You’ve outlined the perfect plot, and your characters are so developed you’ve had long, philosophical conversations with them in your head. But let me tell you, that awesome plot with the cool twists and those amazing characters won’t be nearly as powerful in an empty, lifeless place. The point? You gotta paint a world around your characters. Heck, make the world a character, too! It doesn’t matter if you’re writing epic fantasy, a space opera, or a story set right here in the real world, don’t let your characters do their thing on a blank canvas.
Below are a few ideas to keep in mind, but they just scratch the surface. I’ll drop some links for you at the bottom to sites that give a more in-depth look into worldbuilding.
- This is for you, speculative fiction writer.
I’m sure you see your world as clear as your characters. You picture the castles or spaceships or planets—whatever makes your world yours, you see it. But don’t forget the little things that make the big thing. Ask yourself some questions. What about the religious system? Social mores, anyone? How’s the government set up? The socio-economic system? Where do they get the power to turn on their lights and heat their homes? What do they eat? Where do they go to get that food?
I can list at least a hundred more questions, but the gist is to make this world as authentic as the world you live in. Populate it with REAL, diverse people. Breathe life into it. Make readers believe the world in your mind actually exists somewhere.
Oh, and here’s a tip: The real world is HUGE, filled with way more than western culture. Do some research and find inspiration from studying other places and cultures when you begin to build your new, amazing place.
- I haven’t forgotten you, contemporary fiction writer.
You need to make sure your world is just as vivid and believable. I’m sure you’ve heard the “write what you know” advice. You don’t have to, okay? You don’t need to write anything but exactly what you want to. But here’s the thing: YOU NEED TO RESEARCH.
It’d be great if we could travel to wherever it is we want to set our stories, but let’s be honest. We’re writers. Starving artists. For most of us, taking a trip to the region we want to set our story in isn’t usually possible. Google is your friend here, or even better, find a few people from the region and ask to interview them. Pay attention to their vernacular, how they pronounce their words. Ask about their daily life, about their communities. Ask what they do for fun. Ask ALL the questions.
If you don’t put in the time, readers will know. For example, I’m from Western Pennsylvania, and we don’t have the same vernacular as someone from, say, Connecticut. Also, fashion is about five years behind our trendier NYC pals—or even our Pittsburgh friends. Our weather and geography are different from somewhere like Nevada, too.
- Make your world a character, but don’t make it THE character.
Your world is super important, but PLEASE don’t write blocks of descriptive paragraphs describing your super-important world. Build only as much as you need when you need it. Don’t sacrifice your characters and plot for pretty purple prose that will more than likely bore readers and slow the pace unnecessarily. Instead, show the world through character action and dialogue. How? One great way is to utilize the senses, all five of them. I don’t just want to see what your characters see. I want to smell the air, taste the food, feel the ground under my feet, hear the car door slam.
Here’s a quick example:
“Shoot him, Sissy.”
“Quiet,” I whispered. We lay prone atop a bed of rotting vegetation, probably covered with ticks I’d have to pick off both of us at home.
His neck stayed in my sights, the shotgun barrel propped on a fallen hickory branch, my cheek against the cold stock.
Stop shaking, dammit!
Yes, above is an excerpt—and a shameless plug—from my upcoming young adult book Into the Hollow.
As promised, here are some great links to check out:
WARNING: contains graphic language. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/09/17/25-things-you-should-know-about-worldbuilding/
Lynn Vroman is the author of several young adult novels, including Into the Hollow, releasing this summer. In addition to writing, she has worked as an editor and is currently interning at North Star Editions, parent company to Flux and Jolly Fish Press.