Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Writing Tip #11: World-Building

A novel is like a movie. You need a stage (setting) for your actors (characters) and a director (plot) to tell those actors where to go. If you're missing one element then your novel will fail. Like I said in the Setting blog post: you don't have a novel if you don't have a setting.

Setting can be as simple or as easy as you want. It can be earth based or a whole new world. When done correctly the setting can become it's own character, showing your reader the tone of your novel and giving them clues as to what's happening in your plot. No matter how complex your setting you're going to have to do a bit of world-building.

What is world-building? It's everything that occurs in the world you've made, or the world you're borrowing (earth). What do I mean by everything? Here's a world-building sample question list:
  • What kind of currency does your world have? What is the cost of living for an average person and how many may or may not be below the poverty line? Is there a big gap between poor and rich?
  • What kind of clothing do the people wear? Does this clothing change based on status? Who makes the clothing? How difficult is it to get the materials to make clothing?
  • How many countries are in this world? What are the boundaries between countries like? How is the world ruled (multiple Kings, one King, lord and ladies, etc)? How do people travel between countries? Do they need permits in order to travel from one country to another? How many languages are there? Are there different races and do the races have different customs than others?
  • What are the customs? Are there days of the week, months, years, different than ours? What holidays are there and how are they celebrated? What are the traditions?
  • How do they build and what are their main building materials? What are their streets and roads like? How are their cities and towns laid out? What kind of technology do they have?
  • What kind of food do people eat? At what time? How much? What kind of table manners are people in different castes expected to have? Does food differ between rich and poor and by how much? How easily accessible is food? Does each country have its own supply or do they trade for rarities and what are those treaties like?
  • What does society think about and how does it treat: sex, abortion, religion, specific customs, women, men, animals, and children? What are the general rules of society and how is a person punished if these rules are broken? What are the morals of society as a whole? What do they do for entertainment?
  • What is the main religion? Are their cults? How does believing or not believing in this religion affect a person?
  • What's the wild-life and fauna like? Are there hybrid animal-humans? Do some countries have specific fauna and others don't? What's the general layout of the lands? Forests? Rivers? Desert? Mountains?
  • Is there a caste system? If so, how does it work and can one move up or down in the system?
  • Is there magic? If so, what are the rules behind this magic? Do people need a totem, potions, rituals, or some other object of power? What are the limits to the magic? Is it only certain people who can perform it and if so, how are these people seen by society as a whole? Are certain mages liked more than others and are there forbidden magic types? Why are these magic types forbidden but others not?
Woah, woah, hold on. Don't start copy-pasting those questions into a new document (or hand-writing them) so you can use it as your starting point to EVERY novel. You don't need to know every little detail for every single world. Let me repeat that: YOU DO NOT NEED TO KNOW EVERY LITTLE DETAIL FOR EVERY SINGLE WORLD.

So, why the questions? They're examples and nothing more. You may need one set in great detail (like the magic set) and not another (like currency). Furthermore, your world-building serves the story, not the plot, these are two entirely different things. Your story is the finished work from first to last word. The plot is the series of events (conflict) that runs through the story. World-building is kind of like stepping stones.

Anyway, world-building serves the story. Your reader does not need to know every single rule in the world, especially if said rule will never come up. You're not writing an encyclopedia or new law book for your world. You're giving the reader enough knowledge so they know why the characters may be in trouble if these use certain types of magic or whatever. It's actually cool to leave out some little details so the world is mysterious and interesting.

A few things you should ALWAYS remember when world building:
  • Stereotypes should be avoided. Don't make white rulers and black slaves. Please, Higher Power, AVOID that.
  • Small details are sometimes better than a huge run on Bible. For instance, how a person greets a higher up can say a lot about the culture.
  • There are people who will not behave as culture dictates because of free will. (Raven in Bonehemmer Princess comes to mind...)
  • Just because a rule or punishment might be cool: if it's not important to the story then don't include it. On that note: Take a look at how the real world works and base your world off it.
  • Not everything has to be a huge info dump for the reader, show instead of telling.
  • The changes in one part of the world (new laws in a different country, draughts, famine, etc) effects other parts of the world.
World-building can be overwhelming but you have to think of your story and characters first. Mainly: what and who is your story about? Some examples:

The Princess: Is it about a princess who's kidnapped and has to find her way back home? Then you have to know the differences between poor and rich in your society, possibly about how clothing is made and who makes it, possibly other countries, and especially food and how it's obtained. Do you need to know about religion? Eh, not really. A simple "She prayed to the gods to let her get back home" is good enough. Do we need to know about politics? Hells yes. She's a princess, this is going to come up. So, who rules? How many rule? What's the hierarchy like in ruling? How does one secure land?

You'll also have to know why she's been kidnapped and what the people think of her. Is she important because she's a princess or are the people okay with her younger brother being the ruler even if he's not of age because they're a patriarchal society? Good example: The Starks in Song of Ice and Fire. Sansa and Arya are leveraged by many enemies because it's thought all the boys are dead and both girls will be the Stark in Winterfell. BUT, if one of the boys pops up then the girls don't matter so much.

The Mage: Someone comes into newfound magic! YAY! See that big set of questions up there about magic? Yeah, answer all those. Do you need to know how many Kings rule, who rules under them, etc? Eh, not really. A general mention but you're going to be focusing more on how society deals with any aspect of magic. So you won't need to know who the King was two centuries ago. Hell, depending on the story you might not even need to know who the current King is. And depending on who's coming into their magic you might not even need to know about how the 'rich' people live. Good example: Harry Potter. Everything in the story revolves around magic and how it's used and I'm told. I haven't actually gotten around to reading it yet.

The BARE BASICS of world-building are the following:
  • Is magic important to your story? If yes, go into some rules and limitations about magic.
  • Is money important in your story? If yes, go into currency arrangements, how people obtain money, etc.
  • Is the Leader (King, Queen, etc) important in your story? If yes, go into the differences between rich and poor and expectations of royalty. Who ruled before who and how the rule is separated between countries as well as what treaties their may or may not be.
  • Is someone in your story part of a religious faction? If yes, then you're going to need to go into religion.
No matter what you're going to need to know how society deals with certain issues pertaining to your character. If your character is "not normal" why are they against the societies norm and how does society view them? This can be something like your character being female in a male dominated world where women are seen as nothing but objects and baby makers.

Now do you see why you don't need the whole big list of questions in the beginning? World-building is completely dependant on your setting, your plot, and your characters. Again, it's only as complicated as you need it to be and you don't need to tell the reader everything.

A word of advice: figure out the main conflict of your story and how your characters are going to solve that conflict. World build from there. Remember, the world-building comes after you know what your stage (setting) is going to look like, who your actors (characters) are, and what direction (plot) the story is going in. And no, your reader doesn't need to know every little detail.

Until next time: thoughts, comments, rages, rants, questions, and out-right insults can be directed to the comments section.

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