World Building is probably one of the most difficult, yet most important parts of writing any story.
Fantasy and Science-Fiction writers need to be especially careful in this matter, since they depend almost entirely on the ability of their worlds to engage and compel the reader. Only through flawless attention to detail, and clearly set parameters, writers can achieve the suspended disbelief necessary for their stories to succeed.
Readers are much smarter than you think, and unlike agents, editors and publishing professionals, who are already set for disappointment every time they read a manuscript, a reader actually makes an investment for the book. As such, he is expecting that investment to pay off in the form of an enjoyable, cohesive, well-crafted experience.
While it’s funny to think about a news shopper flying over the medieval battlefield of a historical novel, readers are not that entertained whenever they find an anachronism or incoherence in a text that was supposedly revised several times.
And people, just for the record, they DO notice!
However, in order to avoid these intrinsic problems, there are several easy steps we can take:
1- Set specific rules:
Whether a planet in a galaxy far, far away, or a busy nightclub in the streets of The Bronx, you need to set up rules for your world. How does it look like? What kind of people are the inhabitants/visitors? What kind of language is spoken? Your world is
just as important as your leads and villains. You have to make sure it’s rich enough, with layers and complexity.
Just like you would for a character, sit down and write a couple of pages of background information. History, geography, traditions, mythology, language, dress code… any detail you can think of. Even if you are not going to add it to the final project, this information is going to be priceless as you move forward in the story.
Basically, it’s what’s going to prevent you from saying your club/planet is blue in the first chapter, and then red on the fourth chapter. (Believe me, it happens.)
2- Timelines are your friends:
If your story happens in several different timeframes, please, please (please!), do set up a timeline. Yes, they are bothersome. Yes, they need constant updating and consume precious time you can use to write, but they are also vital. Having a character being 25 in one chapter and 23 in the other, only because you messed up your dates, is not good for business. We are humans, people, we are allowed to make mistakes. But we can (should!) also do whatever’s in our power to correct those mistakes.
Setting a timeline of events is not a hard thing. You can do it by hand, in your PC, laptop, or even in your tablet. You can add your events all at once, or keep updating as you go. But it’s important to have them, because later on, when you enter the editing phase, this sort of incoherent facts are the first thing you are going to want to look at. It’s good to have a reliable source.
3- A needle in a haystack:
Makes sure that your character blends in with your setting. I don’t have
to tell you that an astronaut does not belong in an Ancient Rome-themed story, however, there are more subtle nuances that writers also need to take into account when placing their character on setting.
For instance, if your character comes from a city background, and you setting is a farm, it’s highly unlikely he’ll know how to ride a horse. Or if your character is a Regency-time prostitute, chances are she won’t know the difference between a Duke and an Earl if you bring her to an Aristocracy ball setting.
Establish clear parameters about how your characters interact with your world and how they develop within it, and then use this parameters to set the limits. You have to know that not everything is justifiable, and that sometimes, you can’t just “do” what you want with your novel, even if you are the writer.
The characters just won’t take it. And neither will the readers.
4- Research and conquer:
The most critical part of world building is most likely research. How well-crafted your world is depends greatly in how much research you have. You can’t write a book about athletes, or doctors, or musicians, and expect words like “ball,” “brain” or “piano” to cut it.
No, you have to make sure to know exactly what is the 3-steps shot, what’s the function of the frontal lobe, and where in a piano is the A Minor.
Lack of good research and references are the death of many talented writers, because readers simply won’t take laziness from an author, regardless of how good he is. You are definitely not expected to know everything, but you have to research if you want to write about something you don’t know.
And that goes for Fantasy and Sci-fi authors too. A Sci-fi author who tells me his character can breathe in deep space, is a sci-fi author I won’t read again. Ever. The same goes for a Fantasy writer who thinks he can create a half-elf/half-orc character and sell it to me. Biology, people! It’s simple Biology!
There are many other strategies that can help you develop your world building skills, or improve the ones you already have. Regardless, if you remember to put everything to writing, and pay attention to detail, world building can also be a wonderful experience of freedom and confidence.
Let me know how you liked the post and what are your own strategies to keep your settings cohesive and believable.
See you next time!