The Chicken or the Egg? Character Building vs. World Building in Middle Grade Fantasy

Let’s face it…we’ve all asked the question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” And when it comes to character building vs. world building, the perspectives are as individual and numerous as there are breeds of chickens. If you’ve ever been to a state fair and visited the poultry barn, you know what I mean. So does it really matter where you begin- with the world or with the character- when writing middle grade fantasy? I think it does.

The more I read in this genre, the more I believe writing a character-driven manuscript that happens to play itself out in another place and time is the way to go. I think about Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Meg wants what all young girls want: to be understood, loved and accepted for who she is,  in spite of or because of her quirky family. She is fiercely loyal, unfailingly frank and incredibly brave in the face of a crazy-scary adventure. And she comes out of it smarter and stronger, but at her very core, she is still  Meg.

When I took on writing my first middle grade fantasy, I knew I wanted it to be sometime far in the future. I also knew the girl at the center of it all needed to want what all 12-year-old girls want: love, acceptance and security, with a little adventure and romance thrown in. Ada (my MC) could just as easily be in the Old West, the Dark Ages, or flying around in the Enterprise as long as she knows her mother will live, her brother is safe and she can bring something precious back to the people she loves. Does it really matter that society has taken to living in dense forests away from the sun because it’s against the law to cut the trees? Or that an evening of fun for Ada means shadow games with her mother as she rests in the glow of her light therapy bed, instead of going to the movies with friends? Not really. At the end of the day, what matters most is that Ada loves her home, that her mother is sick, and that she has to find a way to save them all.

I know what you’re thinking, “Fantasy that works must have a world that works.” And that’s true. But when I think about Ada and her family, they’re not very unlike my great grandmother, who rode onto her land in a covered wagon, or my Cherokee ancestors for whom staying alive was a daily battle.

I don’t claim to know the perfect answer here. Remember, this is a blog for imperfect writers! But I know that for me it just feels right to create a memorable character- human and real to her very core- and build a world around her.

All those chickens at the state fair want the same thing: a little food, a little water, a place to scratch, and a cozy roost to sleep in and lay their eggs; no matter how fancy their feathers or how loud their cluck. And whether it’s yesterday, now, or in the future, most of your characters need, want and search for the same things.

Sensibility- Creating a fantasy world can be fun, but take care not to get lost in the fantasy at the expense of the characters who live in the world you create.

Sense- Always start with the chicken. If you start with the egg, you never know what you’ll get.

What is your favorite way to start writing a novel?

4 thoughts on “The Chicken or the Egg? Character Building vs. World Building in Middle Grade Fantasy”

  1. Agree that characters (and plot) are very important in fantasies. But world building is important too. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a super different world with all new foods, etc. It’s a balance.

  2. You’re right Natalie! I think the world has to work and be believable, that’s for sure, or it won’t support the characters or the plot. But I do think that in the beginning stages writers of fantasy, especially new ones, may be tempted to focus more on the world rather than the people in it. What do you think?

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