We've tackled magic systems. Now on to world-building 101: every story has a world.
World-building goes beyond the setting of a story, what a place looks like and where it's located. It's all the decisions an author makes that build upon and create the mood of the story. It's what we show and what we omit, and how believably our characters exist in their worlds.
In fantasy, this means developing geography, borders, cultures, customs, trade, clothing, architecture, gender roles. The list goes on. Not every author needs to do everything, though. It depends on the focus of the story. If your whole cast is poor, they may not notice clothing at all. Or they may have formed an intricate system of distinction based on beads, trinkets, broken glass, and crude sewing. Both have an impact on your story. Neither is wrong. It all depends what you choose.
This week I'll touch on the largest scale of world-building -- the actual world your characters exist in.
In this case, world doesn't mean the whole darn earth if your heroine lives in a rural prairie town, but the places she goes in your story create the world within the book. We want to feel the world of the story is real, believe what happens within it, and sense that it extends beyond what's on the page in front of us.
Even if you've set your story in a place everyone knows or could go see, you have to build it for us, the unique mood that makes it feel alive on the page. They're just words on the page after all, no matter how real it is, we can't see it.
Take New York as an example. Off the top of your head, how many movies can you list set in New York? And how many of those movies feel like the same place? If your list is anything like mine, very few. Similar landmarks, similar climate, but the mood changes completely. Even in similar movies (say, romantic comedies set in New York), no two really show the same place. One movie may make the city feel melancholy, another inspiring, another dangerous, another eclectic (la vie boheme!). They're all accurate, in that they're a part of the place, but none are alike. And none are the whole.
No matter how small a setting, you can't show all of a place. Part of world-building comes in building the mood of the world to reinforce the tone of the story. There may be dark, ugly, dangerous parts of your setting, but if it's a romantic comedy, those probably aren't the parts you'll choose to show. We can't possibly show it all, so we need to be selective and think about what we want to convey. Choice of details, language, execution, can alter how the same scene comes across. A back alley may be filthy, soaked, and piled with trash, or it may be cool, secluded, and brimming with history. It's all in how you swing it, what world you want to build. What matters is consistency. A unified tone holds your story together like a unified conflict. If one minute it's gritty and the next it's irreverent, it's as problematic as one minute struggling for independence and the next yearning to belong.
Does it rain often? Magpies or crows? Do they put ketchup on the tables at the fish and chips place, or vinegar? It's the tiny details that make a place ring true. You don't necessarily need to know them for fact, but call the shots and build up your setting's believability. Restaurants often offer a rice option out here, but I never found that growing up in Victoria, nor so many variations on potatoes. Tiny details, but they add depth. It doesn't need to be accurate (unless people will cry foul) especially in fictional towns or periods, but it will stand out as similar or different from the reader's own experiences, and draw them in for it.
Likewise, which really shouldn't need saying, if you're working in any climate, make sure you get your weather and plant life right. Again, giving the details makes the setting feel real (are there roses in your heroine's garden, or rhododendrons?) but more so, getting those details wrong is a huge no-no. Build your world, but build it smart. It only takes a moment to check whether something should or shouldn't be there.
In the next few weeks, I'll touch on other key elements of world-building, including culture, customs, and creating utterly fictional worlds for you adventurous types. I'll also talk about one of the strongest abilities born of world-building -- elimination of the dreaded infodump. In the mean time, think about this comment Janet left on The Rules of Magic: A world, whether fantastical or historical, needs to be authentic and sincere. Readers aren't going to tag along if the world changes every other chapter - or a historical element is fudged in order for a plot thread to work.
Every world needs to ring true and fulfill its contribution to the story. Fantastic, historic, and yes, modern settings all need to maintain their authenticity and sincerity. That's where the world-building comes in, to build tone, mood, facts, and details that combine into a whole, thriving setting that feels alive even when the reader closes the book -- all the more reason to keep that book open. Who knows what might happen while they're gone!
What settings or worlds have you found most captivating to read or write about? Why? Do you bring that feeling into your own writing?