Wednesday, August 30, 2017

3 Steps to Building Your Story World

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

World building is a part of every novel, even if there isn't much to do to create that world. 

Novels set in the present day in known cities don't need as much work to convey the setting, and a skilled writer can bring a familiar city to life in new and exciting ways. Historical writers can take years researching their settings to get the world right, and make their readers feel as though they've stepped back in time. Novels set in fantasy or created worlds design them from the ground up, envisioning the past, present, and even the future of those worlds.

For many writers, creating the world is half the fun of writing the novel. It's also half the work (if not more).

I love creating imaginary worlds, but I actually find it hard to create something out of the blue. I need a jumping off point, or a bit of inspiration, so I base my worlds on real places and develop from there. I doubt anyone would recognize the places I pick, but they provide structure and credibility to the world I put my stories into.

For those unsure how to go about building a world, here's my general process (feel free to adjust or adapt to suit your needs):

Step One: Choose a Place to Start 

There's so much to choose from when developing a world, but for my novel The Shifter, I'd been inspired by a movie that partially took place in Venice. The canals and individual "islands" of the city sparked quite a few ideas for me, and I knew I wanted to set the story in a Venice-like city on a lake. Since it had to contain an entire city, I knew it had to be a huge lake, so I Googled "world's biggest lakes" for some possible locations. I found several options and started looking at each one, weighing the pros and cons of using this to base my world on.

Lake Superior: This had interesting possibilities, but it was pretty deep and very cold. I didn't mind the cold, as that would bring inherent problems of its own to the story, but it occurred to me that anyone building a city on a lake would probably need it to be shallow. The depth didn't really work for what I had envisioned.

Lake Tanganyika: This one was too long and skinny for my purpose. As I was looking at the photos, I imagined a larger lake much bigger than the city built on it. I wanted my city to have a sense of isolation that only a vast expanse of water can create.

Lake Victoria: Round, shallow, interesting geographic location...hmm...this seemed perfect. It was the right size and shape for the city that was growing fast in my mind at this point, and it had some interesting aspects of its own I felt I could work into the story somehow.

I got lucky by finding the right lake fairly quickly, but I've also had novels that took months before I found the right starting point. I use my instincts when choosing locations, and I go with what sparks my creativity and starts triggering ideas in my heads.

Step Two: Research What Catches Your Interest

Once I picked my lake, I started researching the climate of the region. Cultures develop based on their environment, so this would help give my world a sense of realism. My story's culture would need to reflect the environment.

Lake Victoria covers part of the Uganda region of Africa, and I liked the idea of doing a world in a hot climate. (I grew up in South Florida, so I know how the tropics feels). The climate would determine agriculture, which would determine what people ate--no typical fantasy mutton in this story! Fashion would reflect the temperatures, which could also influence social mores, and they're likely be no taboo about showing skin. Natural resources would determine building materials. Livestock would determine both food and fabric.

For example, a culture might grow cotton, but not raise sheep, so they'd be no wool. A small detail, but it would matter when I described what my characters were wearing. Also, someone living in the tropics wouldn't need wool, but they would need lighter fabrics to keep them cool, so cotton made more sense than wool.

I also found some fun (and real) details I could incorporate, such as how water hyacinths are a problem around Lake Victoria, because they grow so fast and get caught in boat propellers. This translated easily into a problem my world could have, with plants clogging the canals and having to be yanked out by hand. Sounded like a risky job to me, so why not make it even riskier by adding crocodiles to the mix (an animal native to the region). A city with a lot of poor folks desperate for a job would risk being eaten to pull a few plants now and then. I didn't know if I'd use this, but it helped bring my world to life for me.

Step Three: Make It Yours

Once I had a basic world foundation, I took all these details and thought about how they would work in my lake-side city. Fishing would obviously be important, so that became a large industry. In a small city riddled with canals, vehicles would takes up a lot of space, so most people would walk. Boats would likely be used to carry those with money from one side of the isle to the other. Small details to be sure, but when I sat down to write, all of these elements would braid together to create a realistic and solid world for my readers.

