Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.45: Worldbuilding Fantasy, with Patrick Rothfuss

Your Hosts: Dan, Mary Robinette, and Howard, with Patrick Rothfuss

Pat joins us for a discussion of worldbuilding, in which we field a couple of challenging questions from readers. Here are the questions!

  • How do you create timeless urban fantasy?
  • How do you create a compelling secondary world fantasy without leaning on a complex magic system?

We ran a bit long with this one, but we have no regrets. Because compelling. And maybe timeless.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Just change one thing, and then follow the permutations.

Thing of the week: Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Timeless urban fantasy? Set in our world, but with magic, monsters, or some other wonder. How do you make it timeless, avoid pinning it down so that in a couple decades, it’s irrelevant? Make the world close, but obviously different. Pull back a little, the phone is not the plot. Dodge it! Magic and tech don’t mix. Use ubiquitous references. Write about things you know and enjoy. Focus on things that are always important, to make the story timeless, even if it is set in time. Write the story you want to write, don’t borrow trouble from the future. Focus on the hidden world. Go ahead and tell us exactly what time it is. How do you make an interesting secondary world fantasy without a magic system? History, politics, relationships. Wonder! The place as character. Exploring a strange world. The numinous and wonder. Think about why you want to do a secondary world? What does it buy you? What does making it an urban fantasy in this world buy you? Focus on the things you are passionate about. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 45.

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Fantasy Worldbuilding, with Patrick Rothfuss.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] ’cause you’re in a hurry.

[Pat] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Pat] And I’m Pat.

[Dan] We have Pat Rothfuss with us once again. We are super excited to have you back, especially for this podcast.

[Dan] We’re going to talk about fantasy worldbuilding. We’ve got some fascinating listener questions. The first one’s actually about urban fantasy. How do you create timeless urban fantasy? I’m just going to read this person’s question, because I think they phrase it really well. Stories set in fantasy worlds or distant futures don’t have to deal with cell phone upgrades, but I can’t write a story about magical teens from Baltimore without giving away the exact year by how they use their phones, laptops, tablets, etc. and by the music they listen to.” So, someone’s writing urban fantasies, something set in our world, but with magic or monsters or whatever it is. How do you make that timeless, how do you not pin it down to such a specific time that it eventually is no longer relevant?

[Pat] I will say, this is one of the great joys of writing secondary fantasy, is, like, my world gets to stand, like, separate from time. It doesn’t end up dated like science fiction or urban fantasy. But what I’ve seen interesting is like the movie It Follows. I’ve seen this done more in movies than I’ve noticed it in urban fantasy. But in It Follows this is have you seen that one? Horror movie? Like, if you have sex with somebody… Oops, sorry, spoilers. If you have sex with somebody, a demon follows you.


[Dan] It’s really good.

[Pat] It’s very good. Better than my awful summary…


[Pat] Depict it. This is why I don’t do ad copy. But what’s amazing about the worldbuilding there is, like, you don’t know when it is. Like, one of them kind of has a cell phone but it’s in like a weird clamshell. It has, like, a videophone in the top half. Sort of like a flip phone. It’s… The world that is depicted is deliberately not this world, but obviously still pretty close to this world. Because of that, any discrepancies, like, or logistical inconsistencies don’t necessarily damage the verisimilitude of things, which is a marvelous trick that you can do visually very easily.

[Howard] I think, coming back to the original question, you want to make something timeless, to my mind what you’re saying is, “I want people in 20 years to be able to read this and to enjoy it without thinking that, oh, the technology changes of the last 20 years make this story irrelevant.”

[Pat] Right.

[Howard] I don’t know that the problem is as big as the person asking the question is making it out to be. I think you can tell a timeless story… I think if the teens in Baltimore are using phones and you describe them using phones in the way we use phones, and then pull back just a little bit. You don’t need to tell us what apps is one running or what memes they were looking at or which version of the phone it was or which jailbreaking whatever they needed to do. The phone is not the plot. If the phone is the plot, then you’re writing something that’s an urban fantasy tech thriller and you kind of need to pin it down. But in this case, you don’t need to pin it down. So, they can have iPhones.

[Pat] I would also say somebody who, in my opinion, does this very well is Jim Butcher. He dodges it. First off, cell phones are sort of off the map, because he very cleverly instituted that magic makes cell phones not work well.

[Dan] Technology in general.

