Inventing a Fantasy with Lou Anders: On World Building


Editor’s Note: Lou Anders drew on a recent visit to Norway along with his adventures traveling across Europe in his teens and twenties to write Frostborn and Nightborn, combining those experiences with his love of globe-trotting adventure fiction and games (both tabletop and role- playing) However, he has yet to ride a wyvern. With the addition of characters Desstra and Tanthal, Anders hopes that his second book in the Thrones and Bones series will continue to appeal to boys and girls equally. Anders is the recipient of a Hugo Award for editing and a Chesley Award for art direction. He has published over five hundred articles and stories on science fiction and fantasy television and literature. A prolific speaker, Anders regularly attends writing conventions around the country. He and his family reside in Birmingham, Alabama. You can visit Anders online at and, on Facebook, on Tumblr, and on Twitter at @ThronesandBones and @LouAnders.

Unbound Worlds caught up with Lou Anders to discuss the second book in his Thrones and Bones series, Nightborn. The first part of this interview series can be seen on Brightly and the third part will publish to SF Signal on 7/15.

Phoebe Yeh: There’s intricate world building in the series, which is set on the continent Katernia. What is Katernia? How did you create Katernia? Did you start with the location? Then countries, people, customs, songs?

Lou Anders: Research, research, research!

I’ve already said above how I started with one country, the Norse-inspired land of Norrøngard, and worked my way outward. I actually plotted their history going back five thousand years, and during their period of exploration and raids, I’d craft the history of their neighbors too. This of course led to working out their neighbor’s neighbors, and their neighbors’ neighbors’ neighbors, etc. I think I’m closing in on about thirty countries now, to varying degrees of detail. I have a complete five thousand year-history of their nearest neighbor, Araland, for instance, while all I’ve got on their farthest, Yarboghastan, is “Country east of the Kentauros Steppes” and a note that the half-man, half bull peoples who live there war with the centaurs on their western border.

I always start with the history and the naming conventions. It’s very important to me that each new territory has a consistency in its place names and people names. I’ll work out the names of the ten or so major cities, the most common male and female names, the most common surnames, and the names of their chief deities. From there I make a list of the most common monsters. It’s a big pet peeve of mine that monsters need to be regional, just like real world animals. So you’re not going to find trolls outside of Norrøngard or ogres out of Escoraine or mummies away from Neteru. Unless, of course, there’s a reason, such as a monarch who has been fool enough to drag a mammoth from the Plains of the Mastodons to be in his royal menagerie in Talvedra or something!  (Actually, that gives me an idea…)

At the same time, it really bugs me when fantasy cultures exist in isolation to themselves. Real history isn’t like that. There’s much more give and take between cultures than there is in a lot of fiction, as people migrate from one place to another and warfare and trade mixes things up. So I tried to build in little references to the impact of other peoples and places throughout the world. Take Karn’s sword Whitestorm for instance. Although it’s a famous sword in Norrøngard, it actually features in the history of the country of Araland under another name, and it was forged for a general in the Gordion army centuries ago in the country of Nelenia. And although Orm is “the largest linnorm” in Norrøngard, he actually comes from quite far away, as we learn in Nightborn, which means that technically he’s not a linnorm at all! Also, he’s an immigrant.

In terms of its analogous level of technology and society, Katernia is loosely modeled on Europe in its High Middle Ages, with some major differences. First, while it did have an empire that fell roundly a millennia ago, its expansionist empire wasn’t strictly Roman in inspiration. I modeled the Gordion Empire on the early Phrygian civilization (an Anatolian empire in what is now Turkey). In my world, a Phrygian-analog culture absorbed a Roman one, keeping its religion but adapting aspects of a Romanesque military, then went on to conquer a good portion of the continent. However, they didn’t get as far as the Roman empire did and a lot of the countries on the edge of that empire, like Norrøngard, retained their own religion and culture right up to present day. Second, although we haven’t met them in the books yet, there’s a large region in the south of Katernia that is non-Western, including a country called the Ixtun Triple Alliance that is modeled on some Mesoamerican-like cultures that were displaced centuries ago in a cataclysm.

Again, I want to stress that the books only give you glimmers of the larger world. My goal is to make them fast paced and fun, but also believable, so to do this, I undertake tons of world-building and research, so the reader doesn’t have to! I may write a thousand words on the history of Karn’s sword, but all that makes the book is an aside where someone remarks that the sword has a greater history than the boy knows. But in order to write that aside, I have to know the history!

Phoebe Yeh: In Nightborn, what city was the inspiration for Castlebriar? For Gordasha?

Lou Anders: Castlebriar is modeled on my memories of visiting cities in Switzerland as a teenager, particularly Lucerne. My mother was also in Switzerland last year and sent me lots of good reference photos of half-timbered houses. And in keeping with what I said above about keeping monsters regional, I will point out that “gnome” comes from the Renaissance Latin “gnomus” and the term was first used, and possibly coined, by the sixteenth century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. So gnomes are Swiss. And while I won’t spoil it here, the monster that you meet in Castlebriar is one from Swiss mythology too.

Gordasha is modeled on Constantinople/Istanbul. I’ve never been, but I’ve always wanted to go, especially after spending three months researching it. I’m very proud of Gordasha, the largest city we’ve visited so far, and of the rich setting I think that it has shaped up to be. I hope I get to set another story there some day, because there is certainly room for it.

Phoebe Yeh: On which mythology did you base the dragon Orm? Why?

Lou Anders: Well, “Orm” (sometimes “Ormr”) is the Scandinavian word for dragon. His full name, Orm Hinn Langi, means “the Long Serpent” in Old Norse. The linnorms of Viking mythology were more like long snakes, (as were the Greek “drakons”) than the winged, four legged dragons of our current fantasy novels. Orm sort of splits the difference, He has wings and legs though he is very long and serpentine.

I wanted to create a dragon that both hearkened back to the roots of the creatures in Scandinavian myth and also lived up to what dragons have become in popular culture today.  As a child, I was a great fan of The Hobbit, and I loved the 1977 animated TV movie. In that, an actor named Richard Boone voiced Smaug the Magnificent. His voice forever imprinted on me what dragons were supposed to sound like. When it came to creating Orm, I had to actually get Boone’s Smaug out of my head so that my dragon could be his own man, as it were. I decided to “cast” a voice actor in my mind to exorcise Boone’s performance. I considered almost a hundred celebrities, and ended up with, believe it or not, David Bowie. Before I wrote each scene with Orm, I would watch old interviews with Bowie on YouTube to get his intonations and mannerisms in my head. Also clips from Labyrinth.