Saturday, March 12
(World) Building on a Theme
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Theme can be an excellent guide for building a world, be it a fantasy village, a space station, or a small town in Ohio. It can be your guide through your story, and help you determine what aspects of your world you want to share with your reader.
A major theme in my novel, Blue Fire, is escape. Everyone is trying to escape something, be it a literal escape (fleeing from trackers), an emotional escape (fleeing guilt over a terrible deed), or an economical escape (fleeing the poverty that has kept you vulnerable). Since I knew this going into the story, I knew these aspects would need to be reflected in how I crafted my world.
Blue Fire is the second book of the trilogy, so much of my world building was already done. But my protagonist, Nya, finds herself in the enemy’s city this time, so I had to create that new “world” for her and the other characters to explore. I could have just made the city how I imagined it, but that didn’t fit the theme at all. To me, Baseer is a beautiful city (with problems of course). But to Nya, it’s a terrible place filled with terrible people.
So I used my theme to guide me.
How was Nya trying to escape? There were plot escapes, naturally, but there were also emotional escapes, financial escapes, personal escapes, moral escapes. A financial escape was as simple as a theft of food for a hungry girl, but that meant I had to show the market, the vendors, the type of food Nya would steal. A moral escape involved Nya torn between helping her enemy and doing what she knew was right. To write that scene, I needed to know how the poor were treated, because those were the people Nya would be sympathetic to regardless of their nationality. All details that helped flesh out my world, but also showed my theme in a subtle way.
It also showed the world in ways that mattered to the story, so my details weren’t just setting.
I think that’s the key to any good world building, no matter where that world is. We know what stuff looks like. We can imagine a moon landscape or a snow-capped mountain. You don’t need a lot of details to make those places come alive. But when you can describe those places in ways that also tell you more about the story or the characters, then suddenly your world becomes part of the story. It’s not just a place the story is set.
Things to Think About When Building Your World
1. What aspects of your theme can be illustrated in that world?
Situations, landscapes, people. Think about things that your protag will have to deal with in some way. This can help you decide what setting details to use.
2. What inherent problems or conflicts also show the theme?
Look at the cultural aspects of your world. A “you can’t fight city hall” theme will have a problem with the government in some way. Racial inequality will have a problem with bigotry. “Love conquers all” will show situations where love leads to victory. Those details will be apparent in how the world works.
3. How does your protag feel about the theme?
Odds are your protag is going to come face to face (and head to head) with the theme in the story. Nya is constantly trying to escape something, so when she runs across someone trying to escape something, she acts out of compassion. That made it easier to know what type of story problems to throw at her. I knew what would get her into the most trouble because it pushed her buttons. What pushes your protag’s buttons?
Theme may seem like a lofty thing found only in dusty literary novels, but it can be a unifying force in your novel. It can help you identify what helps your story along and what is just stuff in your story. And when it comes to world building, the risk of too much stuff is high. Having a guide makes it a lot easier to create a world that flows seamlessly from your story into the imagination of your reader.
Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Danyelle Leafty.