World building isn’t something I struggle with; I’ll be arrogant enough to admit that. Geography, languages, races, flora and fauna, religion etc., all come naturally and quite quickly when I start imagining a world. A person’s nuances fall into place like breathing. Unfortunately, I struggle with putting all of that on paper.
The pain of writing can often be a simple case of thinking all your thoughts are on the page, but they’re not. Forgetting that what you know is not what the audience knows, and when to share or imply secrets. For example, a character of mine could say something, and I could inadvertently omit the part that says it was through gritted teeth. In my head, those conversations are like memories from yesterday, or earlier, and I’m just translating them as I remember.
There’s also the differing idea of what is important for the plot. In world building, and character development, one can easily be led astray by rampant but unrelated truths. For example, it may not be important to the plot that Character A’s father loved Character B’s mother, but it is still a truth of the world. Since the characters are so close together, sometimes that truth leaks out in little discarded moments between said parents. Maybe she blushes, or maybe she straight up turns away in disgust. He could show shame, or he could be completely oblivious, but his nature is still there. It could explain why information is misinterpreted by the protagonist, or just be something floating around in the background adding depth to the characters.
It’s all about plot, I hear. Sometimes I’m adamant about this, and other times I sway my head and say ‘well…’
I know that I am the protagonist of my own story (not the one I’m writing, my life), and I also know that everyone doesn’t revolve around me. My plot isn’t the only plot in the world. So, sometimes I think like that for my stories. There are webs of plots and I’m just picking my favourite one to write. There are an infinite number of stories an author could choose to describe. J.K. Rowling could’ve easily chosen to write her story from the perspective of Ron Weasley. Now that would be an interesting read. The perspective of a sidekick character, the one that holds the group together, constantly overshadowed by the wealth, fame and brains of his best friends. But Harry’s story resonated with Rowling for whatever reason, and it wasn’t a wasted effort. In fact, each and every character of the Harry Potter universe has his or her own plot going on in the background. There’s that famous piece of truth about Dumbledore’s sexuality that didn’t really play any part in the plot, but was still there.
Who the author follows has, or should have, a massive impact on the world you portray. The world as it is, as it is constructed in the mind of a writer, and the one seen by the protagonist are different—unless the narrator is an omniscient objective, reliable narrator. But that’s no fun, so instead I will focus in on the easiest to explain: first person narrator.
Inside the mind of a first person narrator can be a wondrous, rich fountain of information. How they see and translate the world can be dictated by so many things, such as gender, race, wealth, health, age and so on. Not only that, they could actively despise where they live and it will ooze out of them in the words they use to describe it. Or they could love it. The bias shapes the world for the reader, and it is, personally, far more important to get that sculpted version than the blueprint.
World building is often a fantastically subtle writing prompt, and I often suggest it to fellow writers who find themselves stuck, or who have felt their creative edge dull. These little prompts can be something as simple as, how would one’s characters react if a season arrived early? How would it affect them, wherever they are, or the world over? Then decide what the reason is, if there is one. It could be the wrath of God, a malfunctioning weather machine or climate change. The Road by Cormac McCarthy never explicitly states why the world ends, and there’s power in that; as it shapes the world described with its absence.
To some writers, even established ones, the idea of world building can be a pretty daunting task. It could be because we have writers such as J R R Tolkien and Sir Terry Pratchett who have built enough worlds to last millennia, or because sometimes the tiny details feel a little too much. The thing is, the human imagination is a beautiful, complex thing that deserves a bit more credit than one’s conscious mind can afford.
For example, the imagination fills in a lot of those tiny details every day. Read about a character that repeatedly says ‘ain’t’ and one automatically assumes they’re American. We use our memory and our predictive power to imagine information that isn’t necessarily there. Sometimes this doesn’t always work to our advantage, hence stereotypes, but more often than not, it helps readers build a world along with the author.
In short, it isn’t really necessary to go into all the gory details of a world. The basic blueprints are what are needed to get a writer going, to kick start a plot, and to keep the audience interested. The world will naturally leak in as story moves on, as the characters grow and as the plot thickens. With passion for the work at hand, the world will naturally build up around one’s writing, ooze out between lines and the reader will pick up on them with their incredible, undervalued imagination.
Also, it is worth mentioning that the first draft can always be built upon and tweaked to fill in plot holes, and that includes a writer’s newly established world.
© 2016 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.