Fantasy World Building: Creating Backgrounds for your Story

This is a workshop I gave for the Sydney Comics Guild in February 2017, and I finally am putting it online. Before I go into the meaty bits, I have to clarify what this workshop covers and doesn’t cover:

  • This post is not intended to teach you how to draw backgrounds. The basics of background drawing are widely available online, and mastering it simply requires practice.
  • Instead, it aims to teach you some basic ideas of how to create architectural structures or clothing that are distinct from one another. In other worlds, world-building basics is one of its goals.

What is World-Building?

World-building is the process of constructing a reasonably believable fictional place or universe. This most commonly happens in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, but the truth is, creating a reasonably believable time and place is necessary for any kind of fiction.

The goal here is not to draw something generic-looking, but something specific-looking. Drawing generic-looking backgrounds is a basic skill in comics, but drawing something specific-looking requires vision and a unique visual style that could be attributed, at a glance, to a particular writer/artist or a particular story.

Case in point, my work for “The Dreaming” series:

The Dreaming” is a 3-book series I did in 2004-2007. It’s a horror story set in our world, and located entirely within a Victorian-era inspired school, with lots of dark wood panels, cluttered wallpaper, etc. As such, It’s a specific location created for this story, and I haven’t created a location that looks like this in any of my works since.

Readers remember this series mostly for how the school looks, and this is what you want to aim for when you create the visual design of a world. In this case, it’s not to draw a generic school, but a specific one that becomes a character within the story as well.

A second example is my other series “Fabled Kingdom” (see picture below). As you can see, this looks very different to “The Dreaming”, not just in what is being depicted, but also in the toning style of the series. “Fabled Kingdom” is a fairytale adventure world VS the gothic ghost story undertones of “The Dreaming“, and thus uses tones that are a lot less dark, and a more whimsical architecture style with less straight lines.

Tips for Creating Fantasy Castles/Cities

Here are some more scenes from “Fabled Kingdom”. When creating a fantasy location like a castle or a city, it’s a good idea to consider things like landscapes and mountains. That’s because to sustain life, you must have water, and also if you have plumbing, the slope of the land matters.

This seems like a minor issue that few people consider, but unlike the outlandishly fantastical lands depicted in fantasy/sci-fi posters or book covers, a comic book artist must create spaces that are 3-dimensional and lived in. This is because you have to visually depict your characters moving in and interacting with that space at all times, so it’s best to always think of space in a 3-dimensional way when creating any buildings. It may be difficult to do at first, but it will become easier as you change the way you think. For this same reason, the layout of the building also has to make sense.

To expand the scope a bit more, when creating the a castle or city, it’s a good idea to consider the skyline. Skylines that are striking can help differentiate different cities/castles from one another – for example, the skyline of Castle Roserock (see above) is one rectangle with five spires, with the middle one being the highest. You can integrate the history of the world and building into the skyline and floorplan of your buildings, which can be inspiring for writer-artists.

Tips for Fantasy Civilisations

Creating distinctive and different-looking fantasy civilisations is always hard, since it’s common for creators to just stick to one style of architecture and only modify it slightly. This is lazy, but if it’s not well-thought out before one start creating, it’s easy to paint yourself into a corner because you’ve exhausted all your ideas for just the one civilisation and now can’t find the inspiration to do another, constrasting civilisation. One way to avoid this is to plan ahead, and conceive of each civilisation as collection of polygonal shapes. You can also use real life or history for inspiration.

You can see this in the examples above: Summerstone is inspired by Ancient Eygpt, and so uses a lot of trapeziums, triangles, and circles. Meanwhile, Fallinor (the western-style fantasy castle) uses mostly rectangles, triangles, and ovals. Motifs are also important, and a good way to differentiate between different civilisations. For example, being sun worshippers, there are sun motifs everywhere in Summerstone, including on the clothing of its people, whereas Fallinor has more flower/tree motifs.

One Piece: Using Shapes to World-Build

The popular manga “One Piece” is an example of utilising the “shapes” idea in its skylines. You can see here, that while the composition is similar in each of the two sets of skylines, the shapes used makes each location immediately and recognisably different. Once you’ve nailed the shapes, the small details can be fine-tuned to enhance differences.

