I talk a lot about characterization on the blog. This is primarily because characters can become props to a story instead of the driving force. It was one of the major issues I had to overcome in my own writing and something that needed serious correction for Darkness Falling. When characters come second to The Idea, a story becomes flimsy and dull.
Today, however; I want to talk about another very important character. This character is one you may not even realize is a character; and that is the world in which your story takes place. Just like the people in your story, the world needs to feel realistic. It doesn’t matter if your characters have magical powers, fly in spaceships, live on a different planet, or exist right here on Earth; the world needs to have a set of rules by which it adheres.
Your world will also have a personality. This will be created by the types of landscapes, cities, and cultures. Languages, naming conventions, social structure, and “laws of science” all exist within a balance that creates a unique setting in which your characters exist. The world and these rules will have a direct effect on the plot and characters.
Another point to consider is that your world also needs a background story. It may have appeared in your mind in the blink of an eye, but to create a rich world it helps to have some idea of the world’s history. The Kingdom may be falling apart now, but there was a time when it was prosperous. Living on a space station has been common for centuries, but have the people always lived in space? The more you understand your world the more realistic it will feel.
The Law of the Land
Not everyone understands physics. I have a very basic knowledge of how it works. For example, I know that gravity holds me down on the ground. I can’t just suddenly leap off of my roof and fly away if I’m being chased by the bad guy. Creating similar concrete laws for your world keeps your readers invested because it makes the story believable, even when the characters have amazing powers.
Let’s look at Superman and Super Girl for a moment as an example. They both come from the planet Krypton and while on Earth they have special powers. These powers are explained by the effects of the sun on their alien bodies; it’s fictional science, not magic. Both Superman and Super Girl have the same powers; super hearing, x-ray vision which can be blocked by lead, laser eyes, frost breath, super strength, super speed, and flight.
These are amazing powers, but they are concrete and governed by the laws of the world building. By giving them both the same abilities it gives the characters a sense of realism and plausibility. Super Girl can’t suddenly read minds when the story could use a helping hand. Superman can’t become invisible or change his appearance to be sneaky.
To complete this, any Kryptonian who comes to Earth has the exact same powers. Superman and Super Girl are “average people” for their species. They only appear Super to humans because we do not have the same gifts. These “laws of science” are consistent and has kept fans believing in the world for 78 years.
World building can be tricky. If you sit down and create the world first, it’s easy to want to share everything in big globs of exposition. You want to make sure everyone knows everything about the world so that someday the super geek fans will debate your discuss your world with a passion on the internet. Unfortunately, this type of storytelling drags a story down and your characters and plot get lost.
I had this problem in the old manuscript of Darkness Falling. The first chapter bombarded the readers with names and dates and history. It was all very scholarly and maybe someday I’ll have an appendix to share all of these wonderful tidbits for the geek fans to discuss. (A girl can dream, right?)
For actual storytelling, it was a horrible beginning. I cut the first chapter down from being twenty-six Word document pages to four pages.
Yeah, it was that bad.
World building should be subtle. Very much like revealing characters, you want to give your readers what they need to know in digestible chunks. A great way to do this is through your point of view character. How much would they really know? What is their level of education? The laws of your society will come through your characters beliefs and actions. Giving certain characters different knowledge and experience will slowly widen the view for your readers.
Let’s consider J. K. Rowling and her wizard world. We are introduced to Hogwarts and wizards through Harry, a character who doesn’t know anything about the world at the start. He is introduced to the world through Hagrid. This is important. Why would she send Hagrid instead of Dumbledor or McGonagall or anyone else, for that matter? Hagrid is a perfect character for the role because he knows things, he’s loyal, and he’s willing to share a little bit of information either on purpose or on accident. He also adds a little bit of comedy which keeps the mood light.
Giving characters limited information about the world adds to both the feeling of awe and mystery. When your readers share discoveries about the world with your characters it causes immersion and bonding. It makes your readers wonder “what’s next?” and that’s what keeps them reading.
Not every book will use new languages. If you’re working with present day Earth, your characters are going to speak real languages. Even if your characters speak in slang or dialect, they will still follow those rules. The same goes for fictional languages. Not everyone is going to be J. R. R. Tolkien and create the entire language from the ground up. You can learn to speak Elvish if you choose. You can also learn to speak Klingon from the Star Trek universe, which is another example of complex language building.
Even if your language only goes far enough to create names and places, you still want to have concrete rules. Being writers, we all have a firm idea of how language works, at least within the languages that we speak. Designing rules for a language should be based on the real languages of Earth.
In Darkness Falling I have six different languages that come into play based on five continents and cultural backgrounds. The languages are primarily made evident through naming conventions. The language of the Empire is a complex system based on clans. This was an area I debated a great deal, and actually made some changes to it based on reader feedback. In the end, the language requires that I adhere to strict consistency to help prevent confusion. This is true of any language you create. Consistency is what makes it believable.
Mapping it Out
The last thing I’m going to discuss is maps. Not every book contains a map for readers to follow. Despite that, you have a good idea in your mind as you write where your characters exist. If they stay in one location through the story this is easy. If your characters are on a long journey you need to consider distance, time to travel, and alternate locations.
Even when you do not include the map, you need to remember your story takes place in time and space. Science-Fiction stories about time travel may jump backwards or forwards (or both) in time, but this still applies. For example, the Back to the Future films all take place in different times, but they exist within the same space.
Hill Valley is just as much a character as Doc and Marty. Throughout the series we get to see the town and surrounding areas grow up from a dusty western farm town to a metropolis. The town is given specific features to make it recognizable at different eras; the clock tower, the development sign, the old theater in the downtown square.
Once again this shows how consistency creates a believable world even when the circumstances of the story are impossible.
That’s all for today about world building! I hope you enjoyed it and thank you for reading. If you have anything to add or share, please feel free to do so in the comments. I’ll see you Monday for my thoughts on the Fear the Walking Dead mid-season finale.