙂
Question 7: What about the world affects your characters on a day to day basis?
Ava and Ben’s maternal side of the family is Merreki, which means that they believe in what basically amounts to tree gods, one of whom protects them specifically. Their paternal side of the family is Sindish–the culture of the “invaders”, of the Empire, that, for historical reasons, basically gets enforced everywhere except in Merreadon, where the story takes place. So they’re constantly living with these clashing cultures in their very upbringing and the world surrounding them.
Apart from that, they also live in what’s basically an incredibly chaotic tower city that’s 10 “major levels” tall and built around giant, impossible magic trees–the Sanctuary, where all food is grown. They’ve never been in a “normal”, flat city that isn’t basically held together by slave magic.
Ben and Ava are also soulbinders (even if they don’t really know at the start of the story) so they can, in theory, learn to do Magic Things. This puts them in quite the Situation, given how they should have been “collected” as little kids and trained to be Asim like their sister Elinor. So the whole magic thing and the Asim also affect them on a daily basis, even if it’s probably mostly psychological (and the soulbinding is thing only something they’ll have to deal with post-Dreams.)
… basically kinda everything I developed. XD The things I didn’t develop yet aren’t as important yet.
Question 8: What is your favorite thing about your world?
Oh, I have no idea…………… I think the fact that Dreams, like all my other WIPs, is part of the same universe (sort of?)… I really love the concept of characters reappearing in other stories. I also love the concept of various things playing out at the same time and influencing each other across books and worlds in incredibly minor ways that you can only spot if you’ve read all of it and noticed the subtext. It’s not that all of these books are collectively building up to a kind of “endgame” event, it’s just that the beginning and end of various stories might not be as intuitive as expected, that stories are, in a way, unending and circular, and that I love how things can influence and nudge each other across time and space.
But I’m supposed to be saying something about this world/setting so … uh. I’d say dragons but that’s the next question. I think it might actually be the cultures and religions and how they develop across history and impact each other and how they shift and shape their peoples, and how none of these religions are True, but they’re all a tiny bit based in a splinter of a truth, and how deeply human they all still are. We all just want to hope and live and feel joy. ❤ But it’s also how they can be shifted for the terrible side of humanity. Still, deeply human to the core.
Question 9: Can you tell us about the dragons? 👀
May I interest you in this shiny page from my powerpoint meme presentation …
Basically, there are 2 major “time periods” on Aelaris. The time pre apocalypse, and the time post apocalypse. Dreams takes place about a millennium after an apocalypse that nearly wiped out all of humanity due to a very powerful entity holding an equally powerful grudge against all humans personally. This resulted in a lot of shiny ruins, a ton of knowledge being lost, people spending a very long time struggling very hard to survive, and the Empire of the New Dawn being what brought Civilization™ as they see it to a lot of people all over (who’d done fine with their own reconstructions, thank you very much).
It also resulted in people not realizing that dragons hadn’t existed before the Apocalypse. Or maybe they had? Who knows! The only things that survived were old legends and myths, and people just kinda went “oh I know what these 4-legged, 2-winged creatures are called! I know them from these stories!” The question is, did people invent dragons pre-apocalypse, or did actual, different dragons actually exist, and if yes what happened to them? :3c
These days, people in Merreadon at least treat dragons as completely normal like any other animal, because for them, they are! Everything with 4 legs and 2 wings is called a dragon even if they’re not related in the least. So there are mammalian, reptilian, amphibian, avian and insectoid dragons of a wide variety 😀
To Merreki, it’s completely normal that there are dragons sitting everywhere, building nests, stealing shiny things, or food, rearing their young, shitting on your coat when you go to work… violently
cussing at children (inside their heads) if they throw a ball into the wrong shrub!
The dragons relevant for the story are all fairly small: featherdragons don’t get bigger than eagles, and most fuzzydragons living in the city don’t get bigger than biggish cats.
There are as many variations within each of those “categories” as there are in the rest of the animal world, though. So there are sparrow-like featherdragons, or eagle ones, or magpie ones…
ostrich sized ones far to the south? :3
They’re also magical (Essence = magic) so that’s how there can be huge reptilian dragons to the south that aren’t killed by their own huge weight. They can’t fly anymore, though. And they don’t need to eat physical food, they draw on the Essence for survival. But they do really like it!
The reptilian ones to the south are the oldest, and only that big because they basically just grew for the past ~900 years since they came to Aelaris (the physical realm). There are less than 10 of those really huge ones, you can imagine them sort of like Smaug. There was a dragon-based religion, too, which liked to sacrifice to them (which suited the dragons just fine, then they didn’t have to work for their food). The Empire outlawed them when they took over, so now it’s an underground sect.