I also had to think about the technology of this world. I wanted my people to be advanced enough to have things like clocks and glass, but still maintain a fantasy feel. Drawing on the Venice inspiration, I chose 16th century Italy for my technology level, which would give the world a Renaissance undertone--and give me plenty of things to draw from. Education was available, books existed, commerce was more developed. I cross-referenced this with the natural resources my African lake climate would have, so I could see what technologies would have developed and which wouldn't have. For example, if there's no access to gold, then you don't have goldsmithing or gold jewelry.

After that, I moved on to style. What would the art look like? How would these people decorate? Again, I went back to my base influences of the African lake and the Italian city. I decided to mix the two and go for a Byzantine feel. Arches, tiles, mosaics, beads, bright colors and patterns. Textures. I could really see the world at this point, and imagine walking down it's streets along the canals.

Every culture has a religion (if not several), and I didn't want to gloss over this aspect of the world. I decided to give my world a spiritual side, but not one that required the deities to actively participate in the lives of the people. Something that guided morality and faith, but didn't dominate it. Saints popped into my mind (couldn't even tell you what inspired that) and since the story involved sisters, I wanted to make all the Saints female, and sisters. Alliteration naturally took me to the Seven Sisters, and that worked into the seven deadly sins. My Saints became the opposite, and represented the seven virtues.

During the first draft, my protagonist ended up hiding in a temple and sat in front of one of the statues of the Saints. I hadn't planned this, but I suddenly knew which Saint she'd be drawn to--Saint Saea, Sister of Compassion. It was an important moment for me as an author to understanding that character, and I knew her a lot better after that unexpected moment. Had I not designed that aspect of the world, I probably would not have had that scene or that moment.

Slowly, my world took shape. Most of the stuff I was creating was just background at this point, but the goal was to develop a solid world that worked socially, economically, spiritually, and environmentally. Knowing how the world worked made it easier to figure out how my protagonist might fit into it. It also gave me a base to draw from for my descriptive details. A lot of it I didn't even use until later books, and some, not at all. But it helped me develop the story.

Next time you're creating a world of your own, try building from the ground up. Instead of thinking how the problems you want your characters to have fit in a world, think about a world in which those problems would naturally exist.

How do you like to start world building?

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

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.
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  1. Awesome post, Janice! This makes me look at world-building differently. I usually visit towns, take pictures, and make up my own scenarios for my fictitious towns/cities. Actual research on the area's flora and fauna, and using them, would eliminate the burning-off of crucial brain cells for me. DUH!!

    Marcia, who's not afraid to admit to a few blond moments!

  2. My world is becoming harder and harder for me to handle as the story progress. I can't keep a record on all the nations I want to create, because my story happens only on two cities, far away from the spotlights and the big realms. But I want to have several characters from abroad to make my secondary character roster more cosmopolitan.

    I'm not working directly with these places and I don't want to write extensively about them, did you have similar problems when you started your first novel?

  3. I started with characters, and then built my world (ok, galaxy) around what would have needed to happen or what would need to be on place to make them the way they are. So I had two female friends who were very different from very different places. I knew I wanted one to be a runaway princess denying her heritage and for it to be a really big deal when it was revealed. So I played with what would make it a big deal, and decided it was because her people had been at war with the people where she lived now. Ok, why were they at war... Which led to figuring out the different government systems and cultural stuff that would go with that...It helps that my background is history, so I have a lot of shorthand I can use, even though the books are space opera. So, my story empire is sort of a combo of the Byzantines and the Late British Empire (in space, lol), and there's a rebellion on one planet with guerilla warfare like our Vietnam War (low tech people fighting a high tech invader), etc. But the point is to take something you're familiar with as a starting point, then extrapolate from there...that thing you're building on becomes your shorthand. My universe became complex enough that I have story fodder for two series, so, Silva, that complexity can be a good thing.... :-)

    1. Hey Nicole, I agree with you, it is a good thing. However, it is though to handle as you write hehe. Secondary character 32 comes from that place, that I remember that had a bad empress and had some wars for years. When I say that guy is from there, I need to create a little of that backstory so the place isn't just a "void" where he comes from. It is very hard.

      Your idea sounds good, I'm using some historical references too, like: historical Ghana and other old african empires, Auroville and so on.

  4. Best post on world building I came across in years, and very timely too. Thanks Janice.

  5. found this, using it in my class! Thanks