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World-building for novelists -- No, your characters *aren't* in a play. Part II

Posted 11th December 2011 at 12:28 AM by Teresa Edgerton
Updated 14th July 2012 at 06:16 AM by Teresa Edgerton

Part II


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 should, in a work of fiction, also influence how characters think, the challenges they face, and how they meet them 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.

* * * * *

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 world-building 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 own, 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 good world-building need not be complex, it only needs to be consistent and ideally 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 world-building 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 ever think of this directly, 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, if it is an imaginary world, it does). They should feel as if the context was there already, and that it is still going to be there when the story is over.

Some writers do all of their world-building 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 it, 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.
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  1. Old Comment
    The Judge's Avatar
    Another very helpful essay, with which I agree whole-heartedly. The examples ref the food in Part I are particularly illuminating. Thanks!
    Posted 11th December 2011 at 12:22 PM by The Judge The Judge is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Teresa Edgerton's Avatar
    I'm surprised that you and Hex both picked up on the food in particular. I used the bread and cheese example because too often in fantasy that's about all characters eat (with the addition of stew, if they visit an inn), presumably because everyone knows those are two items that work for just about any era. But even those two (or three) need not be so generic, if the type of bread and cheese (and stew) are identified specifically. And we have seen in Hex's thread what people can do with just the bread alone to bring a setting to life! I was about to say maybe we should have a stew thread next, but the possibilities of that one make me shudder ...
    Posted 14th December 2011 at 09:45 AM by Teresa Edgerton Teresa Edgerton is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Hex's Avatar
    Actually my character in wip 2 just ate some mysterious stew... She chose not to think about what was in it, which I was hoping would seem mysterious rather than lazy.

    re: the bread and cheese -- I found it a really valuable exercise to think about bread. I had to think quite hard to decide what sort people might eat in wip1 -- I knew that basic foodstuffs were subsidised, but I hadn't thought any further. It helped me to make some fairly nebulous ideas more concrete (and the thread's fun -- I liked alchemist's bread description especially)
    Posted 14th December 2011 at 09:55 AM by Hex Hex is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Teresa Edgerton's Avatar
    Instead of speculating what is in it, perhaps you could merely describe what it tastes like. I am reminded of the bottle marked "Drink Me" that Alice drinks: it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast. If the comparisons are evocative enough -- one way or the other -- you can skip over the possible contents, and readers may be perfectly content to know no more.
    Posted 14th December 2011 at 10:16 AM by Teresa Edgerton Teresa Edgerton is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Hex's Avatar
    It probably tastes like pork, then. I hope my readers will have nasty suspicions, but I don't want to spell things out.

    Also, I said 'spiced' but that's pretty vague. As soon as I think about it I can see ways of making it better and tying it in to everything else.

    I love the description of the Alice potion -- sounds like one of those wine gurus.
    Posted 14th December 2011 at 10:22 AM by Hex Hex is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Teresa Edgerton's Avatar
    Oh yes, pork sounds ominous ...
    Posted 14th December 2011 at 10:28 AM by Teresa Edgerton Teresa Edgerton is offline
  7. Old Comment
    Hex's Avatar
    Posted 14th December 2011 at 07:58 PM by Hex Hex is offline
  8. Old Comment
    Triceratops's Avatar
    Hmmm...I love the map idea. I'm going to look into this. It might help with organization and thought control.

    Posted 31st January 2014 at 06:17 AM by Triceratops Triceratops is offline

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