I’m back with another old post that vanished from the internet. This was originally four or five separate posts, because it’s long, but I’ll keep it together this time.
If you have topics you’d like me to write about here, feel free to let me know!
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about worldbuilding lately. Here’s a non-secret: when I was a wee writer, I had all these ideas for cool stories and I worked so hard on them — or so I thought. One of the things people consistently told me was that my worldbuilding needed work. They kept saying I needed more. It needed to be bigger. And so I’d come up with bigger ideas, and they still didn’t work.
Way back when one of my writing groups used to do intense focus chats on a story, someone praised an author because her world “spilled off the edges of the page.”
The phrase haunted me for years because I knew that was what I wanted my stories to do . . . I just couldn’t figure out how to make that happen. I tried throwing in random exposition, and considered epigraph type things at the beginning of chapters with worldbuilding things from an Official Book In The Story World. I tried so hard to master worldbuilding, or at least get people to decide I was improving. It felt like I would never succeed.
For me, the tipping point was when I read Robin McKinley’s SUNSHINE, having been told it has a lot of great worldbuilding. I paid careful attention to what she did and how she did it. The next time I was ready to start a new story, I felt like I was ready. I tried to make that world as wide and complex as the real world.
The day an agent complimented my worldbuilding on that story was a seriously happy day for me. (Even though she rejected it!) I was so relieved that finally, finally I had started doing something right. More right than I had been doing. Right enough that someone who didn’t know about my several-year struggle was impressed. It still took another year and a half before I wrote the story that got me an agent and editor, and some of you may remember I put a lot of time into building the world of INCARNATE before I ever started writing the story. Even after I’d written a decent draft, Agent Lauren had me expand more, and Editor Sarah started asking me questions and pointing out places where she wanted more — the same thing I’d been hearing for years.
Now, I’m certainly not perfect at it — I know I’ve got a long way to go before I magically write perfect first drafts with just the right amount of worldbuilding (hey, it’s a goal) — but I do feel like I’ve learned a few things along the way.
1. Don’t let one thing define the world.
I see this one a lot, from secondworld fantasies to dystopian. There’s one event or technology or discovery that makes the world different from our own, and everything revolves around that. It — whatever it is — is constantly on characters’ minds. Everyone thinks about it, makes rules around it or about it, and that one thing is the world.
But that’s not how worlds work.
In real life, we developed penicillin. While that changed the world, it didn’t define the world. It became part of a big, messy definition of us.
In real life, we created computers, but our lives don’t completely revolve around them. (Well, some more than others. Heh.) Over the last couple of decades, computers have certainly become more a part of our lives, but that happened organically as we decided what aspects of computers were most useful to us. And computers don’t define society as a whole. People who don’t use computers aren’t shunned as though their inability to work a mouse were contagious.
That said, worlds can certainly be sparked by one idea. In, for example, THE HUNGER GAMES, I would guess that Collins’s spark was children in gladiatorial matches. But that’s not the only thing going on in the world; she build a huge, compelling world around that idea. Think of the different districts, the technology, the fashion in the Capitol — all of those are aspects of the world that are not just about the Games, though they influence one another and connect, because the story is about Katniss in the Hunger Games.
Or think about JK Rowling’s HARRY POTTER. What a huge and imaginative world that is! It’s so real to millions of people. Perhaps her spark was a boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes to wizarding school, and yes, lots of action takes place in Hogwarts — but have you seen the rest of the world? There are dozens of things that don’t circle around and focus directly on Hogwarts, because for many characters in this world, school isn’t their first thought. Rather than caring whether Harry makes it to class on time, they have jobs, families, and other passions to keep them occupied. They notice Harry when he becomes important either as gossip, or begins disrupting their lives.
The definition of any world should be bigger than one thing.
2. Keep logic, consistency, and research in mind.
These are all under the same header because they’re related.
I think a lot of times, writers have an awesome idea they want to toss in to their story. Which is great! Awesome ideas make me happy. But the thing is, they still have to make sense in the context of your world.
