World Building for Fantasy Novelists — No, your characters *aren’t* in a play
The following is based on discussions on these forums and materials I have prepared for clients, but I am, I think, bringing all of it together for the first time. Though it is principally addressed to fantasy writers, it applies to science fiction, too.
Back in the days of my youth, I used to spend a good deal of my time in costume: because I was involved in my local Renaissance and Christmas fairs, because I was active in the SCA, and because … well, because I was just the kind of person who liked to run around in costume. I rather wish I was that kind of person still, because it was good, harmless fun. A common question in those days was, “Are you in a play?” It was with a great deal of weariness (because the question had been asked and answered so many times already) that I would say, “No, I’m not in a play.” But though I was not in a play, I was play-acting, and one of the things I had to learn when I started writing seriously was that my characters were neither acting in a play not play-acting. I had to learn the difference between a backdrop and an invented world with depth and texture. Here is a distillation of what I’ve learned on the subject.
Some writers seem to skip over the worldbuilding entirely and content themselves with an odd amalgam of our modern era and the Middle Ages or a future world that is oddly similar to our own (everyone wears jeans and leather jackets). On the other hand, some spend so long building their worlds, they never get around to writing their stories. There is a middle ground, and it is an extensive one, where each writer may find a place that is comfortable, yet give readers all that they need to visualize the invented world.
Much of this article will concentrate on description: not only how it reveals your world to your readers, but how you can use it to generate insights that may help you add depth and texture to the world you are in the process of building.
Rule number one (and you will find this mentioned again and again in this article) is make the details specific. In general, a few specific, concrete, or tangible details sprinkled in along the way will allow readers to build up their own picture of a person, a place, or a culture. If characters are invited into a cottage for a meal and the cottagers offer “goat cheese and a coarse brown bread sprinkled with flaxseed” — rather than simply “bread and cheese” — not only does it create a more complete picture of the meal, but it suggests herds of goats and fields of flax growing nearby. “Dates and oranges” suggest a warm climate. “Fine white bread and delicate spiced meats,” suggest wealth and luxury. Longer descriptions, if the writer does them well, can add context, texture, and color, but selectivity, discrimination in choosing your words, may allow you to describe briefly and more effectively what would otherwise require many words.
In some cases, adjectives may be the least part of a description. Use verbs, nouns (this goes back to what I said about specific details), adverbs, present and past participles used as adjectives, and do not rely too heavily on adjectives.
Descriptions should appeal to the senses. A long description might appeal to all five senses; a shorter description might only appeal to one or two. The sense of smell is particularly tied to emotional memory, and most of all to childhood memories. Description should appeal to the reader’s imagination, and not simply be a list of what is to be seen, heard, smelled, etc.
As for the characters that inhabit your world, descriptions of them, if handled correctly, show more than how each one looks, it provides insights into age, social status, and much more. A character who sweeps into a room as though he owns the place, though he is wearing a tunic five years out of date, scuffed boots, and a cloak of rubbed and stained velvet is either someone who has come down in the world, or a mountebank — the other-world equivalent of that man in Nigeria who wants to send you all his money. You need not recount his history. After this first impression, the next words out of his mouth should establish which one it is.
Such details, in turn, add insights into the world: Is there a class system? How does it work? How can members of each class recognize members of another at a glance, or according to the way they speak (accent, evidence of education, forms of address, etc.)? If someone has either elevated his status or lowered it, what are the clues and how do people respond to them? Is an individual of decayed gentility still more highly regarded than a useful and prosperous member of the middle class? Or are those who are upwardly-mobile admired for their energy and their efforts to better themselves? (Unlikely, since any class is jealous of its privileges and reluctant to admit new members. To use a broad generalization, it is only where money and the ability to make it speaks louder than anything else that this is possible.)
Worldbuilding is also shown through dialogue. If the characters really match their setting — if they are people who could believably exist within that invented world — then the thoughts they express and the words they use to express them can also tell much about the world they inhabit. A perfect line of dialogue inserted at the perfect moment can be deeply revealing as to character, at the same time bringing to life the thought patterns of an entire society.
One of the best ways to reveal an invented world is how the characters act within it: how does it mold them, how do things like social standing and custom limit them, what impact do they have on their world, to what extent are their present actions and their present situation ruled by their historical context.
It can be fairly said that worldbuilding and characterization are so closely linked, it is almost impossible to do well at the one without paying close attention to the other. For writers who are stuck in the worldbuilding stage and can’t progress, instead of concentrating on the characters you have outlined and then stalled on, consider what kind of people must live in your world and what the inherent challenges must be. Those are the characters and that is the story you should be telling.
When describing landscape, again be specific. When describing a hill it is better to say, “the lower slopes were purple with heather, and dark pines grew on the summit” than to say, “trees and shrubs grew on the hill.” Note that the first one paints a vivid picture in one sentence, while the other uses seven words to create only a vague impression — which, as a result, may read like seven words too many. Shorter is not always … shorter. If describing places where people live (village, cities, even solitary houses) try to give each place a personality of its own. Descriptions of towns and cities should provide clues to the kind of people who live there, their habits, their religion, the economy, etc. Rather than “merchants hawked their wares from booths around the square,” a better description of a marketplace might be something like this, “From hide tents and hastily erected wooden booths men hawked their bone-handled knives, leather pouches, and crudely painted pottery. The women told fortunes and sold packets of dried herbs.” This first is generic, and the second provides clues to their society and available natural resources.
