Last month I debuted a new column in which I give advice for writing YA based on my experience as a YA bookseller. This month, I’d like to dive right in and talk about something vital to any story: world-building.
Fantasy novels are the first thing that springs to mind when we talk about crafting the world of our stories, but it is just as important in a contemporary romance as it is in a book about dragons. The world your story inhabits is a character in and of itself. It should feel rich and alive, but how exactly do you make that happen?
In many ways, we are our roots, and this is as true of countries as it is of people. Knowing how your setting evolved will make a big difference in how smoothly all the pieces come together when it comes time to actually put your characters there.
Before you panic, I don’t mean you need to write an epic tome like The Silmarillion before you get to Page 1 of your actual manuscript. Rather, you need to remember that places do not spring up from nothing. A bustling metropolis in the middle of a desert was built there for a reason, and that reason is going to affect its past, present, and future.
Four important factors to consider are geography, climate, economy, and culture. Broadly, you should have something to say about each of them, and each of these factors will affect and be affected by the history of the setting. For example:
- A king built his castle on a defensible hilltop, and hundreds of years later, a city has grown around it.
- Forty years ago, a small beach town was a vacation spot, but climate change has eroded the shoreline and driven its rich patrons away.
- A mining town was built inside of a metal-rich asteroid, and the platinum boom has made it prosper.
- On one side of the river, the people fish to survive, and on the other, people believe fishing is a sin. Their villages are well-fortified from years of conflict with each other.
None of these examples took a lot of time or research to invent, but to make them feel authentic and vibrant, I would need to dig deeper. How much research you will need to do for your setting depends a lot on what you already know and what effect you’re trying to achieve.
How Much Is Too Much?
There is a temptation when introducing readers to an entirely new world to give them a complete picture all at once. 99% of the time, this kills your story’s momentum. If your story is about an elite assassin, but you spend the first twenty pages on exposition about the setting, you should reconsider.
How do you get around this problem? After all, you’re trying to give readers a vivid image of the setting, aren’t you? Don’t you need all that description and explanation so people don’t get confused? Well, yes and no. People have an amazing capacity to fill in the blanks based on small pieces of information. If your main character turns down a grungy alley to get away from the roar of cars and the harsh neon lights on the main boulevard, your reader has already inferred that your MC is in a busy city after dark. You don’t need to describe every skyscraper or explain the entire history of the city in Chapter One. A setting can unfurl like a mystery, one clue at a time.
Questions about a setting can be a powerful motivator to keep reading, just like questions about your characters or the plot are. If your character keeps walking down that alley and passes a shop selling the latest model of laser sword, your reader is going to want to know how those factor in.
Details are scaffolding for the reader’s imagination. The challenge of building a good setting is knowing when you’ve done enough, and when you’ve done too much. Have a friend or a critique partner describe your setting based on the first chapter or two. If they “see” a very different world than you do, take a second pass on the setting details.
Magic vs. Mundane
To focus on fantasy settings for a moment, sometimes writers swing too far in the other direction and explain away all logical leaps in the setting with “a wizard did it.” Often, this is fine: magic breaks the rules. We don’t need a treatise on the metaphysics of the world to accept that a castle flies or that a secret kingdom exists underwater.
However, the pitfall writers often fall into is when they use the supernatural elements as a bandage over weak world-building. Settings have an effect on their characters and vice versa, and readers will infer things from those interactions that you may not have intended. If your wizards can create a feast with the snap of their fingers, but everyone else in their kingdom is a poor, starving peasant, that says something!
Spend some time asking yourself what life is like in your world for an average person (not your protagonist.) How are their basic needs and desires impacted by the setting? How might they respond? Who gains and who loses in this setting? Who has power and who doesn’t, and why?
When you’re building a world with magic (or sufficiently advanced technology), it should be another aspect of your world, not an afterthought.
- Pick an object that your protagonist owns, anything from a shirt to a cellphone to a magic ring. Ask questions about it. Where did it come from? What is it made of? Who made it? How common and/or expensive is it?
- Write a short scene that describes a setting without naming it or saying what it is (i.e. don’t use the word “city,” “farm,” “castle,” “spaceship,” etc.)
- Take your main character for a walk around their immediate environs. What do they see, smell, hear? Who do they meet? How do they feel about the area?
- Highlight every word or passage that describes the setting in the first 10-20 pages of your manuscript (or the opening chapter.) Does it seem like a lot, or too little?