Today’s post is inspired by a post on Constance Burris’s blog in which I was tagged.
‘My first novel is almost complete and ready for publication. I can feel it. I can taste it. I can see it being published and being great. But……+Dyane Forde pointed out that my world is flat.
I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and I’d hoped that I’d done enough to make my world passable and none of my critique partners would say anything. But someone did. And now that someone did I have to admit this to myself:
my world building is just f*cking lazy.’
Of course, now she had my attention. (If you’re curious about how the article concludes, I encourage you to check it out). The idea for this article came to me when I started to consider how I went about world-building.
Now, I come from a short story and poetry background and only started writing novels about 3 years ago. Most of my stories are in the 1000 word area or less, though I sometimes venture into the 2000+ range. Though I do write longer pieces, I love the concise, tight nature of the shorter versions because I like to produce works that people can enjoy in a short sitting, sort of like an ‘amuse-bouche’ for foodies. Usually this means that descriptions of places, things, and characters are limited to the bare essentials in order to focus on the story rather than its parts (even if those parts are important and assist in the telling of that story). But writing a novel is different. In them, you have spaaaaaaace (pages) to fill in all those blanks. And especially in the realm of the fantastic, elements like setting and context (social, political, geographical, era, culture, etc.) are essential. Just as important is the ability to develop characters which are connected to their environment. Without these, a story can come off feeling flat, undeveloped or simply boring. So how do you go about developing the ability to create a world with depth?
Before I go on, let me say that I am not a master world-builder. I don’t sit down with spreadsheets or clever programs and list every type of food this or that people group eats or what they wear in different seasons, nor do I make in depth family trees of the main and secondary characters. I do research things which are necessary to make my world feel real, like learning the proper names of tools/articles I’m unfamiliar with, watching fight scenes on YouTube, or researching topography and geography to make sure my land masses and their corresponding weather/seasonal changes make sense. But all this came later. The first book I ever wrote was all of seven chapters and it basically told the story of what happened to the main character and her eagle friend and little else. Obviously, I had a problem.
So what follows are a few thoughts on what helped me make the leap from short and sweet stories to full length fantasy novels.
1) Learn to see your created world as a character. This is an excerpt from my response to Constance’s post I mentioned above: “…The one thing I can suggest for anyone trying to deal with this is to treat your world like a character. Give it a mood/tone, make it come alive with colours and smells and textures. There’s nothing worse than reading a dead description. But make it come alive with these elements and you suddenly have a vibrant backdrop for your characters and they now feel grounded in something ‘real’. Best of all, it’s much more fun to write. :)” Okay, nice advice but how do you do that?
Think of a house. The decorations inside and outside as well as its overall condition can stir impressions about its history and the people who live there before the owners open their mouths to share about it. Who cares if you’re wrong? The point is there is a story to be told in these details which make up the whole. When you think of the world you’re building, who lives in it? Who lived there before and how did they influence those who are there now? What is their economy built on? How do people marry and procreate? What is the world outside of this village/town/city composed of? And so on. These are all details that when put together make a whole world. Granted, everyone will differ in terms of how deep they go in this exploration, and in the end, you might not use all the details you come up with. But just having them in mind gives you plenty of material to work with and before you know it, you’ll have many more tools to build with than you thought.
The point is to learn to connect with our story environment in the same way we do in our natural environment. None of us lives in a vacuum but in a society. We each have our own stories, histories and backgrounds, and all of our actions affect those around us just as we are affected by them. We are essentially characters in our own stories. I think once we make that connection, it becomes easier to transpose the idea to the worlds we are building.
2) Learn to make new environments feel real. This is something I really enjoy doing because it allows me to get into a character’s head and experience the environment at the same time they do. So when they walk outside first thing in the morning and the wind and sun hit their skin just so, I ‘feel’ it too, as well as the sensations which go along with it. Whatever the character touches, smells, and sees, I’m right there with them sensing those as well. Writing from this perspective creates an immersive experience for both the writer and the reader. I believe that because the reader has become a participant and is connected sensually, intellectually and emotionally to the story, it becomes easier for them to ‘buy into’ a new world, even if that world is not perfectly laid out or detailed.
So what do you have to say on the matter? This is just my two cents on what has worked for me. What’s worked for you? Any suggestions to anyone seeking to overcome this challenge?