It’s good to be posting here again! I’ve had a two month break from my serial on world-building, so if you’re new or need to a refresher, here are links to my last two posts:
My previous posts on world-building really focused on the theoretical side of things. This month, I want to take a break from that to offer some insights on practical ways to jump-start world-building based on my experiences with my novel, Quest of Fire: The Gathering Dark, which released in April. Its epic/high fantasy but I’ll give examples from other genres as well.
The biggest part of world-building is the most obvious, the visuals. In fantasy it is critical that readers see this other world and feel like they’re in it. There’s again a balance to strike in given visual descriptions, but much like the movie Inception discusses, our imagination really only needs seeds to cultivate a forest. So, how do you pick out what to bring to the foreground and what to let slip into the backdrop?
You’ll remember I also said world-building is an exercise in blending the familiar with the fantastic. One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is to sketch things. People, places, scenes, anything and everything that resonates most with you. I know someone reading this is already thinking, “Pfft, I can’t draw!” The nice thing about sketching for this purpose is that it doesn’t have to be great, or even good. It’s just to ground yourself in little details you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. For instance, my novel has a protagonist, Jason, who wears a hat. I didn’t know that till I sketched him. He lives in an early 20th Century society and men typically wore hats/caps. My subconscious used that detail as I sketched and suddenly, I realized that was a key detail. There are so many unique and familiar actions and gestures you can make with a hat. Tip it, toss it, doff it, hang it, crumple it…you get what I mean. All of those show emotions too. Familiar actions, familiar emotions, in a world with fantastical creatures and situations. Again, I would never have known he wore a hat till I sketched it and had to really bring my character to the foreground visually.
Another benefit is you can share this art with readers. That may terrify some of you, but art is judged subjectively most often and the stylizing of art really gives broad freedom for calling something good. You don’t have to be Howard Pyle or NC Wyeth to make book art. Ronald Dahl drew his own illustrations. Compared against Howard Pyle they look pretty rough. But nobody holds open Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They’re the author’s art and that makes them special. Since they’re in print it also makes them authoritative in a way. The sketches represent that world for readers. There’s certainly room for different styles with different genres. Compare what I did with my first novel’s sketches with one I did for my second. Destitutio Quod Remissio is historical fiction and Day Moon is dystopian/sci-fi. The styles fit each genre. I could apply the same techniques to each, but I could also strip them down to simple shapes like you see on street signs and bathrooms. Michael Crichton filled Jurassic Park with fractal patterns that reinforced his theme of the increasing complexity of variables within the system that ultimately induced chaos and rested control of the park from Hammond. Sometimes your art will do that, reinforce a theme, which says something about the world of your book. It’s more indirect world-building but formative nonetheless.
So, by now I’m betting you’re either sold on sketching or more certain than ever it’s not for you. An alternative that also helps is to look through images. Think about a person or place from your book and try to find a picture to match it. When you find something close, take note of things in the picture. Find little details that you can incorporate into your story world. This works in a negative sense as well. Something in the picture could very definitely not appear in your world. That can spark some great questions that eventually shape the story. Which is what we want, right? We want a story organic enough that the world around characters impacts and shapes them and the events around them.
Finally, if you’re able, go someplace. Someplace like you want to write about. I had the privilege of visiting Apalachicola, FL and Port St Joe’s Bay which appear in an as yet unpublished book I wrote. I sat where the characters sat, saw what they would’ve seen and paid attention to the smells and sounds and feel of things. Were the seats hard? Did my ice melt quickly in my drink?
Obviously, we can’t always visit the actual settings of our stories, real or not. But we can visit places like them or conversely unlike them. Perhaps you want a setting on the Moon and you visit a desert. Some of your observations about a desert on Earth can be used to contrast those of the Moon.
All of this is to help build your world through sensory details. Next time I’ll try to touch on culture and history and how they should play into world-building.
For right now, can you think of a time when a story really grabbed you with its description of some part of its world? Or when an illustration brought a book to life for you?
Mine for the latter is Puddleglum the Marshwiggle in CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair. I had trouble visualizing him until I looked back at the picture included with the chapter: frog-like Puddleglum, holding his lantern in the dark, looking stricken even as he willfully committed to the adventure.
For more from Brett:
The Silver Chair © CS Lewis and Harper Collins Publishers, L.L.C | Matilda © Roald Dahl and Puffin Books | Quest of Fire: The Gathering Dark © Brett Armstrong and Mantle Rock Publishing 😉