You know how sometimes you hear the same thing so many times you tune it out, and then somebody says it a different way and wow! it’s brand new? That’s how I felt at last weekend’s ArmadilloCon writers workshop in Austin about the world building discussion. Hadn’t I memorized the Five P’s of World Building (people, places, problems, practices and peculiarities) espoused by Jaye Wells ,(author of the Prospero’s World and Sabina Kane paranormal series), among others?
Was there anything new, I wondered, that the ArmadilloCon workshop leaders could say about world building? And then they did.
The keys to world building are to choose emotionally-charged, telling details that convey information to readers without burying them under a pile of information and to display those details through the characters’ interactions with their world
“Find the right details that will show something that you may not think of,” said Amanda Downum, particularly sensory details – texture, taste and scent. And, added Joe McKinney, author of the Dead World series, “those details have to come organically through your character.”
And as with any information, the best way to reveal details is through our characters’ interactions. “It’s the characters’ impact on the world and the world’s impact on the characters that world building happens without your readers knowing it,” said Patrice Sarath.
An example McKinney particularly likes is the tea ceremony in the City of Stairs series by Robert Jackson Bennett, in which a character’s enactment of the ceremony not only allows the writer to describe it, but to have the ceremony become an integral element of the plot.
That kind of integration requires writers to have a grasp of the world their characters will inhabit before starting to write. “Sometimes people get excited about a plot and start writing before the world is fully formed in their heads,” cautioned writing instructor Urania Fung . Right, Sarath agreed. “Don’t retrofit your characters’ actions to fit something in your world later. In romances, this is called ‘too stupid to live’. Readers will understand when you’re playing them false.”
Is this starting to sound very, very complicated? Maybe you’re saying, hey, I write contemporary fiction set in the here and now, so do I really need to build a world? Isn’t it already there for my readers?
Panelists said, yes. Even when dealing with a real city, it may not be one readers are familiar with. And consider that even the town you live effectively contains multiple worlds, such as those within Austin, Texas. Is the story set in the rapidly gentrifying version of Austin or the funky music and arts version – or a myriad of others?
And don’t discount the limits of that world, whether mostly real or wholly imagined.
“Think about constraints,” Sarath said, including economic constraints – yes, even in fantasy and science fiction. “When you tighten the screws on everything, interesting things happen. When you take away freedom, you have an interesting plot.”
And finally, leave room for the readers’ imaginations as well, because their participation is integral to a story.
Well, almost finally, because there’s still a lot of brick and mortar help out there, including those “Five P’s” of paranormal fiction writer Jaye Wells, which I discussed at “Jaye Wells on building a world all your own” on this site.