In this episode, I take a small detour from the usual format to discuss World Building, the way you craft the domain your characters inhabit. I share several exercises to help improve your story by strengthening your world.
The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites for Writers
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New series on the Captain’s Blog
Speaking of the website, I’ve begun a new series on the Captain’s Blog that you may want to check out. I focus on scene work here on the podcast, and writing a scene that works is a vital skill. But even if you execute solid scene after solid scene, your story could still leave readers feeling unsatisfied for several possible reasons—and they might not be able to tell you why. To support your writing in 2019, the Captain’s Blog will feature a new weekly series on story-level craft to help you focus on the big picture. Click here to read the first post in the series.
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Wise Words on Building Your Story World
I highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass on the Art of Storytelling.
Whether your characters live and work in a world that looks like ours, or they travel through a portal to someplace virtually unrecognizable to us, exploring new ways to enter your story universe will help you craft a world that better supports the story you want to tell.
Where do you begin? It makes sense that different writers would approach world building differently, but two main ways include top-down, bottom-up, and lateral. No matter what your approach, you can use what you know to solve for what you don’t.
Top-down world building moves from general to specific. These writers might begin creating the world in broad strokes, sketching an overview with basic physical and sociological elements, including the people and the time. Once they have the fundamentals, they can add increasingly complex layers from which their characters arise and begin walking and talking. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is an example of a complex setting created this way.
Bottom-up world-building begins with the story and characters. The writer creates the world as they go and add layers and details as needed. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle is an example of a setting created this way.
This is the method I am using to forge a secondary world for my nautical fantasy story. I started with a historic period on of the real world and adjusted the details to suit my story.
Just as important as making decisions about the makeup of your world is the way you convey it to the reader. Here are a few suggestions to get the most from the way you deliver this necessary element of your story.
1. Use specific and concrete details. Choose ones that are memorable, important, and distinct to create an experience for the reader. For example, when describing the weather, don’t say it was hot. Instead show us distorted air above the pavement, dogs panting nonstop, or your character breaking into a sweat within moments of exiting her home dressed only in shorts and a sleeveless top.
2. Use all of the senses. Writers often lean on visual description, but we have other senses that, when combined with showing us what to see, create a richer reading experience. Provide vivid pictures of what your characters see, but don’t forget that they can smell, touch, taste, and feel.
3. And speaking of characters, filter your world description through your point of view character. What one character notices in a given scene will be different from what someone else might notice, and those details help your reader inhabit and experience the world as they do. For example, a person who grew up in a rural village will experience Chicago in a different way than a native would. But it’s more than the place a character grew up. For example, a botanist might think of the names of species of plants while walking through a neighborhood, instead of merely noticing that a particular design is pleasing. Forensic pathologists might experience the smell of a setting within your world differently from a child.
4. Weave in the details. Front loading description and using several sentences or a paragraph to set the stage, is one method of setting the scene, but it is hard to do well. The better course is to weave the concrete details into the scene. Have your characters interact with the objects where they are or have them look outside and notice the sun going down. Remember that the setting is part of the story, not something apart.
When you pay attention to the details and how they are delivered, your world becomes so much more than a backdrop. Presenting specific and telling details through your point of view character’s frame of reference can help the reader land in your story and stay there.
Editorial Mission – Exercises to Help You Build Your World
I’ve created several more exercises to help you see your world with fresh eyes. Now some of the exercises lend themselves more easily to exploring fantastical worlds, but consider how you might adapt them if your realm is more realistic.
1. LOCATION AS CHARACTER
I mentioned in the last episode that sometimes the setting of your story can stand in as a character and even the force of antagonism. I mentioned Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” where the frigid environment of the Klondike serves as both character and conflict. A place shapes the people who live there and might even determine who can live there. A given location has its own distinct personality that affects the people and events within it. Even if your environment isn’t out to get anyone, consider who it would be if it were a character. Think about these questions to get yourself started.
What are the emotions evoked by the place? For example, if you compare New York City and Savannah, Georgia, the terms that surface might be frenetic versus languid.
What is the character of the people who live there? How has it changed over time? What about the founders? What beliefs and values are common among people there? How do the cultural characteristics of the people and place reflect the terrain, climate, animal and plant life of the setting?
If your setting were a character from a story you’ve read or watched, who would it be and why?
2. THE GOLDEN RULE
The Golden Rule is part of an ethical tradition, a general guideline about how people should treat others. Of course, a quick survey of history reveals that it is more easily said than done. Still, it says something about a place and people that they aspire to treat others equally. For example, a group of people might value empathy, or at least think they should, even if they fall short of the mark. Consider how the warrior culture of the Spartans differed from that of the people of Athens. For example, a worthy sacrifice would have been defined differently in both places, despite their proximity in time and space. It’s worth it to spend ten or fifteen minutes exploring the way people treat others in your world.