I should also note that “One Piece” uses a lot of real-life civilisations for inspiration as well, which is a great help, and good fun for the readers. Even when they don’t use real-life inspiration, the shapes used in all the background designs are distinct, and therefore strong and memorable. “One Piece’s” unique art style makes everything look even more distinctive.

Final Things to Consider in World Building

  • Terrain: is your country mountainous or mostly flat? Inland or by the sea? Swamps, marshes, deserts, rolling hills, forests, jungles, plains, rivers, valleys, lakes, and natural resources such as animals and minerals. All these things are important.
  • What is the climate like? This affects your characters’ clothing style, and it also affects architecture. If your place has heavy snow or rain in Winter, then no one will ever build anything with a flat roof. If a place is very hot and has high humidity, the houses won’t be fully enclosed as to ensure the circulation of fresh air. If a place is prone to floods, then houses may be built on stilts. Tornados? Underground or in the rockface, etc
  • If you build a city, it has to be close to a water source. However, not everything needs to have rivers and lakes – there are plenty of places that have underground water. People can build irrigation channels from underground water sources.
  • Mythology, History and Religion can be a big influence on motifs and how a civilisation looks. Where do your people come from? Where do they think they come from? What is their history? Were they originally farmers, nomads, or did they sail to where they are now? Have they been enslaved before by a greater power? Are they themselves conquerors and slavers? Have any great cataclysms happened to them in the past that influenced them? And so on.

Thanks for reading this! Also, have fun! Study the history, politics, mythologies, religion, philosophies, biology, medicine and economics, etc of our world in order to come up with something believable!

Buy My Short Manga Collection as a $4.99 PDF

Last week, I posted up a Table of Contents for “The Dreaming”, a series I’ll be running until March (on DeviantArt). This week, I saw goodbye to drawing traditional manga, at least for a long while.

Here is the collected edition of all my best short manga stories in PDF format @ USD$4.99, drawn from 2000-2010. It’s titled ‘Queenie Chan: Short Stories 2000-2010‘, and it’s sort of a eulogy to the last 10 years of my work. As you all know, I’m drawing comics-prose now, and am planning on writing a long blog series on my 10 years as a professional manga artist. I think self-publishing this collection is a good way to say ‘bye!’ to that part of my life.


Buy as PDF @ USD$4.99 on Smashwords: here. It’s also available on Apple iBooks, Kobo and Nook.
Buy as E-book @ USD$4.99 on Amazon: here

Buy as Print book @ USD$13.99 on Lulu: here
(USD$4 for US shipping, $8 for International shipping)
Queenie Chan: Short Stories 2000-2010

Here are the list of stories:

They’re all available online, on this website.

  1. Sister Holmes (Mystery)
  2. Elevator (Ghost Story)
  3. The Two-Dollar Deal (Cute Romance)
  4. Forget-Me-Not (Chinese Fantasy Mystery)
  5. Shoes (Ghost Story)
  6. Sleeping Chick (Cute Animal Story)
  7. Portrait of a Sociopath (Real-life horror)
  8. Message to You (Cute Romance)
  9. Ten Years Ago Today (Serial Killer horror)
  10. Keeper of the Soul (Epic Fantasy)
  11. A Short Ghost Story (Ghost Story)


Some Thought on Self-publishing

Believe it or not, the most interesting thing about putting this book online as an e-book was how far the e-book market has come. In 2010, when this e-book thing got series, I actually turned my manga stories into e-books and tried to upload them onto e-book stores such as Apple’s iBookstore. They were rejected, probably because they were comics, and I was very disappointed.

It’s now 2014, and that’s completely changed. Apple iBooks now totally accept comics, and there are dozens of e-book sites that let you buy e-books and sell your own. Smashwords itself lets you upload your work to iBooks, Nook and the Kobo, letting you manage one sales account rather than three (NB. There seems to be some image display issues with the older Nooks. Avoid it if you’ve got one, and stick to the PDF format on Smashwords). They take 15% off the sales price of your work, on top of that of the 30% charge by Apple/Kobo/Nook, but that’s still a 55% profit. Do you know what you get in a traditional book contract? 8-10%, and that was years ago (now, it’s much worse).

