World-Building: Fantasy OR Reality
I used to read SO much fantasy. From the day I discovered Tolkien, I was on the hunt for more elves and wizards, and McCaffrey introduced me to dragons (and fire lizards), and I never wanted to stop. It was, I admit, a habit–the kind that isn’t all that discriminating, but just needs to be fed.
I can’t remember when this pattern decreased. Maybe when I found mysteries? Or when I started reading new middle-grade and YA books about “real” kids? Not sure. I’ve always been ready to dip back in, as books come along–like with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Sharon Shinn’s beautiful YA books. But somewhere/somewhen, the sheer quantity of my fantasy reading dropped.
It may be picking up again. I just read Tamora Pierce’s Melting Stones and I think I’m falling in love again. The characters are wonderful and her prose is just gorgeous. What I really think has hooked me, though, is the world that Pierce has built.
I’ve actually been thinking about world-building lately, because I don’t think it’s justsomething for fantasy and sci-fi writers. In my historical novel, I do have to create the world of 1913 Chicago that my MC lives in. Yes, I have to base this world on true facts, but I need to find the right balance with which to weave those facts into her story. I also need to make sure that I get the right balance between historical details and the specific, particulate of that world in which Caro lives.
So I’ve started thinking about how to do this, and I’m trying to pay attention to the writers who are doing it well. Like Pierce. I’m looking for the way this world-building shows up in, but doesn’t take over, the story. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- The details/information that are important to the story world are introduced fairly early on. This establishes for the reader where/when we are and that this story is not taking place “here,” or”now” wherever the reader’s here and now might be.
- Those details are concrete and specific. They are SO shown, not told.
- The details are woven, not dropped in. They show up in dialog, in action, not simply in internal thoughts or narration. And they are scattered across the scenes and pages, never clumped.
- The details feel at once alien and natural. In other words, they are called out for the reader so that we see and know them as different from our world. On the flip side, they are taken as almost matter-of-fact by the characters–recognized as, not dull, but every-day or at least familiar.
To put that badly, but perhaps more clearly, a character does not come into the room, note the pottery bowl and wooden spoon on the table, and say, “Wow! Look at that!” Instead, they say something like, “Hey, clear your eatingware off the mat, will you?!”
- In the same vein, special powers or abilities–just like unique personality traits–are not called out, highlighted, for the reader’s attention. It’s the changes in these powers/abilities that seem new and important to the characters, and that’s how they need to feel to the reader.
What about you? Do you world-build as you write? What are your techniques for finding the details, and what are your craft goals for making those details part of your story? I’d love to hear your takes on this! AND any fantasy-author recommendations, as well!