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…and I mean really talked to me. More like talked me into telling you my “crazy,” 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 twenty fifteen. 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, but 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. Never the less, 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’d 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.
Check out more on World Building at the Cover 2 Cover with Jami and Michele and guest authors Sam Odunsi Jr. and Andrea Perno radio show page here.
Excerpt from: THE LAST DROP
I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, hardly recognizing myself. My dark, crew-cut hair is growing out all wrong. Even at sixteen, there’s a rough haze of stubble along my jaw and across my upper lip. I’ll have to shave before reporting. I balance my armpits on the tops of aluminum crutches and rake my fingers along my scalp, watching my hair stand on end from sweat. It would feel amazing to splash cool water on my face and rinse the dirt from my skin, but those days are gone. Water is too precious. The sink basin is dry and coated with a layer of sand and dirt like everything else in the house. I turn the knobs anyway and pretend water fills the basin before reaching for the powdered bathing substitute and electric shaver. I need to look and smell presentable today. Dad and Jeremy are returning from overseas. My older brother, Jeremy, won’t care what I look like, but it wouldn’t be acceptable for the son of a prestigious military commander and esteemed biochemical engineer to have even one hair out of place.
The thought of their return brings a nervous anxiety, which I try to evade by pressing the electric shaver into the cleft of my chin, daring the blades to cut me. I don’t want to think about what my father will do if this mission failed too. No one on base will tell me anything substantial, but rumors say diplomacy is out the window. It explains why recruitment numbers are through the roof and why Jeremy doesn’t want me along for any missions. Thanks to him, I get another few weeks off before recruitment officers force me back into basic training. “Only had three days left, now I’ll have to start all over. Least you could’ve done was waited until I finished basic,” I whisper at the mirror.
For just a moment, as the last bit of facial stubble falls into the sink, my reflection takes the form of Jeremy’s face. Striking blue eyes, prominent jaw line, he’s only two years older than I am, but all I’d need is a good haircut and we’d be twins. Sighing, I shift weight off my broken leg to ease the throbbing pain. The heavy plaster cast encasing my left upper thigh down is a cumbersome reminder of Jeremy’s loyalty and love, however misguided. He was only doing what he thought was best, the only way he knew to keep me on base, but he had no right.
“You’re a smart kid. You don’t have to be a grunt. Stay put. Go to class. Get your ass on the flight list outta here.” His voice fills my head as if he’s standing in front of me. But the flight list is a joke. Commanding officers like to dangle the hope of being hand selected for space settlement in front of students and soldiers as motivation. It works…mostly. Everyone wants out of our military base, Asik. Off Earth. I’m guessing I’m the exception. I don’t hold out much hope of a successful space settlement even though people rumor that habitable planets are out there. If we can’t fix what’s wrong with our own planet we’re doomed no matter where we wind up. Jeremy would be pissed to know I requested transfer out of the space academy, though. Too bad. He doesn’t get to choose the life I lead. Brothers are supposed to protect each other. I’m supposed to be watching his six out there. Instead, I’m stranded here nursing a fractured femur.
Excerpt from: REMOTELY UNPLUGGED
The room feels different the moment I cross the threshold and the heavy metal door closes behind me. I brace myself for the annoying computer data dump that comes with every new place I encounter. I’ve never mastered accessing it in a way that doesn’t immediately cause me to go into sensory overload. Nor have I been able to tune out the excess information like my sister insists is possible. This room, cold and starkly furnished with only a long metal table and two metal chairs, is somehow...quiet.
“Please have a seat,” the police psychologist who accompanied me says. I ignore her request and instead take a few steps toward a wall to my right. I touch the bare surface and eye the rest of the space curiously. There are no pictures, mirrors or windows in this room. My brain should be melting down with information about where I am, the history of the building, why I’m here. Nothing happens. I’m not even downloading the waste management schematics of the building and that’s supposed to be my Civilnet job description.
I let my hand slide down the smooth wall and fall to my side before acknowledging the psychologist. She’s meticulously folding her hunter green trench over the back of a chair in such a way to provide cushioning against the metal. I guess she thinks we’ll be here awhile.
I watch with growing annoyance as she settles herself into the chair and applies an obnoxious bright red lipstick to her lips. If my computer chip were working properly, it would be telling me what great taste this woman has to pair fire engine red lipstick with pasty white skin and unnaturally orange streaked hair.
I don’t want to, but I take a seat in the empty metal chair. It’s not as if there’s anything else to do in this room.
“Shall we begin?” she asks.
I know it’s rude, and this woman has done nothing to me, but I shake my head and roll my eyes anyway.
“Whenever you’re ready then,” she says patiently and folds her hands on the table.
I glance around the room again, looking for anything to capture my attention so I don’t have to talk to the woman in front of me. When I can’t find anything to look at, I rock myself back against the metal chair, letting it balance on two legs. The psychologist’s expression doesn’t change from kind and patient, which annoys me more, so I tip the chair back further. A high-pitched warning siren in my inner ear squeals. The familiar scrawl of red lettering with statistical variants temporarily obscures my vision.