[Pat] But, more important, as relevant to this question, he does not reference pop culture that is not ubiquitous. There’s references to Star Wars and Burger King and stuff like that. I don’t know how much he did it intentionally, or if it just was intuitive, but, like, he doesn’t talk about that local diner.

[Mary Robinette] Well, he’s also talking about his favorite restaurant, which is Burger King.

[Pat] Right.

[Mary Robinette] So… I’m saying this partly because I don’t think that he’s doing it intentionally, but he is writing things that he knows and enjoys. That’s one of the ways that you can make something timeless is by talking about the things that you know and enjoy. In 20 years, are either of those things going to be in the public consciousness? Who knows? Like Charles de Lint, if you want to look at timeless urban fantasy… Charles de Lint is one of the first people who was really writing urban fantasy. We still read Charles de Lint. There’s no effort to make that anything else. If you go even farther back than that, then we have Charles Dickens who was… I mean, Christmas Carol was urban fantasy.


[Mary Robinette] It is unquestionably… The term hadn’t been invented yet, but it is a fantasy set in a city, the city is a character, it is urban fantasy. It’s timeless because of the story, not because it isn’t pinned into a time.

[Pat] That is a real… I think that really deflates the entire underlying fear behind the question. It is set in time, but is a timeless story because it focuses on things that are always important, like character, whatever. I also, like, A Fine and Private Place is… Or, honestly, a newer one, that more people maybe have read, The Graveyard Book. People will read that for a 100 years. It is not… I think maybe what they may be touching on, though, is, like, how do I write something that is set in this world and have people in 15 years not be baffled. Because, like, here’s an example. Did anybody read the Spellsinger books?

[Mary Robinette] No.

[Pat] Alan Dean Foster wrote a series called Spellsinger.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah. I did. Yes.

[Pat] It rocked my world as a kid. But now I think of going back to them, and I’m like, those were all modern day at the time rock ‘n’ roll lyrics that I kind of knew just because I listen to the radio. I think they are absolutely opaque these days.

[Howard] Yeah. They may be incomprehensible to a modern audience.

[Mary Robinette] but I think they’ll play differently to a modern audience. But things that are old, they just play differently. Like, Jane Austen is filled… Granted, not writing urban fantasy, but still. Filled with references. Again, Christmas Carol is filled with references to things that are important in the contemporary world. But they play differently to us now.

[Pat] Well, I’ll also say some things are timeless and some things do get stale. Like, weirdly stale. I think, like, I don’t know if you can… Star Trek probably isn’t going to go stale. But, I don’t know… In some ways, that’s the peril of the genre. Like…

[Howard] I want to take a step back on this question a little bit. Because the fear that it won’t be timeless… boy, if you want your things to still be read 20 years from now, you may never write another word.


[Howard] Really. Because, I mean, we’ve been comparing you to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and there’s so many things in here that will be… Write the story that you want to write, and don’t borrow trouble from the future.

[Pat] I think that is good… I’m just… To kind of contextualize that, I remember working on my book… It’s the year 1999, and there was talk about The Lord of the Rings movie coming out. It was big news. Ooh, Lord of the Rings. I’m like, “These movies are going to be awful. It’s going to ruin the public perception of fantasy. I need to get my novel out before that happens, and this huge gargantuan train wreck pulls the rug out from underneath, like, my thing.” So, like, I was speculating on the future in a not unreasonable, but utterly unuseful way. I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time worrying about that.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to mention two other urban fantasies that I think handle this question in another way. Harry Potter is an urban fantasy. One of the ways that that gets around the problem or the perceived problem is that most of our time is spent in the hidden world. Were not actually interacting that much with the contemporary world. So, like, the… Harry Potter, any of those books could play today. Because the people in the wizard and world don’t use cell phones. They don’t use the same technologies that we use. The other one is the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. Those, the way she handles it is, at the beginning of each chapter, she gives you a date. She’s like, “I am going to pin it.” She just leans in and is like, “No. This is exactly when this is happening.” So I think you can play it either way and that it’s not a problem if you’re pinned into a time, that people will still continue to read it. I just narrated book 13, and she puts out one a year. So people have been reading these books for 13 years. The beginning books, there are not cell phones. But that first book still plays.

[Dan] Yeah. I think, just to reiterate, as long as you got really great characters that we love and a plot that we care about, a lot of these other concerns are going to fade away.

[Dan] So, let’s actually… Our book of the week is, in fact, a timeless urban fantasy. Pat, you were going to tell us about Something Wicked This Way Comes.

