Saturday, July 2, 2011

A World isn't Built in a Day

“She’s in her own little world.”

“It’s a world all it’s own.”

“This will make a world of difference.”

We’re exposed to references about the world every day in our conversations and daily reading. So it’s no wonder there’s a great deal of importance attached to “world building” in commercial fiction.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking world building applies only to science fiction and fantasy. It may be true that Smurgledorfs on planet Smurgadore live under three suns and drink motor oil for breakfast, and the elves of Ohminshire cure their sick with potions made from frog spit and magic owl pellets, but such stories don’t corner the market on world building. A unique world is just as important in a story about a twenty-first century homeless family struggling to survive in a city park, or a murder mystery centered around corporate law in urban America.

World building needs to satisfy two basic needs a reader has when indulging in the entertainment of fiction. One, they want to experience something new and different. And two, they want something familiar they can relate to. It’s a dichotomy that challenges the writer to satisfy both needs while creating a compelling story in a unique world suited to the characters and their story goal.

For the fantasy or science fiction writer, it’s a given that we must create an imaginative environment to grab our readers. We design our worlds with an exclusive physicality and geography that has its own social, psychological and political issues. These will be relatable in some way to our readers. Smurgledorfs may drink motor oil like we drink our morning coffee for a caffeine fix, but they also have families and jobs and relationships. They struggle for love, fight for freedom, and grieve for lost ideals like the rest of us. They just do it in a world different from the one we’re used to.

As for that homeless family living in cardboard boxes in a city park, their world is different from the Joneses living in a suburban ranch style home five miles away. The environment may appear similar to what readers have seen before, but when experienced through the characters’ perspectives, an entirely new world emerges. It allows us to imagine what it might be like to be cold and hungry, to scavenge for food and clothing, to miss what we once had and hope to someday have again. As a result, we’re exultant over every goal achieved and cheer that much louder when dad gets a new job and his daughter wins the scholarship of her dreams.

So with world building, it’s not only about place and time for a setting. It goes far deeper than that. Your world is intrinsically linked with the characters who breathe life into your story and create a satisfying experience for your readers.

The next time you plot a novel and develop your characters, be sure to pay as much attention to your story’s world as you do to everything else. It will make a world of difference to your book.


Inkpot said...

When I edit my clients' work, the most noticeable world-building head-snap: changing the rules of the world, especially magic powers. This comes in many forms: adding too many special abilities as we go, changing how they operate, and worse yet, an entire absense of weakness.
Thanks for your post, Karen.

Karen Lin

Karen Duvall said...

*nods* So true, Karen. Consistency is so important in world building.

Marne Ann said...

Great points, Karen. And I agree, there is a balance for the reader between wanting to go somewhere they've never been and needing to be able to relate to the characters in some way. Very well said.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Marne. It's a subject near and dear to my heart. :)

Tam Linsey said...

A well built world is like a well built character - the reader falls in love with it. (or hates it if the world is a villain!) Great post, Karen!

Rodney Robbins said...

You are so right, Karen. The world HAS to feel real: sci-fi worlds, mystery worlds, paranormal worlds, they all have to work and be consistent. That's why I like to say that first you dream it up, then you write it down.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Tam! :) My favorite books are always the ones where the author totally transported me to their book's world.

Thanks, Rodney, and yes, all that dreaming up stuff is a vital step toward creating your story world. You kind of have to live in it yourself first, even if only in your mind. :)

Joanne Kennedy said...

Karen, I also loved the part about giving the reader something new and different along with something that strikes a familiar chord. Detailed world-building draws the reader into the story (as long as the details help forward the plot). The reader doesn't have to know everything about your world, but you do. Thanks for the great post!

Laura E. Reeve said...

So true, Karen -- SF/F writers are always balancing the familiar with the new and different. One type of world that's particularly tricky is the alternative history or timeline. Which details will be accurate and which will not, to suit our story? What flags can we raise to tell the reader this is NOT their world? As world builders, we can't know how savvy readers will be about our chosen (and warped) historical timeline.