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Monday, April 29, 2013

A Whole New World

Picture Credit: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/
Picture Credit: http://www.cartographersguild.

I'd better start out by giving Disney credit for the title of this posting. For anyone not up on their Disney animated movies, "A Whole New World" is the name of one of the songs in Aladin.

Before I get into my posting, I also need to explain the absence of last week's post. I put my home on the market and have been looking for a new house. Between the work I've been doing to make sure the house I'm selling is in tip-top shape, and all the time I've spent online and driving around in house hunting--I'm beat. But, I'm happy to report that I've completely run out of things to fix and have almost run out of things to clean. And I've found a house that I'm hoping to buy. Now I get to just sit back (while keeping up on basic cleaning) and wait for a buyer to come along.

For those few who have the patience to make it through such a long intro, now I'll get into today's topic: creating a realistic world.

Every author must create a world. A person writing an biography doesn't have much leeway in the world he or she creates compared to someone writing science fiction. But a story set in inner-city Chicago will be very different than a story set in rural Wyoming. The key difference between the world created by a fantasy author and the world created by a historical author is the amount of research required.

World Building

  1. Know your world. You should be familiar with every detail of the world you intend to capture. Take time to familiarize yourself with it. You should be just as knowledgeable about your world as you are with your main character.
  2. Don't include everything you know. I may know the names and addresses of every person living on my main character's street. But an address book is boring. No one wants to read an endless description of how amazing your world is. Tidbits at the right time and place are much more effective.
  3. Never break your world's rules. Is there gravity in your world? Then don't suddenly do away with it in order to get your character out of a scary situation. Are bows and arrows the most sophisticated weapons in existence? Then don't give your character a bazooka. Now, I'm not saying that your character can't have special powers if you have set that up as one of your rules, but you will have disgruntled readers if you throw in an abrupt change of rules without an explanation.
  4. Flesh out the geography. Draw a map for yourself. It doesn't have to be something that would show up on the inside cover of your book. It doesn't have to look remotely professional. But if you don't know that the character turns left when she does her grocery shopping and right when she goes to the mall, it will come out in your writing. That goes for the city, the country, and even the house. Every time you step into a scene, you should know where things are located.
  5. Limit the special terrain. Let's use Harry Potter as an example here. Everyone knows that the staircases in Hogwarts change directions at will. A couple times, this becomes a significant fact in the plot. But if every time Harry wanted to go somewhere the staircases sent him somewhere else, it would get redundant and the staircases would be obnoxious to readers. This doesn't only apply to fantasy, either. Does it rain every time the main character has to go somewhere important? Is there a page-long rant about bad traffic every chapter?
  6. Know the history. People and cultures don't develop overnight. Events are always connected to what happened before. Whether you are writing in the real world or you are creating a new world, you should be very aware of the history of the people and places you write about. This may never come up in your whole book, but if you don't know it then sooner or later you will find yourself accidentally contradicting yourself. In addition to actual events, take a look at the distorted history that characters believe to be the truth. Ask yourself how the perception of history has been molded by outcomes. For example, the revolutionary war of US history would be seen very differently if the colonists had lost the war.
  7. Understand society. What is socially acceptable? What are the laws? The way your characters think and act is directly related to the society they know--even if they oppose social norms. 
  8. Evaluate religion. Characters' decisions and morals are heavily influenced by their religious beliefs. If you are writing about a person who is devout to a religion you know nothing about, then you had better start studying and talking to people of that religion--do not get all your information from antagonists of the religion you want to know about. If you don't understand your character's religion  you are only going to capture a bad stereotype. This is also true if you are writing fantasy and you're making up a religion. It's fine to make one up--just make sure you know it inside and out.
  9. Keep track of why you are setting up your world. No matter how amazing your world is, it alone will not carry your story. Your book should not be a record of the ins and outs of your world. Let the descriptions you share support your story--never the other way around.


  1. I have to admit it, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing. I enjoy my worlds and figuring out every single little detail that made them the way that they are. Thanks for the advice on how to do this in an organized fashion, it took me nearly two years to figure out what it was like in one of the cities in my story, hopefully with your advice, I can figure this out much faster.
    Thanks. :)
    Good luck with finding a house and with cleaning, no one will actually admit to it, but cleaning can be addicting, I know that when I start cleaning my disaster area of a closet, hours pass and I don't realize it until I look at my clock and it's three in the morning and I started at ten. Oops. :)

  2. I know exactly what you mean about cleaning being addictive. I also have to say, that I love the feeling of looking around and seeing what I've accomplished. And I only realized the importance drawing maps after I had a class on it a while back. After the class I went back to my story to look specifically at mapping out every scene. It wasn't until then that I realized how painfully obvious it was that I didn't know where anything was--such as a prison cell with a window that I hadn't put next to an outside wall. It's funny how the little details can trip us if we're not paying attention.

    1. I know! Those kind of details can be complete killers! The prison cell window thing made me laugh though, kind of like my ghouls...a big OOPS! Moment where you're so incredibly glad you caught that before anyone else did. :)