The biggest surprise, however, was Amazon. Amazon obnoxiously charges a 15c download fee per megabyte, which stacks the odds against comics a lot due to the big graphic files (Hence this volume is +$1 on Amazon). But I must say that Amazon is extremely user-friendly, and while it requires slightly more paprework to start an account there, they have a special program that you can use to make your comics view better on the Kindle. They didn’t have that a few years ago, and now they do. That’s progress.

Anyway, next week, I’ll be posting some industry posts – basically a retrospective of my experiences working as a pro manga artist in the last 10 years. The thing is already written, yay, and is pretty long. It’s only the first section though, so wow. This is gonna get serious. Stay tuned!

The Dreaming – Repost

Purchase ‘The Dreaming’: You can buy the print version of ‘The Dreaming’ @ USD$14.99 at the, and buy the e-books @ USD$5.99 at Comixology!
Hello all! It’s 2014, and it’s time to do a retrospective on the last 10 years of my career as a ‘professional comic-artist who works in an OEL-manga style.’ That’s a mouthful, but there’s no way that I will call myself a ‘professional OEL-manga artist‘ – that term is long dead and buried (not to mention rife with negative connotations.)
Anyway, I’m in a reflective mood, so there’s something I want to do: I want to share with you the first 2 volumes (out of 3) of ‘The Dreaming,’ my first ever published work. Since I’ll only be posting 2 volumes, if you want to read the rest, I suggest you buy it at the links above.
I’m also posting this on DeviantArt, SmackJeeves, MangaFox, Tumblr and sorta on my GoodReads blog (because why not).
I’ll be posting half a chapter every Friday at the listed places, until August. Meanwhile, I’m looking to do a series of industry posts talking about my time working as a professional comic artist who draws manga, and some of the difficulties in the industry right now. Look for it in the coming months!

Click on this page to read “The Dreaming“!


Small Shen – Chapter 3

Continuing with a happy 2014! I mentioned last post that I’m only 2-3 stories away from finishing the prose version of my horror stories, and now I’m also planning to upload my e-book version of my short stories from 2000-2010! I’m also thinking of setting up a “store” section of my site, on that will properly sell EVERYTHING that can be bought online – from print books to e-books. I’ve noticed that I lack a single page that does that simple function, would you believe!

Anyway, this is chapter 3 of “Small Shen” up, and this will be the last of the “Small Shen” sample. You’ll have to buy the print/ebook to read the rest. I’m also posting this on my DeviantArt and Tumblr accounts.

Anyway, for those who don’t know, this book was published by Harper Voyager in 2012. It was written by Kylie Chan, and adapted/illustrated into ‘comics-prose’ form by me. It’s a prequel to Kylie’s best-selling Chinese fantasy series ‘White Tiger‘, with 19 chapters of 75,000 words total, 9 of which were converted into comics-prose.

You can purchase “Small Shen” here with free International shipping, or buy it as an ebook on

You can also download the original prose version of the 9 comics-prose chapters, along with the comics-script version of the work.


Click here to read the First Chapter!

I wish you all a great 2014! Until next time when I would be posting up the first 2 volumes of “The Dreaming”!

Small Shen – Chapter 2

Happy 2014, everyone! I hope you all had a good time this year, especially the New Year’s parties. I had a super busy month/week – I’ve been writing the eight short horror stories I’m intending to publish in prose and comics-prose format, and I’ve now finished illustrating two, and written five. I’m close to finishing the sixth one in the next few days, so I’m way thrilled by the progress!

Anyway, I’m posting chapters 2-3 of “Small Shen” up, at the same time because I’ve noticed I’ve been a bit slack with my website posts (yikes). I’m also posting this on my DeviantArt and Tumblr accounts.

Anyway, for those who don’t know, this book was published by Harper Voyager in 2012. It was written by Kylie Chan, and adapted/illustrated into ‘comics-prose’ form by me. It’s a prequel to Kylie’s best-selling Chinese fantasy series ‘White Tiger‘, with 19 chapters of 75,000 words total, 9 of which were converted into comics-prose.

You can purchase “Small Shen” here with free International shipping, or buy it as an ebook on

You can also download the original prose version of the 9 comics-prose chapters, along with the comics-script version of the work.


Click here to read the First Chapter!

I wish you all a great 2014!