If you’ve created a world where vampires must do the hokey pokey before entering anyone’s house, thereby giving the intended victim precious moments to escape!, and you want to have a vampire that doesn’t need to do the hokey pokey first because THAT IS TERRIFYING — well, why? Why doesn’t he need to? It definitely adds to the tension and potential complications if he can just walk on in, but at some point, his lack of putting his right foot in and out must be explained in a logical manner.
When you set up rules for the world, they need to make sense (even if they only make sense in that world), and you need to be consistent about them.
In SFF, we tend to make up some wild rules for our worlds. Sometimes those things need to be explained. Sometimes they don’t. Whatever we do, though, we must make the world utterly convincing. Even more convincing than real life, because the moment the world starts showing cracks and weird inconsistencies is the moment the reader gets jerked out and starts asking questions like, “Why’s it like that? How did it get like that? What’s the benefit for anyone?”
If you want the reader to ask those questions, you may have an even bigger challenge on your hands: keeping the reader interested with just enough information (and compelling characters/story/other stuff) that they don’t get frustrated and quit. And remember what I said about being utterly convincing? In this case, you must be even more convincing. Your reader must trust that you know what’s going on the entire time.
Keep logic in mind. If you’ve fictionally destroyed an entire continent (that’s pretty awful of you!), make sure your character doesn’t work on a computer that everyone knows is manufactured there. Or cars and clothes an toys and a hundred other things. Keep in mind the effects all this would have on the economy, cultures, and characters’ responses to reminders about the now-missing continent.
Lots of these things will no doubt require research, but it’s worth it not to slip up and have people questioning whether you actually know what’s going on in your world.
3. Explore the world.
Exploration doesn’t necessarily mean making a Tolkein-like journey halfway around the world, though it certainly can.
What I mean is — getting back to our hokey pokey vampires — explore reasons why they might have to do that. Explore their history. Explore the consequences of having to do the hokey pokey before they can enter a house. (Probably a lot of food dies from laughing and isn’t as good anymore.) Chances are, the hokey pokey is banned in roller skating rinks all around the world now, and kids who grew up doing the hokey pokey before all this vampire stuff happened — well, they’re probably in therapy.
Explore the consequences of your worldbuilding choices; explore the benefits; challenge yourself to consider the choices you made, and take them to their fullest.
That’s the macro lesson.
But what about the micro?
Heading back to Harry Potter, we explored lots of micro worldbuilding details: needles that magically knit by themselves, pictures that move, pens that write down whatever you say. Owls deliver the post, goblins guard the money, and who can forget the detail that went into choosing Harry’s wand? And, one of my favorites — besides the knitting — Mrs. Weasly’s clock that tells where her family is: work, home, school, mortal peril. (There are soooo many great examples in Harry Potter. I wish we could talk about them all.)
These are all small examples of things we see in Harry’s daily life, but they help make the world look real. Even just small things like that make the world richer, more lived in.
Don’t overlook these details.
4. The words you use to describe the world.
Are you writing medieval fantasy? Your characters should probably not greet one another by saying, “Hey, dude! What’s up?” It’s equally unlikely they’d say that if you’re writing futuristic cyberpunk.
Be conscious of the way you describe things in narrative, too. In a world made entirely of water, you wouldn’t have your character describe another character’s hair as the color of desert sand. Instead, look for something in your world that’s comparable to that color, but familiar enough that readers instantly know what color you’re talking about.
Does that sound hard? Well, yes. It is hard. But stretching yourself will make you a better and more creative writer, and it will help you avoid cliches.
Let’s not stop there, though. What kind of slang do your characters use? Are you writing FIREFLY where “shiny” is the new cool? Or frack, frell, frex? (That F sound is clearly very satisfying to swear with.)
