Saturday, March 12, 2011

(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 protagonist 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.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Danyelle Leafty.


  1. So true! I need to bear this in mind on a novelette I'm working on. :)


  2. Great post, Janice! Nice job wrestling such a complex topic into something which can be described. Now, if it were only that easy to consistently apply these principles throughout any novel-in-progress.... ;0) But that's where the work/fun comes in.

  3. Great points! I love building my world around story themes. I often list out my main settings before I start writing so that I can make sure they echo the theme I want to make. Thanks for sharing these tips!

  4. It's wonderful when someone repeats a thing that you know and does it so simply that it finally clicks and makes sense to you.

  5. Carradee: Good luck with your novelette@

    Robyn: Thanks! I know, things would be so much easier then. But probably not as much fun :)

    Shallee: I like the idea of listing out your settings and comparing them with your themes. Good tip.

    Mary: Thanks! I've found a lot of writing worked that way for me. I heard advice and read books, but then one thing finally clicked and I got it.

  6. These are excellent points. I'm currently editing my first novel, and I'll keep this in mind as I go over the details that are there to make sure they are in line with the theme and each character's motivations. Thanks!

  7. Margit, my pleasure. Once you get used to have theme works you'll love it. It really helps tie a novel together.