What are the rules about how people should treat other people, that is, what do people say?
What is the origin of the rules? Religious, cultural? Are they legislated?
How do most people actually treat others who are similar to them? What about those who are vastly different?
How do people treat others when no one else is watching?
Do people have a duty to render aid, like good Samaritan laws require in some places?
How do strong people treat those who are weaker or have less power in your world? For example, are children treated with kindness or exploited for labor by adults?
What are the manners like in your world? Is there an unwritten code that dictates how people should behave? What happens if someone violates the code?
3. THE GOLDEN AGE
Times of plenty are marked by economic growth, innovation, progressive governmental policies (sometimes), and increased interest in the arts. But as history reveals, good fortune ebbs and flows. Explore what would happen in your fictional world as society peaks just before a downward trend.
Imagine that you are a political pundit, social commentator, or cultural critic in your world. You see the writing on the wall and make dire predictions about how life will change in the near future. Draft an editorial in which you explain how the good times got started (in other words, what combination of factors led to society’s good fortune) and why they are coming to an end. Provide advice, for those who are willing to listen, about how to weather the lawless times ahead.
4. THE LAWLESS TIMES
Societies move in and out of order and chaos, though some have more than their fair share of the latter with greater periods of lawlessness, injustice, and corruption.
Imagine that you are a journalist or historian writing about a time in the recent or distant past when a community, region, or nation within your setting experienced a period of unrest.
What was the catalyst that started society’s descent? Did anyone try to stop it?
What was this period of lawlessness like?
How was business conducted? Did parallel economies arise?
Were certain portions of the population relatively safe? Who was most vulnerable? Who rose to the top of the food chain?
What normal functions of society broke down?
How did people adapt to the conditions?
How long did this period last?
Who helped restore order? How did they go about it?
What changes did they make?
Did other factors contribute to the recovery?
How long did it take?
What was the new normal like?
5. THE FIRST SPELL
The first time your character casts a spell is a great opportunity for you to showcase the magic system of your world, without having to explain too much. Of course magic in a fantastical realm is as much an element of the setting as the weather and topography, an energy system that the character taps into and can direct to a greater or lesser degree. The character will carry beliefs and expectations, some of which come from other people, and chances are they will be changed in some way by the experience (otherwise, there is no point in the display). The magic can be quite practical or have a spiritual component. (A great example of a first spell can be found in chapter 1 of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earth Sea, but you might also look at Harry Potter’s first encounters with magic.)
Take ten to fifteen minutes to sketch a scene in which your character casts their first spell. After you’ve completed it, review what you’ve written in light of these questions:
Why did they do it? For good or evil? Curious and experimenting? Or was it an urgent need? Intentional or unexpected?
Has the character seen someone else perform the particular act of magic before? Did the character undergo training?
How do the feel (reluctant, excited, scared)?
How do they wield the magic?
Are they confident in their abilities? How certain are they of the result?
Is it successful? Does the character achieve their main objective?
What risks are involved? How could this go wrong?
What does the character learn in the process? What mistakes does the character make?
What is the source of the magic? What are the consequences of using it?
What surprises the character about the experience? What do they learn?
6. IGNORING PHYSICS
In a science fiction novel, you are free to play with the laws of nature and physics to create your unique world. It should make sense given the circumstances, but you can ignore certain physical principles to suit the purposes of your story.
Write a scene that reveals how your world differs from our own. After you’ve completed it, review what you’ve written in light of these questions:
Consider what your purpose is in altering reality. How does the change support the telling of your story?
Is this a logical extension of something happening in our world? Or is there a reason within the story for the circumstances to be different?
What is the effect on the world? In what ways is it different from our own?
Who benefits? Who suffers or bears the cost of the change?
Does this change make sense in light of the rest of your world and story? Do you need to alter other physical rules as well?
How can you set the expectation for this difference at the beginning of the story?
What do you love about this change? What about it inspires you? What’s the biggest challenge?
7. BE A TOUR GUIDE
You probably have a clear vision in your mind of what your world is like, but how do you begin to convey that vision to your reader? Practice by becoming a tour guide within your fictional world. Here are several options to help you find your way.
You are a realtor in your locale and need to share information with potential buyers who must move there for work. Assume they know nothing about the place. Draft an email to your prospective clients. Consider how will you highlight the positive aspects and minimize the not-so-pleasant elements.
One of your characters has just arrived in your setting. She writes a letter to her parents describing what she has encountered so far. Experiment with different purposes: At first, she wants to reassure them. Then she wants attention.