[Pat] It is… I don’t know if it’s my favorite book, but it’s going to always probably be in my top three. It’s amazing. I think it might be Bradbury’s best book. I recently rere… I loved it before I was a father. Reading it as a father. Whoo, boy. Get ready to cry. Not that I’m a hard target these days in terms of things that make me weepy. It is so good. The language is beautiful and timeless is a perfect word for it. Despite the fact that there is, like, a traveling carnival. It is a great… I would think that would be a master class. Read that book and see how beautifully it depicts this world that you can still engage with. Now, that said, you will also probably see things and be like, “Hold on. What is a sideshow?” There are certain cultural predispositions that, like, we are lacking and that I imagine a 20-year-old would be lacking even more than I am. Because he’s writing before my time, too. But nevertheless, the concepts… This is about being a child, being a father, feeling out of place. There’s a traveling lightning rod salesman. Like, there are no traveling salesmen anymore. Like, there are no… Like, who thinks of a lightning rod anymore? But, nevertheless, this is a beautiful book.

[Dan] Awesome. Thank you very much.

[Dan] So, we’ve got another question to talk about in the second half of our episode. Which is creating a secondary world fantasy that is compelling and exciting, but does not necessarily have or rely on a magic system. How do you make that world cool, without leaning on the magic system to do that work for you?

[Mary Robinette] Can we talk about Amberlough by Elena Donnelly?

[Dan] Yes, we can.

[Mary Robinette] And also Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. Both of these books, neither of them… There is no magic in them at all, anywhere. Both of these books… What we’ve done is, we’ve just stepped to the side of the real world. They both look at actual history and file the serial numbers off. What they’re looking at are the patterns of real history. In many ways, there are… In some ways, they feel almost like alternate history. Not… An alternate history rather than a secondary world. Because what they’re doing is they’re looking at the politics. They’re looking at the relationships. Guy Gavriel Kay, I also find…

[Dan] I was going to mention him.

[Mary Robinette] Does much of the same thing. That there’s not a magic system. Not really… Well, it depends on…

[Dan] It depends on which one.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. But… Oh, shoot. I’ve just lost the name of the novel I was going to mention. You know the one I’m talking about, that doesn’t… There’s not really a magic system.

[Dan] Most of them. I don’t know…

[Howard] Sailing to Sarantium is the one that I…

[Mary Robinette] That’s the one, yes.

[Dan] Yeah. The… A follow-up he did, that’s set in that same world, is called Children of Earth and Sky, which is actually my favorite of his. There is no magic to speak of, except for one sequence that last for maybe about a third of the book, where there is a ghost, following somebody around. He doesn’t bother explaining how this works, because that’s not the point. The story is not about the magic, and to some degree, it’s not even about the ghost. It’s what is the relationship between that ghost and the person that the ghost is talking to. The rest of it is, like you say, all politics and fascinating cultural details and how are these two cultures clashing against each other. That’s what draws you in.

[Howard] I’m… My approach to secondary worlds… If you’ve ever taken a tour of say, the Grand Canyon, if you ever stood on a seashore… I got to stand on the shore of the North Sea when 50 mile an hour winds were blasting sand around and everybody’s telling me, “You’re an idiot. You’re supposed to be inside when it does this. What’s wrong with the American?” Well, the answer is, “I have never been sandblasted by icy sand on the shores of the North Sea before. This is amazing and kind of horrifying. And I’m going back inside now.” There is no magic in. But there’s a ton of wonder. When I build worlds… Okay, the worlds I build are usually for science fiction, I want interesting geography. I want geography that is built around conflict, I want geography that shows us that this world has a history, and that this world is a changing, dynamic place. And, boy, you set a fantasy, you build an epic fantasy in a secondary world whose geography is inherently problematic…

[Mary Robinette] I’m glad you said that, because it reminded me of a thing that I love about these books, but also one of the things that plays in with urban fantasy, which is that the place is a character. With a really compelling secondary world fantasy, the place is a character. Which is one of the things that I like in your books, so much, is that the college is a character.

[Pat] I was going to say, “Really?” But, really, the University is absolutely… It is deep enough to feel real.

