World building is a common concern among fantasy writers, since so much of what we do depends on the reader believing IN the setting. You can have the best story and great characters, and torpedo them all with an unconvincing and inconsistent setting. Of course, you can also go too far in the other direction, adding needless details and descriptions that bog down your prose and make the reader skip ahead to the next bit of dialogue.
I’ve written eleven novels in three very different settings: an entirely fictional fantasy world, Memphis in the year 1975, and contemporary Appalachia. It’s safe to say that, for at least some readers, all three count as brand-new unexplored territory. So the challenge in each was essentially the same: create a world that supports the story and themes without overpowering them. In other words (and to paraphrase Elmore Leonard), don’t write the parts that readers tend to skip.
Here are some helpful guidelines (not rules, because there really are no rules) that I’ve developed out of my own process.
1. Decide how your characters relate to the world. Remember how Luke Skywalker stares around the Mos Eisely cantina? It’s all new to him, and when we see it through his eyes, it’s new to us. A few scenes later, Han Solo confronts Greedo, and it’s clear that for him, there is nothing unusual about talking to a bump-headed green alien. That’s two perspectives of the same world. Both are valid, and (an important detail) both scenes tell us about the world and the characters. It’s perfectly acceptable to describe a world omnisciently, if there’s a reason for it. But it’s often more effective to show us the world through the characters, because it does the double duty of establishing both settings, and personalities.
2. Keep it as consistent as possible. Was Dr. Watson shot in the arm or the leg when he served in Afghanistan? If you read Conan Doyle, it turns out to be both, because Doyle simply didn’t remember that he’d established it one way before describing it as the other. Remember the early Star Trek episode, “The Enemy Within,” when ineffective transporters trap Sulu and his landing party on a frozen planet? Why, you might ask, did they not just send down a shuttlecraft? Because that episode was written before they had established the shuttles.
There are lots of examples of this, particularly in the wild, untamed landscape of comics. A world, generally, isn’t developed whole and in detail all at once. It’s put together as needed, often in a hurry, and occasionally with willful disregard of what’s been established (see the long history of Doctor Who). That said, consistency is certainly the goal when inventing a world, if you want your reader to believe in it. So those examples are not excuses, and any mistakes are not the fault of your editor, your beta readers, or anyone else. After all, it’s your name on the cover. So make the best effort you can to keep your world consistent within the rules you establish.
3. The smell pass. I’m going to paraphrase a story I read about, I believe, the great western painter Frederick Remington (and it’s a paraphrase because I can’t recall the source). He showed his mentor a painting he’d done of some horses tied outside a saloon at night. His teacher said, “How long have those horses been out there?”
Remington was taken aback. “I don’t know,” he answered. “A while, I guess.”
“Well, what do you reckon those horses might leave on the ground if they’d been there a while?”
So Remington dutifully painted in the manure. His mentor then asked, “What’s the temperature like?”
“It gets cold in the desert at night,” Remington said. “So I suppose it’s cold.”
“Manure’s warm. What would happen to it in the cold?”
“It would steam, I guess.” Which he dutifully added.
The point for all us writers is to remember that there are other senses than sight and sound that define a world. One of the last revisions I make is what I call a “smell pass,” where I look for moments where the odors of a given setting might register on the characters. It could be good smells, of course; but the ones that register on us are usually the unexpected ones. It’ll test your powers of description to convey it, but when you get it right, your world will have a new, vivid dimension.
4. Don’t forget the climate. Building on the smell pass, don’t forget things like the temperature, humidity, and season. There’s a tendency in fantasy to kind of default to a perpetual spring/summer setting, or to only mention climate when things are really extreme, such as storms or droughts. But everyone checks the weather before deciding what to wear, and we all bitch about the heat, the dry, the cold, or anything that’s not a perfect sunny day. Let your characters do this as well. Decide, too, what they think about the climate: do they prefer hot or cold days? Do certain types of weather bring back memories?
5. Go for the crucial detail, not the in-depth description. This is probably the most useful single thing I’ve learned about establishing a world, and I learned it by doing it wrong many, many times. As I mentioned above, pages of gray unbroken text will just have your reader skipping ahead to the next time a character speaks; they may be fun to write, but they’re death to your pacing.
The trick, then, is to find that crucial detail that conveys much more than it states. A smell can imply its source, the description of one fallen soldier is much more immediate than trying to describe a dead army, the way a word is said can summon up the whole backstory behind it. Of course, sometimes more detailed and vivid description is necessary; but using details also draws your reader in, forcing them to engage with your story in a more active way. Horror has always understood this: the monster you can’t see is always scarier than the one you can, because your mind supplies all the detail, and it’s specific to you.
As I said, these are guidelines, not rules. For every “don’t” warning, you can find a writer who “did” successfully. Rather, these are things I try to always think about when I’m starting a new work, whether in an existing world or a brand-new one. They’ve served me well, and I hope they’re helpful to you.
What guidelines/tips do you find helpful when world building?
Alex Bledsoe was born in west Tennessee an hour from Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He's been a reporter, photographer, legal copy editor and Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman. He now lives in Wisconsin.
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