I let the front legs of the chair crash to the floor. The siren and the red lettering go away. The room suddenly doesn’t feel so quiet.
“Civilnet will still let you know if you are in danger of being injured.” The psychologist smiles.
“Where’s the rest of the Civilnet crap you guys fill us with?”
“The precinct finds it easier if the rest is withheld during discussions. That way conversations aren’t diluted.”
I nod and close my eyes for a minute, embracing the silence.
When I open them, the psychologist is staring blankly, waiting for me to make my statement. I know I’m not going anywhere until I do but every time I open my mouth to say something, an uncontrollable anger causes me to lock my jaw and grimace instead. It’s not as if she actually needs to take a statement. If I’m plugged into the system, she can access all the information she wants. Even pull up the brutality on a fancy high-def, holographic screen as large at the wall next to me. She’s probably already watched it in preparation. No, she wants me to recount the incident so she can see my reaction. So she can see how fucked up it made me. That way she and her police buddies and everyone else in the world can justify being “plugged-in.”
After several minutes of shifting on the uncomfortable metal chair, waiting for the psychologist to give me an out, I shout at her, “Why can’t I just go?”
“You haven’t recounted the events that occurred on the evening of November 17, 2103,” she says matter-of-factly. Her mouth closes to a thin line. The red lipstick she’s wearing is so thick and sticky-looking that her two lips merge into one. The tip of her tongue separates them again and she says, “Once you give your statement you will be free to go.”
“Free to go.” I nod in disgust and look at the ceiling. “Right. Free to go back to what? A job I hate? The tiny little apartment in the sky that...” I let my words fall off because I’m sure admitting I’ve thought of jumping from my 351 story balcony will get me thrown in the loony bin. And if that happens I won’t be able to go through with it later.
“If you’re unhappy with your current occupation I’ll be happy to have someone assist you with re-examining your Civilnet aptitude scores and—”
“Just stop. I don’t need you or anyone or anything else to help me.” The last thing I want is my aptitude scores re-examined. I can’t bear to think what new waste management hell the computation systems will puke out for me if I have my scores re-examined.
“I feel it prudent to point out that you would not be alive today without the help of our Civilnet system.”
“Yea, well, I feel it prudent to point out psychologists are supposed to have empathy. Maybe I’m not ready to discuss what happened.” I try to sound pompous and proper like her but it comes out more like the verbal tantrum of a fourteen-year-old.
“You have been given the statistically recommended 6.342 days, on top of physical healing duration, to properly recover your mental faculties. If you refuse to make a statement today, Mr. Tom Rodgers will be released and re-inserted into Civilnet.” She leans across the cold, steel table between us and whispers, “What he did to you was unthinkable. Regardless of how you feel about Civilnet, do you really want him back on the streets where he can do it again?”
She searches my face, waiting for my defenses to crack. He hurt me, more than words can describe, but the truth is, the events of that night are completely cloudy. I know I have a connection to Tom Rodgers. I know he was the one who physically hurt me. There were other people too. People I know and yet, frustratingly, I can’t quite call their names or faces to memory when I think about them. I was a part of something big. Something important that didn’t work out and even though I got hurt, I’m not sure he shouldn’t try it again.
“You don’t need me to say it. You have more than enough evidence to put him away. Spare me the bullshit,” I tell her.
“If it were up to me this case would be closed.” She sits back, ignoring my temper, and wipes her hands clean as if it would be that easy. “But a jury will not convict this case. The feed from the chip comes in garbled. It even freezes in places. Atrocious things are happening and a jury will see that. But a good lawyer could argue that what’s going on is fictitious and fabricated. The two of you could have been making a film, for instance.”
“Right. A home movie where half my face is being burned off by industrial grade acid.” I scoff and touch the right side of my face. The skin under my fingertips is flawless and perfectly smooth. It’s not rippled and scarred like I know it will be in twenty-four hours when the medical test serum wears off.
“It was unimaginable pain. Wasn’t it?” She looks at my cheek almost curiously, and I know she’s never felt pain like I have. “It must be awful for anyone to undergo such torture.”
I swallow hard. Not sure if I should be mad at her sudden interest in knowing what it’s like to have skin melted from its bones or mad at myself for falling victim to an avoidable crime. I purse my lips. “You want me to tell you what happened?”
“Yes.” She smiles and a smear of red slime coats her front teeth. She notices me wrinkle my nose and sucks the lipstick away with her tongue. “Tell me what Rogers did to your chip.”
“My chip?” I say sarcastically.
“Yes, what did Mr. Rogers do to it?” she asks again.
My eyebrows knit in frustration. She’s supposed to be concerned about what he did to me. She’s not concerned about me at all. It’s about the chip. It’s always about the damn chip.