[Mary Robinette] And although there’s magic, that’s not…

[Pat] I would actually argue that there’s, depending on how semantic we want to get here, I would argue that most of what happens in the University isn’t magic. Anymore than, like, you could tell the story of a young boy who goes to MIT and learns about superconductors. I mean, it’s fantastic. Like, hydrofluoric acid. Like, do you know about it? If you touch it, it is absorbed through your skin and eats all the calcium out of your bones and kills you while you’re in excruciating pain. That’s just in this world. Like, most of sympathy and sigaldry is pretty much thermodynamics. Most of alchemy, I mean, you could argue, but there’s a sliding scale between pretty much science and then all the way over to naming. Naming is natural magic. I would say if you’re making a secondary world, and you don’t want to have a magic system, I would warn you, you might be really niche and unappealing to a broad market, like a couple of these other books I’m about to mention. Like, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Because, like, read those first two Game of Thrones books, there’s no magic. Like, a dude just pours alcohol on a sword and lights it, like, that’s the only… It’s, like, somebody knows about a dragon once. Also, a dude who lit his sword on fire just by burning it. That’s the only magic. In The Lord of the Rings, yeah, there’s Gandalf. He doesn’t do magic. He’s putting cones on fire. He, like, talks loud, and, like, flaps his coat about. It’s… I mean, yeah, he does do some magic, but to claim that there is a magic system? There’s not.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Pat] At the end of the book, he’s like, oh, yeah, the funking flame of Anor. Yeah, the third Elven ring. But, like, that’s not a magic system. It’s kind of a prop.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] Yeah. The… I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought.


[Mary Robinette] It’s like… You’re right, there is no magic system.

[Pat] I would actually like to… I’m sorry to interrupt, but I would like to say, there is a difference between. Because these days, what you touched on is, what is the joy of secondary world fantasy? The joy there, one of the joys that is available to you, is the joy of exploration of a strange world. One of the things you can explore in that strange world is language. Culture. Geography. Technology.

[Dan] Food?

[Pat] Food. Magic. You could actually have magic as a subclass of technology in this breakdown. Because, like what the Taoist alchemists were doing in China might as well… I mean, you can call that magic or tech… Hell, Newton. What Newton was doing historically, it’s like, eh, [horse of peace], like, maybe alchemy, maybe science. Kind of, he did both. Newton was an alchemist, by the way. Frightening.


[Pat] But, magic is just a thing that you’re… You have the opportunity to explore in a certain way if there’s a system. Brandon creates a system, and one of the joys is learning the permutations of it. But you can have magic in a world and not have an explicit system and have it just be something that exists without exploring.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Pat] I think some things that you see there… There’s a book by David Keck, In the Eye of Heaven. It was the secondary world dark ages fantasy that was written with prose like an impressionist painting. There… I mean, there were gods in it that were also kind of real, and dark things in the forest. Is that magic? Is that a magic system? Is Catholicism a magic system? Yeah, we could go way down the rabbit hole semantically here.

[Howard] But the… When we make this dividing line between urban fantasy and epic fantasy, I think the dividing line might actually be the word magic. Because with urban fantasy, you have people in the world who don’t believe that these things are possible. Then, when they see elves, they’re like, “Hum, well, magic.” Okay. But in the worlds that Brandon creates, everybody’s just kind of… They recognize that these are just physical principles. The word magic, as we use it to mean, oh, no, that breaks all the rules, it’s magic. In a lot of these big secondary world epic fantasies, even if you’re using that word, what you’re really talking about is you’ve created a world whose rules are…

[Pat] You used the term wondrous earlier. I think on the spectrum, I… When I talk… Because I talk a lot about fantasy worldbuilding and magic systems, I think there’s a spectrum. On one end of it, you end up with the scientific, and the joy of that is exploration and comprehension of the system within which the characters can be clever, and therefore the reader can enjoy their cleverness. On the other, far end, of the spectrum, you have the numinous. That is where wonder lives. There’s not a lot of wonder in my… In the University about sympathy. It’s clever. Over in the numinous, you have all wonder. Honestly, the numinous is where Lord of the Rings lives. There is a system, but it is implicit, not explicit.

[Mary Robinette] That’s like some of it N. K. Jemisin’s work.

[Pat] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Where she wants that numinous quality, and it… One of the things that I find interesting is that because people are pattern seeking creatures…


[Mary Robinette] We will attempt to find a magic system even when there isn’t one. That’s one of the things that you… I think you can play with when you’re doing your world building, is whether or not you have a magic system. You often have characters who think that there is magic or characters who think that there is not… And characters who are wrong about both states.

