Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Art of World Building

Every genre story builds a world your characters live in. Some genre's worlds are easier. They are placed in our time and in places people can visit and relate to. Other genre's are tougher. The characters' worlds are set in the future or the past. The characters live in alternate worlds of magick and myth or off world planets. When we think of world building we think of paranormal or scifi first. But all stories must have proper world building. You don't want mountains in Indiana. You don't want icebergs in the Gulf of Mexico. You don't want flying cars in present day New York City, or camel caravans on the Kansas Turnpike unless you have built a world where the reader excepts these things.
How do you build a rich world regardless of genre?
1) Ground your characters. Tell the reader what their feet are touching - cement, mulched path, gravel, brick, asphalt. Give the reader an idea of what the air smells like, what the place looks like. Ensure you have the five senses. You don't have to be Michener with chapters of description. But if your characters are in a national park with wind and snow, tell me more. Are there trees? What kind? Are they on top of a mountain? Are their rocks at their feet? Campers nearby? Are they on a hiking path or in a meadow?
2) Clue the reader in on what is important to the characters. Why does she have an herb packet in her pocket. Why is she giving it to a little girl? Why are her dreams important. Who is the person they are chasing? Why are they worried what the council thinks? who is the council?
3) Remember that the hero's journey begins in the ordinary world. If you push them into the call to action too soon, the reader has no sense as to how that is different. What is at stake. Why the character would go on the journey.
World building involves setting, the five senses and character motivation. Without proper world building, it doesn't matter how colorful or magical your characters are, the reader will be lost and pages will not be turned.
My favorite story is when my New York Editors didn't understand the world of a midwest city. What is common place to me had to be explained in my story so that those who don't live in that area of the country can understand.
Have you ever been told you didn't world build enough?


Marilyn Brant said...

You wrote: My favorite story is when my New York Editors didn't understand the world of a midwest city.

Nancy, this is fascinating! I can totally see how it might happen, though. There are subtleties about a region, things a resident takes for granted. I had one story where it wasn't a problem of place as much as it was of time. (The town was fine, but the decade wasn't. ;) That's something I find I always have to watch in my own world building.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Marilyn, Thanks for the comment. I'm always interested in seeing what world building things others don't understand.
Recently an editor didn't understand the phrase, "she would give her eyeteeth for that gown." the editor thought it was creepy and couldn't understand why someone would want to pull out their teeth.
But growing up it was just a phrase people used for jealousy.