In my experience, writers tend to fall into one of two categories when it comes to world building: The Tolkien Types and Everybody Else. The Tolkien types are those brilliant people who will create entire mythologies and even languages for their fictional worlds. For them, the world comes first and the characters and story second. World building like this is a marvelous feat and one I greatly admire, but I’m afraid that if you are a Tolkien type, you might as well stop reading now. This post just isn’t for you.
For everybody else, our stories start with a character and/or situation and the world building develops out of it. If you want to get technical, this is the “bottom-up” strategy as described here [link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top-down_and_bottom-up_design ]. While this is a perfectly acceptable approach to world building, it does involve a couple of pitfalls. The first major issue is that it can lead to inconsistencies and plot holes, the latter being especially true when we’re talking about the fantasy and sci-fi genres. The second issue is that the world building tends to be underdeveloped.
And really, both of these problems make sense for us bottom-uppers, right? I mean, we’re far more interested in the characters populating our story than the world it takes place in (while the opposite may be true for the Tolkien Types). No wonder our world building is weak. Also, the very idea of creating an entire world is daunting. It’s so BIG, so OUT THERE; it’s the forest we can never see. I, for one, barely understand the world I live in, let alone the one I’m creating.
Fortunately, one effective solution for avoiding the world building blues of plot holes and underdevelopment is to focus even more on what we love best about the story—the characters populating the world. Crazy, you say? Nope, not at all. The characters—their back stories and especially their motivations—hold all the answers.
To demonstrate, I’m going to take you through some prewriting activities for a YA fantasy novel I would someday like to write. The following headers and questions will function as a world building worksheet.
What is the story about in its most general terms?
Right now, I picture this story as being Shadow and Bone meets the Pony Express—so high fantasy/steampunk-ish with an emphasis on horses and riding.
What kind of world does this story place in? (Medieval Europe? Preindustrial? Futuristic? Try to be specific here, but don’t be afraid to change and modify as the story becomes clearer)
This story takes place in a world home to both humans and a race of vicious creatures known as the Mal’niveus. The Mal’niveus live in a vast network of tunnels beneath the ground, but they come out to the surface at night to hunt. In order to survive, the human population has built huge walled cities and barricaded the tunnels beneath the cities to keep the Mal’niveus out. As a result, the political structure of this world is similar to the city-state structure of Ancient Greece (something I’ll need to research later).
While many of the cities are self-sustaining, trade does exist between them, with goods being shipped via rivers or in large caravans, which I imagine might be protected by mages or sorcerers. For faster travel, the city-states rely on an independent guild known as The Riders (surely, I will come up with a more specific name later—even names play a part in world building). The Riders function the same as the Pony Express did in the American Old West (again something to research and draw on later).
Who is the main character and what is his/her primary motivation at the beginning of the novel?
- 16-year-old Jane lives on a small farm inside one of the city-states. Her primary motivation at the beginning is to become a Rider like her big brother, John. Riders are required to provide their own mount. But Jane’s horse is small and will have a hard time competing for one of the slots.
From these few brief sentences, the world is already taking shape. Although I don’t state it directly, there are ideas in here about class, social structure, and a number of other world building elements.
How much does Jane know about the bigger world she lives in?
- Although she knows many things about the world, it’s primarily secondhand. She has experienced very little of the world beyond the farm. She has never seen a Mal’niveus before, and she knows only the very basics about the government that rules the city she lives in, as typical of a teenager.
Jane’s lack of experience and true knowledge about the Riders and the world at large is going to make it easy for me to include world building details naturally and without contrivance. There is so much that she is going to experience for the first time, same as the reader. Since she will most likely be the POV character, I should be able to convey much of the world through her eyes and reactions.
To break this down, consider that world building information is usually passed onto the reader in one of three ways:
- Description—what the world looks like, what the character sees, hears, smells, etc.
- Straight exposition—“this is how the world works” kind of statements. And yes, they will often be considered “telling” instead of “showing.”
- The POV Character’s interactions with the world and other characters, including dialogue and plot developments.
I will use all three types when writing this story. But when and how much will depend on my POV character, in this case, Jane. Description, naturally, should be used in every scene, although when Jane goes somewhere brand new for the first time, there will be a heavier emphasis on the description. When she’s at home, in her familiar world, the description will be lighter.
I will use straight exposition as sparingly as possible, but I will use it. Mostly, I will rely on it to convey the more unique ideas about this world, those which Jane already knows but which the reader doesn’t. For example, Jane already knows about the city-state structure of her world, the Mal’niveus, and the Riders, but these will be completely new to the reader. For some of these, I may use straightforward exposition, such as these example sentences:
Jane had never seen a Mal’niveus before, but she knew they lived deep underground, only emerging at night to hunt—deer, elk, humans, they didn’t care. Any fresh meat would do.
While it is possible that I could show all of these elements through a combination of #1 and #3, I will want to be careful about placing too much burden on the reader to figure things out for themselves. Sometimes it is okay and appropriate to give the readers “just the facts, ma’am.” If you leave too much up to the reader to guess at, they might grow frustrated with the story and put it down.
Primarily, however, I will rely on the POV character’s interactions with the world and with other characters to pass on world building information. Dialogue, of course, will be a key component. The trick here is to identify which characters know what and to use them effectively.
Identify supporting characters and their motivations, including forces of antagonism.
- So far, the only supporting character I’ve identified is big brother John. And I don’t know his motivation in the story yet, other than to make sure his little sister doesn’t get hurt. But he does know a lot of about becoming a Rider. He will likely pass this information on to Jane.
- The Mal’niveus are a force of antagonism, and they have already provided a main structural element to the world building by creating the necessity for the walled city-states.
I haven’t yet identified the main villain, but once I do I will need to explore his/her motivation extensively. What does the bad guy want? Why does he want it? How does he plan on getting it? Answers to these questions should both inform and be informed by the world at large. Think about it—only the perfect storm conditions of post World War I Germany could’ve produced a Hitler. The more we explore the villain’s motivation for his/her badness, the more these conditions will become apparent. Once they are apparent, put them into the story as much as you can and as much as makes sense.
Finally, my last bit of advice is to try and make the world building as fun for you as possible. If the writer is having fun playing in their world, the reader will, too.
Mindee Arnett is the author of two forthcoming young adult series. The first book in her contemporary fantasy series, The Nightmare Affair, will be available March 2013 from Tor Teen (Macmillan). Her YA sci-fi thriller, Finding Eden, will debut Winter 2014 from Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins). She lives on a horse farm in Ohio with her husband, two kids, a couple of dogs, and an inappropriate number of cats. She’s addicted to jumping horses and telling tales of magic, the macabre, and outer space. Find her online at www.mindeearnett.com.
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THE NIGHTMARE AFFAIR by Mindee Arnett: 16-year-old Dusty Everhart breaks into houses late at night, but not because she’s a criminal. No, she’s a Nightmare. Literally. Dusty is a magical being who feeds on human dreams.
Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for magickind, and living in the shadow of her mother’s infamy is hard enough. But when Dusty sneaks into Eli Booker’s house, things get a whole lot more complicated. He’s hot, which means sitting on his chest and invading his dreams couldn’t get much more embarrassing. But it does. Eli is dreaming of a murder. The setting is Arkwell.
And then it comes true.
Now the Dusty has to follow the clues–both within Eli’s dreams and out of them–to stop the killer before more people turn up dead. And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target.
Coming March 5, 2013.