I am thrilled to welcome author Dana Fraedrich to Writerly Bookish Stuff to discuss a topic that is a crucial part of any writing process: world building. Grab yourself a coffee or tea and stick around for some handy advice and tips on creating an imaginative and believable world. Over to you, Dana.
Five Rules of World Building
World building, in my opinion, is one of the most fascinating things about fiction writing, but it’s also one of the trickiest. Coming up with a basic concept is easy—a world where cybernetic enhancements are the newest fashion trend…until a major fashion designer ends up dead by her own creations. Boom! Done. When you get into the nitty-gritty details, however, things can get…squiffy.
In my experience, a lot of world building falls down because the authors haven’t worked through some of the foundational details. “But, Dana, I’m not trying to write a Tolkien-level world history here! I just want to write a story!” Yeah, I know, and that’s fine. You don’t have to get that deep, but you do need a few basic elements hammered out before you introduce your world to ours.
Nail Down the Fundamentals
Whether it takes place in a fictional universe or an alternate version of ours, to create a convincing world, you have to understand the basic functions of your characters’ society:
- How do people get food? Do they work their farms with basic tools, in cooperation with machines, or do mechanical drones do all the work?
- What’s the currency like and how is it exchanged? Do people need to carry physical funds on them? Or maybe there’s some kind of credit system, either electronic or paper. Maybe money doesn’t exist and the characters barter instead.
- How do people communicate over long distances? Wireless communication, whether via magic stones or smart phones, completely changes the game. If your characters rely on a postal or courier system, you’ll need to take that extra delivery time into account.
Why do we care about this? Two reasons. First, every decision you make as god of this realm influences the possibilities within it. Secondly, if you don’t know these things, it’ll show. At best, the reader will feel a little lost. At worst, you’ll write a huge inconsistency into your story. Now, in most cases you won’t have to do more than mention these things in passing, if that. However, if you do end up having to explain why a character refuses scan the barcode on her wrist whilst on the run from baddies, you’ll be prepared.
Crime and Punishment
What do readers want? Stakes. The higher the better. And conflict comes from characters breaking the rules. So what will happen if your main character gets caught during the big heist or meeting with that shady so-and-so? That’s what you need to make crystal clear to your readers. Otherwise, they won’t fret over the fate of your characters. Maybe a school headmaster with a grudge has the power to expel students. Maybe it’s a good high court with bad evidence before a public execution. No matter the situation, you need to know who’s in power, how they wield it, and what your character stands to lose.
Use the Land
You can’t paint a picture without envisioning the world first. However, some authors bog down their readers with florid depictions of rolling hills and planetary panoramas. Descriptions of setting should create atmosphere and further the plot. Grand vistas and poetic descriptions create calm. Getting over a literal mountain creates a big challenge for your traveling band of actors. Does your severely agoraphobic character have to navigate ten NYC blocks? Okay, use pieces of that environment to show how it affects him. The towering buildings on either side loom, the people waiting to cross the street press, the reek of garbage bags in the summer heat suffocates. If the setting doesn’t serve one of these purposes, you can go pretty light with the details. Do keep your readers informed, though. At the very least, they need to know where the action is taking place.
Magic Requires Rules
Magic is like physics. You can’t see it, but the world operates within its laws. If you create a world with magic in it, you must know magic’s limits, its rules, and its impact on casters. And you must be consistent! I cannot stress this enough: magic is not a deus ex machina that comes in and fixes everything…magically. This steals your hero’s accomplishment. If you want to break an established rule, write in a precedent for it.
*Super advanced technology falls under this category too because, at a certain point, technology begins to resemble magic.
Don’t Take It Too Far
Like anything in life, moderation is key. There’s a fine line between immersion and tedium. As a busy author, you can’t spend all your time figuring out your world’s every minute detail. If a process or element in your fictional universe matches reality, you probably don’t need to explain it (save for the really esoteric stuff). For anything that doesn’t match, you’ll need to make a judgment call. Your editor and beta readers can tell you what needs more or less explanation, but the choice is yours in the end. Too many details can catch you out in an inconsistency later, so I tend to err on the side of fewer details. After all, your audience has imaginations of their own. And remember, seeing something work is always more interesting than being told.
A final note: don’t sweat the small stuff. Every great story has holes in it. Take the Harry Potter series. It’s one of the most beloved universes of all time, but where were cell phones, guns, and the Internet? Muggleborns must have known about those things. Granted, magical elements were part of what made those books so enchanting, but it’s true. And those issues didn’t stop J.K. Rowling from selling a bazillion copies. Happy writing!
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