Without the context of a story, the conflict, the tensions, and the emotions can fall absolutely flat, confuse the reader, or create the wrong impression. The closer the setting is to the world we and our readers personally inhabit, the more the society that surrounds the story is like our own in time or space, the more we can depend on the reader to know the context and the more things both the writer and the reader can safely take for granted. BUT once we leave that zone of comfortable familiarity, we simply have to start providing context or readers will fail to understand the tensions and emotions.
To give an example of why context matters: Imagine a scene where five men are playing cards. Suddenly, one of the men announces that he knows that one of the others has been cheating. The protagonist (we’ll call him X) starts to sweat, he feels a knot in his stomach, his hands begin to shake. The reader rightly concludes from this that X is the cheater. But what happens next, if X is exposed depends entirely on the context, and it is the context that tells the readers how worried they should be on X’s account, depending on the penalties the society he inhabits imposes on cheaters. These could be minor and good-natured, or they could be severe.
So … should the readers be sweating along with him? Should they hope he gets caught? Should they hope he doesn’t get caught? Should they consider the whole situation so trivial that it doesn’t really matter whether he is exposed or not, but wonder what all of this sweating and trembling says about him?
Depending on the context, what the readers will be feeling could be any of these.
Although maps are not as necessary to fantasy novels as some readers and writers think, there are good reasons why drawing a map may be helpful, and not just because the author thinks it would make a nice finishing detail to the published book. It has been said that “geography is destiny.” The physical conditions under which any group of people live will have a huge impact on their culture. The natural resources that are easily within their reach, where and how they get those things that are desirable but not readily available (obviously the society that obtains these things by way of trade agreements is going to be radically different than the one that gets by on piracy or border raids) the degree of isolation in which they live and their culture has developed, whether travel is difficult or easy for them and whether they are on the direct route to other, more important places, all of these things influence how people live and what they think — and so, in a work of fiction should also influence how characters think, as well as create the challenges they face, and give some direction to how they meet those challenges as the plot progresses
So a map, although not vital, is useful for determining much more than how characters who are travelling get from point A to point B, or which obstacles they will meet and need to overcome along the way. It is useful for working out details that might not otherwise have occurred while outlining the plot, and can save a writer from making thoughtless blunders.
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A fantasy world need not be analogous to any real-world time or place. It is your invention, and as such, it is to be presumed that you know best what belongs there. However, when a writer mixes things up, it should be apparent that he or she is doing so deliberately and with forethought. There are various ways that authors can create this impression. One is to come up with some explanation why all of these unrelated things come together — for instance, the story is set near the nexus of several dimensions, where different influences either bleed over accidentally or pass through freely. Another is to create some sort of pattern to show how all the pieces fit together and stick to it. Still another is to create worlds and cultures so offbeat, so peculiar, so distinct from our own, that readers do not expect them to operate in any way that is familiar to them.
The best worldbuilding permeates a story and influences all its parts. The better it is done, the less necessity there may be for explanations. And it can be done very simply and consistently by taking one or two premises that make the imaginary world different from our, building on them and their natural consequences, and adhering to them throughout. Once the author strays from what he or she has established in the beginning, reasons, excuses, justifications (usually in the form of back story) begin to appear in great profusion in order to cover the plot holes. Because the best worldbuilding need not be complex, so long as it is consistent and revealed through specific details (so that there is less chance of being misunderstood). And if it is consistent, the reader is less likely to be thrown out of the story by those “what the heck?” moments, that detract from the storytelling.
Most of all, the best worldbuilding does not create an impression that the characters are acting against a backdrop of scenery. It should not leave readers with the impression that characters are simply wearing costumes (as I said in a recent interview, the characters should live in their clothes) or handling props. If a character picks up a sword, he should feel the weight of it, be aware at all times of the deadly cutting edge. He may not be thinking of this consciously, but he should never do anything that he would not do having that awareness. It is the same if a character straps on a blaster; she should be always cognizant that it is a lethal weapon, that there may be times when it is not set on stun. Moreover, readers should feel as though life continues when the point-of-view characters aren’t looking. They should not feel as though the environment in which your characters play out their lives only exists for the sake of the story (although of course it may very well). They should feel as if the world was there already, and that it is still going to be there when the story is over.
Some writers do all of their worldbuilding in advance, some discover the world as they write — they begin with one or two basic premises, and the logic and the consequences of those ideas just carry them along. You might call that second method “world growing” instead of “world building.” As long as the end result is sufficiently textured and consistent, it doesn’t make a difference.
Always keep in mind that the environment your characters inhabit is far more than the physical setting. It includes the cultural background, the manners, morals, and ethics of the society or societies within your novel — against which your characters react, either in opposition to that cultural environment, or in their efforts to maintain a position within it, or to protect it when it is threatened. This background ought not to be there merely as an extension of the scenery, it should contain within it some of the sources of tension at the heart of the story. The environment is also the emotional atmosphere in which the characters move, by which readers should also be affected.
Teresa Edgerton works as a freelance developmental editor, helping new writers to develop their projects and improve their writing. If you are interested in engaging her services, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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