[Pat] Right.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a thing that can be fun to play with. I think one of the questions that I would ask you, dear listeners, when you’re thinking about writing a secondary world, is thinking about why you want to go to a secondary world?

[Pat] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Why do you not want to set this in earth? What is that buying you? What do you buy by keeping it in earth, in this world and having an urban fantasy or something that is… I mean, you can have an urban fantasy that’s secondary world. But what do you get by choosing those locations, what do those things buy you?

[Pat] I would love to say one of the things, because I’ve thought about this a fair amount, one of the choices you’re making when you do that… If you set something in this world, the benefit you get is that everyone lives here and if you say Paris, you’re done. You don’t have to describe Paris, they’ll go the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, there’s people with berets and mimes.


[Pat] But that’s also the problem, is that some people, like me, even though I’ve been to Paris, will go, “Oh, yeah. Paris. Mimes and baguettes.” Whereas really Paris is… That’s an awful way of thinking of Paris.

[Mary Robinette] Except the baguettes are really good.


[Pat] So that’s… It’s a double-edged sword, where you don’t have to do as much work to describe… Like, what a car is. Or, like, how the dollar works. Or, like, a lot of those things. The problem is that everyone will come to the table with a different understanding of those things. Which means you’re writing to many different complex audiences all at once, which can make your life a hell. The hell that you experience writing secondary world fantasy and doing the worldbuilding there is that you start from zero. If I make something, I’m kind of beholden to my audience to explain it. That means world, culture, geography, magic, religion, past religion, mythology, folklore, where the rivers come from. Like, you could… I mean, you can kill yourself going down every single rabbit hole, which is why it’s better to focus on certain elements and make those the focus of the world that you’re revealing. Those elements should be, in my opinion, the things that you are passionate about and that you feel love towards. Tolkien made his, as he referred to it, his silly fairy language, and he was into mythology and folklore. So all of Middle Earth is built around language, mythology, the Eddas, and folklore. But that’s just because… That’s what… That was his jam. If you are into like, stamp collecting and butterflies and… I don’t know, scuba diving, like, turn that into… I would read that secondary fantasy.


[Pat] That would be awesome.

[Howard] Stamps are going to get sticky fast.

[Pat] C, there’s conflict built right into the world.

[Dan] Perfect. Awesome. So, we do need to end. We could talk about this for a while. Thank you, huge thank you to Pat for being on here to talk about this for us.

[Dan] Pat, do you have homework for us?

[Pat] One of the things that I notice sometimes in worldbuilding, whether it be urban fantasy or whether it be secondary world fantasy, is people feeling the need to do everything and a bag of chips different and new and strange. Whereas the truth is, if you were to change just one thing in the world, and then follow the permutations logically through the culture… So, like, for example, what if a meteor hit the United States at a certain point in history? Like, well, how might that change things?

[Mary Robinette] I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.

[Dan] Someone really ought to write a book about that. I bet it would win a Hugo.

[Howard] It would take quite a bit of calculating.


[Howard] Sorry.

[Dan] Oh, you just ruined it.


[Mary Robinette] My stars.

[Pat] The Difference Engine is a good example of that. It’s, like, what if they hadn’t given up on this really old first version of a computer? So, what I would recommend is, think of a thing, and maybe it might be easiest to do this in this world, but, here’s my example, is assume that suddenly not even all of alchemy is real, just one piece. They find out how to turn lead into gold. What does this do in this world? The obvious answer is that it does a bunch of really interesting things to and economies, but not as much as you might think, because we haven’t been on the gold standard in years. We exist in a fiat currency. So, actually, the US currency doesn’t take, but a bunch of people’s mutual funds do. So, like conserv… Like, blue-chip stocks are fucked. So, like a lot of rich people lose a ton of money, but that’s very basic. Like, the fact is, computers suddenly get very fast and become more efficient. Suddenly, communities that are centering around copper mining collapse, because copper isn’t worth nearly as much, because gold is a much better conductor. But even that is very basic. Like, what else would happen with this one change. You can go three levels deep, four levels deep, until you end up with huge social change. You end up, probably, with a rise of a huge class of people who can perform this alchemy. Like, those people are a power. Those people might become the target of governments. Like, is this suddenly a new value trade, or is this owned by corporations? All of those permutations are what make your story and worldbuilding interesting. So I would say, pick one thing that might… Pick one thing. Then experiment with how you would permute it in this world.

[Dan] Awesome. That’s fantastic homework. So, do that, and you are out of excuses. Now go write.