Remember regionalisms! If your world is larger than a small box, you’ll probably run into this. If I say something is wicked, you may think I’m from Boston. If I say I’d like a pop, I might be from the North. If I’m “fixing to” do something, I’m probably from the South. Ending a sentence with “eh?” and I’m suddenly Canadian.
Keep in mind how words migrate or cluster together. Even with travel being so common, nationwide and worldwide media, we still have our regionalisms. They spread out, too, though. A Texan who watches a lot of UK TV shows may find “rubbish” and “brilliant” entering her conversations.
5. Introducing your world.
So now you have this awesome-tastic world. It’s got details. It’s got depth. It’s got layers like a cake/onion/ogre.
How do you introduce all this awesome?
Same way you introduce anything else: organically.
We all know the advice not to info-dump, right? And why that should be avoided? Good. Next.
Rather than dropping a chunk of worldbuilding in the reader’s head via exposition, introduce things as they become relevant. If you have a tree that actually does grow money, you don’t need to mention that unless it’s relevant to your character. Maybe they wish they had a money tree because they’re broke, or they walk by a money tree orchard where the workers are picking dollar bills like apples. Perhaps your character stops to rest in the shade of the money tree. Suddenly the money tree is relevant.
Or maybe your character is a tree-ologist (. . . ?) and is studying money trees and gemstone trees and regular leaf trees. They’d probably notice all those kinds of trees as they walk by, simply because it’s important to them.
Use your POV character as a filter for the world. If they’re in a bad mood, they’re probably not paying attention to the glorious scenery. (Or describing it in a glorious manner using lots of glorious words.) If your character doesn’t know much about the mythology of your world (or doesn’t care or ever have a reason to think about it), they probably won’t pause to liken the love interest’s hotness to the goddess of hotness.
And if you don’t want to drag your character from place to play to interact with every cool thing in the world — don’t. Show other characters interacting with things, or talking about things. Other characters can get in your character’s way, or offer a trade — one money tree for a gemstone tree — or any other number of things that your character would be forced to notice.
But what about the big stuff? What about a world so different from ours that certain rules need to be established immediately?
Well, okay. Establish them! Coming back to our hokey pokey vampires (I like them so much), we could begin a few different ways, depending on where your story really starts.
Beginning 1: Main Character is in her house hanging out one night when suddenly . . . the hokey pokey starts blaring outside. Instant terror. Everyone knows the hokey pokey means vampires are near. Action. Tension. Story has started!
Beginning 2: Main Character is hanging out with friends when the gossip arrives: Secondary Character finally cracked after years of claiming he’s okay. Another character shakes his head and says something about how no one who used to work at roller skating rinks is actually okay. You don’t just get over doing the hokey pokey on the hour every hour for years and years. Ever since the vampires started doing it . . .
Beginning 3: Main Character is running errands or whatever and sees a group of kids doing the hokey pokey at the playground. Parents are screaming. Police have been called. How did these children even learn such a horrible song? What awful parent would teach their children the hokey pokey? That’s like putting fangs on your kid! Terrible.
Get the picture? There are lots of ways to establish huge worldbuilding aspects right away. Be creative. Make sure they fit in naturally with where your character is, who they are, and what they’re doing.
Anticipate reader expectations. Vampires doing the hokey pokey is pretty unusual (and brilliant, if I do say so), so your readers won’t be expecting it. They’ll need to know this very unusual worldbuilding aspect right away if this is going to play a big part in your story.
Establish what the reader needs to know in order to ground themselves in the world, then start building as you move through the story.
6. Sum up.
After you’ve done a ton of worldbuilding, you may find that you have extra stuff you couldn’t fit in.
If you’ve delivered a fascinating story and given the reader what they need to know in order to enjoy that story, you’ve done your job. There’s nothing that says you must reveal everything about your world — and considering our talk about worlds being defined by more than one thing, revealing everything may be impossible. Particularly if your character never has a chance to know it! (Remember how the world is filtered through your point of view character?)
And if you have more than one book, what’s the fun in revealing everything right away? Go ahead and save some for later. It’s cool.