Imagine that you are a travel writer visiting your setting. Write a blog post that you might submit to a travel magazine or website. Be sure to include accommodations, food, entertainment, means of arriving, and getting around once you’re there.
You are a journalist who reports for the equivalent of the New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, or People Magazine. You are on location in your setting covering a significant event. Draft a dispatch to tell the viewers or readers what you’ve found.
You are a student returning to school in the fall, and your teacher has instructed the class to write about how you spent your summer vacation. Write about the trip your parents made you take to the setting of your story. Were you pleasantly surprised, genuinely horrified, or something in between?
8. INTERVIEW YOUR CHARACTERS
Get to know how your characters feel about their world. Create a survey for them to answer. You can use these questions to get started:
Where do you currently live?
What is the population of your city or town?
How long have you lived there?
What kind of home do you live in? Is this typical for the region? Is housing affordable?
What drives the economy where you live?
How do people spend their time off? What do they do for entertainment? What are the cultural offerings available?
Is public transportation available? Do you use it?
What are the taxes like in your region? How are they enforced? Are people generally content to pay them?
What is your biggest complaint about where you live? Your favorite perk?
9. A DAY IN THE LIFE
Any society you might encounter is made up of different income and social groups, and people observe the boundaries between them strictly or not. Consider how this is in your world by freewriting (writing longhand or typing without stopping or censoring yourself) for ten or fifteen minutes on these two topics:
Describe a day in the life of someone who inhabits the upper echelons of society.
Now describe a day in the life of a common person.
Review what you’ve written and consider the following questions:
What determines where people fall in the hierarchy? Family, gender, money, government, religion, intelligence?
Are there multiple levels within the upper and lower classes?
Consider the advantages and disadvantages for each group. For example, people who are wealthy could have the normal advantages wealth brings, but perhaps strict social codes make certain pursuits off limits to them.
How do people treat others from another rung of the social ladder?
Is upward mobility a possibility? How often do people fall out of the upper class?
10. DR. FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER
When building a fictional world, one task that you may find fun or daunting is creating new creatures to dwell within it. Do ten or fifteen minutes of free writing about the creature you want to build. Then consider these questions:
What are the physical qualities you want this being to possess? Consider size, body covering, and mobility. Think about the eyes, nose, mouth, limbs, horns, or wings. Predator or prey? Sentient or not? Wild or domestic?
Describe aspects of the creature’s personality. Is it friendly, hostile, feisty, uncooperative? How does it behave? What might it do if threatened?
What abilities does your creature have? Speed, strength, senses, intelligence, defense (a skunk’s spray and an armadillo’s body armor, for example)? What is the creature’s superpower and kryptonite?
What is the creature’s purpose or function in the world? Does it attack, defend, convey wisdom? Is it a pet or companion, beast of burden, hunted or raised for food?
Where does the creature come from? What is its natural habitat? How is it born into your world?
What does your creature prefer to eat? What else can it eat?
11. THE FOUNDER’S STORY
Write about how the founder and early inhabitants of your world, nation, province, or city came to land in your setting. You can use the following questions to help you get started.
Who were they? What sort of people were they? Heroes? Accidental pioneers?
What did they want? What had they hoped to achieve? What was the expectation? Were they successful?
How did they arrive? Who or what greeted them? Were they starting from scratch or building upon someone else’s foundation?
How did they get started? What did they focus on first? What sort of rules of governing documents did they formulate?
How long did it take to establish the place? What were the pitfalls? What were some early successes?
What did they leave behind? Was it worth it?
More Advice from Neil Gaiman
Finally, Neil Gaiman offers these suggestions in his Masterclass on the Art of Storytelling:
1. Create a map of your world, even if you’re not a visual artist. Seeing a visual representation can help you see the big picture and create the conditions for inspiration.
2. Avoid cliches and ripoffs. Don’t adopt someone else’s world. If you’re struggling, you might use a fictional world for scaffolding, but be sure to replace the elements to fit your realm, characters, and story. And to that end,
3. Use confluence. Let your reading, viewing, and daily travels inform what your world is and isn’t.
4. Keep lists of places that inspire you and revisit it often.
5. Remember the rules. Everyplace has natural rules or laws that can be a strong source of conflict. These will probably develop over time, but you’ll want to understand them and the consequences for breaking them.
6. Do Research. Even if your world is fantastical, find out about real-world analogues so the world has some grounding in reality.
7. Go back to your influences for inspiration. Reread your favorite books with the setting in mind and consider the answers to some of the world building questions to help you see how those writers dealt with the challenge of world building.
Images courtesy of getstencil.com and egal/bigstock.com