Saturday, July 8, 2017

Kelly Barnhill: Using Folklore As A Sub-Structure in Fantasy Worlds

Kelly Barnhill is the author of four novels, most recently The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of this year’s Newbery Medal. The Witch’s Boy received four starred reviews and was a finalist for the Min­nesota Book Awards. Kelly Barnhill has been awarded writing fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the McKnight Foundation. Visit her online at or on Twitter: @kellybarnhill.

Newbery award winner Kelly Barnhill's talk centered on building the folklore in the fantasy worlds we create -- and how those stories within the world are cultural shorthands for worldbuilding.

She started off talking with one of our own world's staples: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a cultural touch point. We all know what it means to be "a scrooge." The story has become folklore to us. Dickens was able to convey the central truth of the story: greed hurts us. 

Compare this, then, to A Klingon Christmas Carol -- available here on YouTube (and in which Kelly's sister plays a Vulcan narrator) -- in which honor is everything.

So why do we tell stories? What is the purpose of folklore? And how can we put it to use in building imaginative worlds?

"We have to be able to integrate our reader into the world," Barnhill says. "We're not just building a world, we're building a political structure, a religious structure, flora and fauna, weather, the way in which we move through space, the way we connect with each other. You start wars, you create peace. You build universes like gods."

But one thing that writers sometimes leave out when worldbuilding is the stories the world tells. What are the nursery rhymes, the fairy tales, the bedtime stories? Their campfire tales. Their cautionary tales? Their urban legends? How do those stories integrate themselves into the mind of the narrator?

"We use stories to convey so much about the world, to pin down the references that people in the world use to connect, to hurt, to control," Barnhill says, referencing the tales like The Ugly Duckling and Little Red Riding Hood. "They leak into our brains, they infect our language, they infest into our bones -- they help us understand the world, give us a language, they reveal truths. So with the confines of world building, that folklore has to be big and muscular, it has to have weight and gravity."

What is the folkloric fabric that binds your world together? What do they whisper to each other at night? What are the stories they've forgotten?

Building the folklore, then, is a heavy task -- because not only does it have to build the world, it also has to say volumes about the character. These are elements of craft that must be carefully wrought. "Each sentence should serve at least two obvious purposes as well as multiple devious secret purposes as well," Barnhill says.

To become adept at this, Barnhill suggests writing exercises set within your world. For example, the prompt: write a trickster story within your world. What would that look like? What would that convey? 

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