Tuesday, March 30, 2010

World-Building 101

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.

A note
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?


Silver James said...

Ooh, world-building. Great topic! I always think of JK Rowling's "Potterverse". She created a secret world hiding within the "real" world and gave us a vivid sense of that place and the people who inhabit it. I also go back a few years and add Anne McCaffery's Pern. Even older, Andre Norton's Witchworld. Each author created a world, gave it "space" and rules that made the place feel real to me. And, uhm...yeah. All magical or paranormal in some sense, LOL!

I probably write too much description into my novels, but as a reader, I WANT that sense of time and place description provides. As an author, I want to provide the same to my readers. We'll see if I went overboard. ;)

One thing you said that really caught my attention.
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.

YES! It's all about the details, even the smallest of nuances.

As a writer

j.leigh.bailey said...

Someone I think does a fantastic job of world building is Charlaine Harris. One of the things that struck me the most about the Sookie Stackhouse series is how southern it felt, and not once did she phonetically spell out the accent ( y'all, Naw'lins, etc.) Little details in the characters and the dialogue absolutely gave a sense of Luisiana without hitting us over the head with it.

I agree with Silver James on the bit about details. I've often found that the little details are what I remember most. In Fellowship of the Ring there's an almost random comment about Frodo and the Sackville Baggins'--they left in a huff and he "did not offer them any tea." It says a lot about the society in which he (or maybe Tolkein) lived that withholding an offer of tea is as good as a snub. Great post--very helpful for a newbie author like me.

Karyn Good said...

I may have mentioned this before, but I'm a big fan of J.R. Ward. Her Black Daggar Brotherhood series involves a race of vampires living along side regular society and is one of my favorites. An unground race with it's own rules, customs and government. The mood, tone and details - all on the dark side but colorful just the same :D

I have an idea for a series that is taking over my brain and WON'T let go and reading this post is only making me think about it harder! It would see me delving more deeply into world building and I'm not sure I'm ready for this series yet. In the meantime, I will definitely keep your tips in mind when creating my 'world' within my setting of a small prairie town.

Looking forward to your future posts! Wonderful information, Hayley.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Great topic today. Even contemporary novels need some world building and details and tone take us there. I always love a book that totally makes me believe that I am really in that setting. The "Outlander" series from Diana Gabaldon always made me feel that I was in 18th century Scotland.

I'm currently working on a couple of stories set in WW2 and building that world is tough for me. I'll keep your post in mind as I write.


DanielleThorne said...

One of the reasons I'm drawn to historicals is for the very reasons you mentioned--I feel like I am seeing a part of the past in a way I could never experience any other way.

Fantasy writers amaze me with their world building. I can't imagine the work and organization (and imagination!) that goes into this process--but it's what makes fantasy so magical!

Joanne Brothwell said...

World-building for me is one of the best parts of writing fiction. I could sit for hours imagining scenes, describing them in intricate detail. I think the hardest part is knowing how much is too much.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Silver, I'm the same, I want that immersive aspect. Not all genres warrant it the same, but coming from a fantasy background where I expect to sink into a new and exciting world, I want to find that, even if it's a place I already know well. I think that's why I love rooftops and alleys and obscure places, new takes on the familiar :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

j.leigh.baily, I love that you mentioned Harris' lack of phonetic spelling. When every other element comes together, the world lives and thrives, and then we don't need to be beaten over the head with how people are talking. We can already tell.

Love that tea insight, it really says so much!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, I'll have to take a look at that series, you've mentioned it a few times :) I don't gravitate to paranormals as often as fantasy, but the prospect of vampires, or other unique societies built alongside familiar conventions always excites me.

You have me very intrigued about your new idea. Do tell! I'll have a few more posts coming up on world-building, from the macro to the micro, so if there's anything on your mind, let me know and I'll be sure to include it!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, I confess the prospect of writing in a setting like WW2 is incredibly daunting to me. I'd rather build my own world where I can make the decisions than work with existing info where others can tell me when I'm wrong. It's all different forms of the same thing though, really. Good luck with your research and world-building!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Danielle, I'm with you. Half the reason I'd dive into a historical is for the experience of the place. I think I choose historicals more often for setting and era than characters. Or rather, the setting makes me look, and then if the character is worthwhile, I'll actually read it. Likewise for a good fantasy :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Joanne, I'm hoping to touch on 'too much' in a few weeks here. Once everything's figured out, oh my god is it hard not to go and show the reader everything you've done! If it lives in the background though, it does it's job better :)

Janet said...

If I ever get around to trying my hand at a fantasy, I'll definitely come back to this post for reference. Excellent post, Hayley.

And, as always, I think all writers need to be aware of world-building. From my medieval to Jana's WWII to Karyn's...what, Karyn? You can't just drop that and not elaborate. My curiosity is piqued!

The same advice you gave Joanne (or she gave herself) should be heeded by all authors - not everything you know goes into your novel, but the fact that you know it will shine through between the lines with authentic characters and plot.

Karyn Good said...

Tentative Title: Earth Angels series. Except they're not dead and have no supernatural powers :D

The heros are nothing like Batman but the place is a lot like Gotham. And I have no idea if this is something I should even consider writing, except the darn idea won't let go!

And since I know nothing about the nuts and bolts of world-building, anything you blog about will be helpful! Because I'm still have my vampire storyline occupying space in my head.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Janet, once again, well said. Even if world-building itself isn't as crucial in one story compared to another, the skills are excellent.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Gotta say Karyn, that sounds like an intriguing concept. Shades of a premise to come, and definitely a compelling world. I hope you'll explore it -- and share bits and pieces with us as you do!

Nayuleska said...

World building is mostly instinctive for me.

I love reading historicals for all the details, especially the costumes. When reading, I'm more character based than environment based - it is rare that I remember what a place looks like when a character is there. I'm more likely to remember clothes details.

There are some things like huge volcanoes which I can't forget about!