Fantasy Worldbuilding in Miserere

I've put off writing this post for a long time for a couple of reasons. The first is simply that I didn't want to explain why I did the things I did in Miserere before people had time to read it and judge it by their own experiences. I wanted to see what other people were getting out of the novel, and frankly all but one reviewer has really appreciated the story on its own merits.

The other thing is that when I justify my novel, it feels (to me anyway) like I've broached some sacred ground between reader and storyteller. So we will use this as an exercise in how to build worlds in fantasy, and I'll use Miserere as the example. Perhaps if you can see how I reasoned my way through Miserere, you can think of some questions to ask yourself as you write your fantasy.

BACKGROUND: The initial idea around Miserere was a secret society of "priests" that could move between worlds and time. They functioned more or less like prison guards by monitoring hell and returning any escaped demons back to hell. The entire organization of "priests" worked very much like a police force and they used all kinds of weapons (guns, knives, grenades, etc.).

In order to write about time, I started reading about time, and while the theory of time may be very simple for Stephen Hawking, the concept tore something inside my head. I had an experience similar to what happened when my brain glitched during that Dr. Who episode where all five doctors showed up in the same episode. I couldn't speak for days.


I got over it, stopped reading about time, and turned my attention to secret organizations.

This was more familiar ground without the hazardous pitfalls of brain seizures induced by discussions of time travel. I realized that the "priests" wouldn't be running around willy-nilly and acting under their own authority. Most organizations have a significant amount of hierarchy and ritual and let's face it: what organizations have the strongest hierarchies and ritual but religious organizations?

I had hit my comfort zone.

I wanted to see if anyone had written anything like this before, so I read fantasies that dealt with fallen angels and the heaven/hell theme. I noticed how hot all these fallen angels looked on the covers of most novels. It was apparent that we were trying to make all these angels look human. Nothing wrong with that, by the way, it was just something that I wanted to avoid, because according to all the writing sites I read, authors were being encouraged to think outside the box.

So I thunk and thunk.

The Jewish texts I read indicated that angels were anything but human, and if angels weren't human, then demons (or fallen angels) couldn't be human either. To some degree, even on earth, they would retain their otherworldly aspects. I decided to run with that.

Also, I noticed that humans were rescuing angels and that's cool too, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to connect back to the celestial court that is talked about in the Jewish texts.

It was like working a giant puzzle. As I rejected one idea, another would take its place. My crit group was instrumental with asking questions. Originally, Woerld was World, but that seemed to confuse my critique group, and I knew it would eventually confuse others, so I ran to my favorite source, The Oxford English Dictionary and came up with an alternative spelling of world.

The most important question my critique group asked was whether the Citadel was the only bastion on Woerld. I could have very easily merged all the religions on Woerld into a one-size-fits-all religion and called them the Mabobeans or some such shit, but that was a cop-out to me.

One thing I've always loved about the diversity of religions is how each religion seems to fit the people that adhere to it. I felt that by taking the one-size-fits-all approach, I would be ignoring the individual beauty and diversity of the world around me.

So why didn't I center the activity around the Rabbinate or the Mosque or any of the other religions?

Well, we're getting to that.

CHARACTER BIOGRAPHIES: The central focus for my novels will always be a character, so I started Miserere with my protagonist, Lucian (and by default since she is his twin Catarina). I wanted Lucian and Catarina to be from Walachia, because I wanted to use some Slavic vampire myths in the novel too. Because of the time period in which Lucian and Catarina were raised, they would have been Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Understand, I had built Woerld so that a child (represented by C) chosen by the celestial court would be drawn through the Crimson Veil (V) to the Bastion (B) where they belonged.

So that C + V = B

With this equation, I understood that:

C [Lucian] + V = B [The Citadel, which was the Christian Bastion]

I wanted to write a novel with a theme of redemption, so it all worked out very nicely using the Christians.

CULTURE: With my world partially constructed and my characters starting to take form, I turned to how the bastions would work within Woerld. Would they be a part of the political structure or would they be outside the local politics? I wanted to keep my bastions focused on the Fallen, and in order to do that I had to remove them from Woerld's politics; however, that did not mean that I could skimp on that portion of worldbuilding. I had to construct a political system and understand how it worked.

I liken it to the research I did on castles: I don't have to bore my reader with all the details, but I do need to know enough about the subject to be able to effectively convey the concept to my reader when the time is right. I have to be able to do this without pages of exposition.

That's a hard trick to turn, my friends.

LANGUAGE: And here, I don't mean foreign languages. This subject goes along with culture; think about the community and the people with whom you live. You have catch-phrases that you have heard so many times, you probably don't notice them anymore.

Wiccans often greet and part with "Blessed Be."

A group of Christians in my area always says goodbye with "Have a blessed day."

These little phrases become a part of our language and our culture and fantasy cultures will use them too.

Since Miserere is set at the Citadel, I had the members greet and part using Christian liturgical phrases. I have other formal greetings that will be used between members of different bastions so as to avoid proselytizing, which was something I wanted to avoid with Miserere.

And this brings me to:

STEREOTYPES: In most fantasies, Christians are portrayed as a) bumbling idiots; b) fanatics; or c) the great impediment to the ONE AND CENTRAL TRUTH, whatever that truth might happen to be to the author in question. [Note: a recent fantasy, The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe has a Christian character that steps outside of the stereotypical caricature of Christians perpetrated by most fantasies. An excellent read.]

My favorite thing to do is write against stereotypes and in order to do that, I forget the religion and write about human beings. We all wrestle to some extent with our moral precepts (or at least I hope we do). I wanted to portray Christians first as people, then as Christians. I think it worked out very nicely.

MAGIC: No subject on fantasy worldbuilding can be complete without discussing magic. I mean, we have to have some way for the good guys to overcome the bad. Even Harry Potter and company used magic words to activate their spells, so what would Christians use?

I decided instead of wands, my Christian Katharoi would use their swords and Psalms to channel their magic. I'll think of other things for the other bastions as I go along; however, the concept will remain the same: they will summon their spells through the words of power inherent to their specific religion.

Looking back over all this, I realize it's quite long, and if you've made it this far, I hope you can see why I did some of the things I did in Miserere. Better yet, I hope I gave you some ideas for questions to ask yourself while you're writing your own fantasy.

The most important thing to draw from is this: if you believe in your world, you will be able to construct it in such a way as to make your world believable to your readers. I don't like it when a writer dumps the story or a world on me all at once. I like to explore that world and become a part of it a little at a time, but I never want the world or worldbuilding to overshadow the characters.

And with that, I shall end my rather lengthy monologue and say: Blessed be / Have a blessed day / or as the Christian Katharoi say in Woerld: May the peace of the Lord be upon you.

Have a great week.