If you build it, he will come. ~kevin costner
World building in novel writing: How important is it? How, where, do you even begin? If you’ve talked to me about writing, you’ve probably heard me say that my characters write the story. That’s true. I don’t write it. Not any more at least. I may have started the story off with a neat little concept and designed a somewhat familiar setting as a backdrop for my characters to play in. Ultimately, when they show up, they take what loosely woven strand of fiber I’ve picked (tangled rat’s nest depending on your interpretation) and run with it.
That being said, once you’ve decided your genre and you’ve got that “big bag of crazy” that is the beginning of a kick ass novel, there are two main things I feel every author should consider while world building.
Number one: This is probably the most important in my opinion. Whatever the genre is, creating a believable world is critical. A story is not a story if it’s not believable. You, the author, have to be able to creatively craft a world that can convince a reader to suspend disbelief enough to still be present and fully engaged with the tale being told. That’s a hard thing to teach, a hard thing to learn and an even harder thing to put into practice.
Readers are smart. They’ll know when you haven’t done your homework. When you’ve built a world in the sixteenth century but your characters are magically talking, behaving and wearing a t-shirt and shorts like it’s present day 2015. Writers have to be smart when creating a world. The small details, things like culture, climate, race, history, social classes, food, are important to consider. Readers will know when you’ve left gaps. Or worse, when you’ve tried to plug those gaps with things that don’t belong. Think of your readers’ like that damn kid at the beach. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that no matter how well you think you’ve fortified your elaborately built sand castle with sharp shells and sea urchin quills…that little bastard is going to mow it down like the line backer, Terry Tate if you turn your back and leave an opening. In the case of world building and novel writing, that’s the dreaded plot hole.
Just like your characters should act like real, fully rounded, albeit slightly flawed people to make them seem credible. Your world and setting should also be believable. I’m not saying you can’t have crazy awesome fantasy creatures with three heads and twelve inch teeth…if that’s your thing. I’m saying your character’s reaction to those creatures has to be authentic and genuine. The setting you create should match. Think of it in terms of theatre. In the world you’re building, the structures, flora, fauna etc. are your backdrop and props. The characters interact with those things moving the plot forward, backward or in some cases sideways and upside down, all while shooting a ray gun with green laser beams. The point is you have to find a way to connect with the reader, make them feel, see, smell, even taste the world you’ve built. All while allowing your characters the freedom to be who they are and tell their story effectively. That’s not too hard, right?
Number two: World building is like setting up a game board. I liken it most closely to the game, Risk. My stories are Science Fiction and all about war so there may be a bias on my part. Sometimes I find it’s best if I lay out all the pieces first. For some this may mean verbally bouncing ideas off a couple of friends or making an outline. For me, it means using my art degree in its purest form and literally laying out the biggest piece of paper I can find. I go to town drawing what the world would look like. What color are the plants? What kind of wacked out sci-fi tech can I design out of tin foil and toothpicks? Where are the landmasses, native tribe homelands, military bases etc. located? Then I scribble out freakishly unrecognizable chicken scratch notes to go with it all. I may not be able to read the notes later. Despite the fact that I can paint a masterpiece, I can’t seem to get a handle on basic handwriting. Nevertheless, it gets the wheels turning. I do everything from mapping out destinations, creating an idea of how long it would take characters to get from point “A” to point “B” and what physical, mental, environmental obstacles would pose hazards to their health. Doing all of this helps me get a feel for what the world is like and what my characters will endure.
**There is a caveat that I feel prudent to point out. The process of “physically” drawing out a world in map, or whatever form may materialize, is very likely to change as the story progresses. So don’t get attached. I’ve found that you can do all the leg work you want up front, before even typing a single word in the book. You may find that your characters take your work of genius and turn it into something completely foreign from the original concept. This is OKAY. I’ve talked to a few new authors who fear this phenomenon. Don’t fear it. Be open to it. If you’ve created a great starting block, your characters will dive right into the world you’ve made for them and take it to new heights you never imagined.
Whatever technique you choose to go about creating the world for your characters, remember to make it relatable. Building a believable world is crucial for their survival as much as it is for your story. Sometimes it pays off to sweat the small stuff in the beginning. After all, the devil is in the details.