All dragons are very smart, but not in the way that people are smart, they have a different kind of intelligence. They all have very different personalities, too, and you can’t really tame them, but if you’re kind they might be kind back. ❤
Also, they’re originally from the space between worlds (the space that connects this shard world to the rest of my WIP worlds) so… they’re a lot more important in the grander scheme of things than they may seem.
Question 10: Do you wish you could live in the world you’ve created?
Actually, yes! As long as I’m not Asim, I think I’d do okay! I’d really love to run around in a city like that… adopt all the smol dragons… also, the Empire does, in fact, not suppress queer people in any way! And if you have gender dysphoria, you can get help with that too, and they won’t even question you. Every kid is raised with 3 differently gender-coded names, and you can change your name however much you want. Transactions are bound to special rune-combinations that aren’t directly tied to you and are unique to each person, so changing your name or the order of your names (to reflect pronoun preferences) is absolutely no problem! You’re also encouraged to try out she/he/they pronouns and find out which one(s) fit (or if you’d like to make up other pronouns). All of this is absolutely, 100%, wishful projection.
I would prefer to live there before the events of Dreams and specifically its sequels, though. XD
Question 11: What do you hope other people take away from your story? Do you have any advice for other writers about creating a compelling and immersive world?
Somehow, I hope it helps them in some way? I would love for my stories to positively influence its readers in some way, specifically regarding the hope punk part. Stories don’t have to have themes and messages, but I always find that I do best at writing if they’re driven by underlying things that are important to me. My stories are a part of me, written by me for me as a target audience, but despite how mean I am to some of my characters, in the end, I want to make the world a slightly better place with them, even if it only means something to a small handful of people. I want people to realize that they matter, that their experiences are valid, and that life isn’t a competition. Life gets made one choice at a time, and we can only move forward, but even if the universe is endless and we’re tiny and unimportant, we can still be the most important for someone if we choose to be kind. ❤ Our lives touch many other people, and imagine how beautiful our world could be if those touches were positive and creative instead of destructive.
Regarding worldbuilding: do your research, but don’t get lost in worldbuilding. The story and characters are as important as the world you’re trying to build, possibly more so. I always find that it’s the best worldbuilding (at least from my admittedly limited POV) if you can’t really extract the characters from their plot or world because it’s so interwoven that to just put them in some other world would break some parts of the plot or their arcs.
Find inspiration in what you find interesting. For me it’s the natural world and the diversity of people. I do best at worldbuilding if I’m inspired by something that exists in our world that I haven’t seen in fiction yet, or at least not in that particular way.
You don’t need to figure out everything even if it’s never going to be relevant to you or the narrative. Figure out everything you need, though, even if it’s never going to appear in the story. And if you have fun with just worldbuilding, then have fun! That’s probably my main advice: whatever you do, have fun ❤ it’s what will draw people to your stories.
Regarding worldbuilding, the best tip I ever got was to have tiny, overly specific details that aren’t further explained in-story, for example in comparisons. What does [x] sound or smell like? Could it be something that’s evocative and only exists in this world, that might never get mentioned again, or maybe in another comparison later on? Are your characters named after things specific to that world? This gives the impression that the world is bigger than the part you’ve set your story in, that there’s more beyond it. Also in regards to characters: your characters feel more alive if they have acquaintances that they might have a fleeting thought about who are never referred to again, and past friendships and relationships that fell apart. You don’t need to expand upon all of this, just take a small note to remember it later.
In a similar vein, what are the myths and legends of your world, what religions did people believe in before, how did these religions change and shift and why, and what is still relevant about that today? Small details also relevant to the current religions and cultures: no two people ever believe in the exact same way, or even always the same thing, even if it might share the same name. Even if everyone is part of the same religion, there will be differences in how your characters think about it. There will be differences between how people practice the same religion in different cities, too, maybe even slight differences in what they believe, even if it’s still the same mantle! There will also be big differences if it’s a different environment/country altogether! I adore the tiny complexities like these–people are human, and that means things shift and change. We all have different opinions.
And regarding plants and animals: we have incredible beings sharing this planet with us. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find things that are so much more incredible than anything a person could come up with, I promise.
Last but not least, Where can people find you/your work?
Thank you so much to Siarven for agreeing to be a guest on today’s post! I love talking with them about their work and picking their brain with overly specific questions about certain things, so it was fascinating for me to read through all the detailed thoughtful answers with SO MANY brilliant ideas behind them. I’m thrilled to be able to share it with you readers too. If you liked reading about Dreams Shadow, I highly recommend checking out the rest of Siarven’s work and supporting them! You absolutely won’t regret it. The writing is beautiful and moving, the characters have so much love and care put into them, and I cannot wait to have this book (and many more) on my shelf one day. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next week! 🙂