7 Deadly Sins of SFF Worldbuilding

This post originally appeared at Spellbound Scribes.

Writing science fiction and fantasy is fun, and in my opinion, world-building is the bestest most funnest part. Whether you’re writing urban, historical, or alt-world fantasy, or a science fiction set in a galaxy far far away, world-building is a crucial part of the story-telling process. The world (or universe!) you create must be complex and multi-layered; it must be a place your characters operate in and interact with; and it must set the stage for your plot. It’s no easy task, and there are countless pitfalls at every stage of the process of creating a world.

Read to jump in? Here are my top cliches and tropes to avoid, listed in no particular order.

Basing your other world TOO much on Earth

This is one of the biggest and easiest traps to fall into. Earth’s history and many cultures are far-reaching and complex, and it can be tempting to borrow elements whole-sale without bothering to do much work creatively. Think of how many famous fantasy worlds resemble Medieval-era Earth completely, right on down to the rampant sexism and casual racism (*cough* Westeros *cough*). There’s nothing wrong with using our world’s history and cultures to inspire your made-up world, but make sure it doesn’t become a lazy short-cut. If there’s sexism or lack of diversity in your world, you need a better reason than “that’s how things were back then.” You’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction. Get creative!

Over-use of common nouns

You know what I’m talking about…

The Keeper of the Shadow Throne awaits the Birth of the Kindred.

A Rim-born Elder must name the Crystal Celebrant on the Day of Undoing.

Don’t get me wrong–naming things is half the fun of writing fantasy and science fiction. And capitalizing a regular old word or concept can definitely lend it a sort of otherworldly gravitas. Just be careful not to over-use this trope, or your world will quickly begin to feel lazy and unoriginal. Continue reading “7 Deadly Sins of SFF Worldbuilding” »

Ode to Buffy

She saved the world. A lot.

I didn’t discover Buffy the Vampire Slayer until sophomore year of college, years after the original series had ended. I checked out the first season on DVD from my university library, vaguely remembering half an episode I’d watched at a friend’s house in middle school and looking for some way to procrastinate. (This is pre-Netflix, folks.) I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

From the very first wolf-howl in that old-school opening credits montage, I was hooked. No, scratch that–I was in love. Set against a delightfully 90’s backdrop of denim skirts, pleather jackets, and fluffy bangs, the show sucked me in with its tight writing, colorful characters and yes, its heart. I commandeered the communal TV, let my roommates know who was the new head of the household (Buffy Summers, obvs) and settled in for one long, wild ride.

The heart and soul of the show is, of course, Buffy Summers, a sixteen-year-old California blonde with a petite frame and skimpy outfits who just happens to have superpowers. There’s a line in the first episode where a voice-over explains exactly who Buffy is:

In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.

I remember one word always stuck out at me in that introduction, and it was the word alone. She alone will stand against the forces of darkness. In all the billions of humans on earth, Buffy was the only one with the power to face down evil. How’s that for female empowerment! But Buffy was never a steely-eyed warrior raised from birth with a stake in her hand. No–Buffy was the kind of female superhero I’d been looking for my whole life: spunky with a side of snark, who still had to worry about homework, bad hair, and mean girls when she wasn’t saving the world from ancient vampires with fruit punch mouth or ravening demon hordes from Sunnydale’s unfortunate Hellmouth problem.

Continue reading “Ode to Buffy” »

Holidays Are For Reading


I was always a voracious reader. As a kid, most of my free time was spent reading. Picture books, chapter books, horse magazines, fairy tales; pretty much anything I could get my grubby little hands on. But as I got older, school and friends and extracurricular activities started taking up more of my free time, and my reading time was more and more often confined to bedtime and weekends (heavens forbid). And that’s when I discovered the magical time known as the winter holidays.

Just think–two glorious weeks empty of schoolwork and extracurriculars! Friends off to visit relatives or tied up with family obligations. Shorter days. The winter break was, for me, a series of long, beautiful hours just asking to be filled up with reading. Plus, for Christmas I was guaranteed a pile of new and exciting books just waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

In middle school, my grandmother sent me Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I sat curled up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire for hours and hours and hours. I did not come up for air until I had read every wonderful word of that book, and when I finally dragged myself off the couch it was to insist that my mom drive me to the bookstore to buy the next two installments (The Goblet of Fire wouldn’t come out for two years yet.)

Continue reading “Holidays Are For Reading” »

Monster Mash Part III: Vampires

Black clouds scud across the moon, nearly full. The chill breeze has a little…bite to it. A tap-tapping on the window startles you out of your slumber. Perhaps it is only a tree branch, shaking in the wind. Or perhaps it is something else? Someone else?

Pop culture may have remade vampires into sexy, brooding vegetarians, but Halloween reminds us that while vampires might be fangtastic, and know how to have a bloody good time, they are ultimately denizens of the night who enjoy violence and murder. So let’s sink out teeth into literature’s creepiest vampires…

That's what friends are for!
That’s what friends are for!

1. Carmilla, Carmilla

Beautiful, languid, and mysterious, Carmilla insinuates herself into the lives of innocent young women, one at a time. Her mercurial moods and unsettling sexual advances distract her prey from her exotic tastes: the catlike monster that visits them in their nightmares and drinks of their blood is really her. Eventually, each girl wastes away and dies, leaving Carmilla free to find a new female companion. Best friends forever…or until you die.

Continue reading “Monster Mash Part III: Vampires” »

Monster Mash Part II: Witches

A dank fog creeps between trees that reach with skeletal claws towards a darkening sky. Brittle leaves clatter together in a chill wind that moans over chimney-tops and hammers at windows well-shuttered against the night.

Are those bats that flit across the moon and cast shadows over unlit thresholds? Or something worse? Hold each other tightly and keep your doors barred, children, for something wicked this way comes.* In no particular order I present some of the scariest literary witches.

*Author’s note: I am well aware that not all witches have warts or fly on broomsticks, and (to quote Xander Harris) “witches they were persecuted. Wicca good and love the earth and women power and I’ll be over here.” In the spirit of Hallowe’en I am choosing to ignore this fact.

Bellatrix, complete with meth teeth.
Bellatrix, complete with meth teeth.

1. Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter Series

Voldemort’s right hand woman and a die-hard Death Eater, Bellatrix is deeply evil. Sent to Azkaban for torturing Neville Longbottom’s parents until they went permanently insane, Bellatrix is also responsible for the curse that kills Sirius Black, her cousin and Harry’s godfather. Dumbledore describes her as “…dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before eating it.” Yikes.

2. The Witch of the Waste, Howl’s Moving Castle

After seducing Howl by appearing to him as a pretty young woman, the Witch puts a curse on him so that the moment he falls in love he will have to return to her side. Later, she curses young Sophie so that she turns into an ancient crone who cannot speak of the spell to anyone. I wouldn’t want to get on this curse-happy Witch’s bad side!

Continue reading “Monster Mash Part II: Witches” »

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