So let’s say there are two types of world building: that for speculative fiction, and for non-speculative fiction. Fantasy and science fiction worlds are the easy choice when it comes to world building, because you can make up as much or as little as you want–as long as you’re consistent, it’s all open. But let’s leave that for our next entry. Today, we’ll talk about building a world in a non-speculative universe.
What do I mean by non-speculative? Anything that’s rooted in the “real world,” and bound by the rules of this world. Most of our fiction seems to live here, and though world building in different genres (historical fiction vs romance vs thriller) will have different processes, there are a few things that remain the same.
There’s a ton of information online about how to build your world–much of it differing from other how to’s. Everyone will have their own process, and in the end how you get there doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re consistent.
Holly Lisle puts it well on her website, Holly Lisle: Writer:
“You’re worldbuilding…when you create some guidelines about the place in which your story takes place or about the people who inhabit the place in order to maintain consistency within the story and add a feeling of verisimilitude to your work.”
The examples she gives at the top of the page are great: world building can be as simple as deciding a bedroom is on the first floor of the house, and making sure a character doesn’t refer to it as being on the second.
Now, in speculative fiction, all the cards are on the table and you can do what you want. You don’t have to obey the laws of physics or even logic, though consistency is still key. In non-speculative fiction, there are more restrictions. With all that in mind, here are a few basic guidelines for world building in a non-speculative story:
1. Consistency is the Most Important Thing.
Not to beat a dead horse, but if your character states she’s never been to Europe at the beginning of the story, she shouldn’t mention later on that the turning point in her life was seeing the Mona Lisa in person. It seems like a glaring mistake, easy to avoid, but it’s really all too common–and it simply looks messy. It appears as though you don’t care about the story, or forgot to impart some crucial piece of information that explains something–or worse, that you didn’t edit very carefully, if at all. This actually happens a lot in modern popular fiction/movies/etc. They’re called Plot Holes, and if your story is riddled with them, you’ll appear lazy.
2. Your Setting is a Character Too.
You can’t have a story without a setting. And this may seem redundant in an article which is about defining your setting, but it can’t be stressed enough: you need to know everything important about where your story takes place. This is especially important with non-speculative fiction, where even the smallest incorrect details can pull a reader out of the story. Setting your story in Texas during Christmas will have a much different feel than putting the same plot in mid-summer Orlando. Medieval and Modern-Day Paris will have different effects on your characters and their decisions. The easy way to get this right is by thinking of your setting as another character in the story. Ask yourself the same questions you would about your characters: how does the plot affect them? Will their temperament of mood effect the plot? Do they have secrets that will be revealed by the plot? How does the setting evoke conflict from the other characters? If you’re a writer, your characters are your bread and butter, and you’ll do a lot of work on them–do the same with your setting, and your world building is half done.
3. What’s the Same?
Decide what in your world is the same as the real world. In non-speculative fiction, this is going to mean things like the Laws of Physics, the location of cities and countries, the colour of the sky, and the animals that inhabit the region. Go out of your way to decide what’s similar between your world and reality; this will give readers something to relate to in your story. More importantly for this discussion, it “roots” your story. Deciding on these details is also going to bring your reader more deeply into the world. And this is a place where the little details matter a lot. Hemmingway was a master at this; I remember reading a short story of his that described his breakfast in so much wonderful detail that I can barely imagine having my eggs without pepper anymore. I can’t even remember the story title, but I remember the world he built for it. With non-speculative fiction, a lot of the world building is done for you. There are certain things that won’t be different–or, if they are, you have built in conflict and plot points. Which brings us to…
4. What is Different?
This is where you’ll find the “juice” of your setting. Even in a non-speculative world, your setting should stand out a bit from reality. This doesn’t need to break suspension of disbelief or bring your story into the realm of speculative fiction, but there should be something that’s more interesting about your setting than the real world. Dan Brown’s Angles and Demons and The Lost Symbol are great examples of this. He’s using real world cities and exploring them in great detail–but he’s also adding details that are fictionalized to make the story more interesting and add an air of conspiracy. Deciding on what is different between your setting and its real world equivalent will give the reader a reason to care about your setting. Which leads into the last point:
5. Why Bother?
One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing was from a teacher who told me to ask myself: “why today?” What is it about this particular day for your story? If the answer is “nothing,” why are you writing about it? Make it something, that’s a lot more interesting. World Building should work the same way; why does your story take place here? Can your entire story be lifted up and transplanted into a different setting with no alterations to the plot? That’s not very engaging. Your plot doesn’t have to be dependant on the setting, but your setting should matter to the plot. If it doesn’t, it’s the same as reading about a character who does absolutely nothing of note: boring.
So building a world in a non-speculative genre has some limitations, yes–but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Even if it’s as simple as sitting down and doing a “character sketch” for your setting, you’ll be creating something more engaging for the reader–and saving yourself the trouble of lots of constructive editing when you realize that the setting doesn’t make sense.
Do you have any tips to add about world building in the real world? Tell me about them! Next time: World Building for Speculative Fiction.