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A great character needs a great world.
Although the world is not the focus of your novel, without it, the story and the characters would feel blah.
Imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts, without its policies, its strange creatures, its talking objects and portraits, its selection, its challenges, without its medieval quality. Imagine Harry Potter in Mary Poppins's world.
In the TV show "Reaper," the heroes would just be a bunch of losers if their world wasn't turned upside down. When the devil changes the rules of the world and engages Sam as a bounty hunter, the story picks up and the funny but dull heroes start showing their inner qualities and resourcefulness. Without the new world order, there is no story.
The world is everything, isn't it?
Well, not really, but it's a great contender.
Even if the world-building in your novel is not the first or the most important element, it is essential.
The world is always secondary to the story and the characters. The world however plays an important role in strengthening the story, explaining and changing the characters, providing conflict, and fleshing out the novel.
The world gives the novel its texture.
The more three-dimensional your world, the deeper your story will sound and the more deeply your reader will be pulled into it. The world you choose, the choices you make in your world-building, the details you pull out, may transform the story itself and its success. The world-building may develop your characters to their maximum potential.
Before I talk about what world-building is, I would like to talk about what world-building is not and clarify some misconceptions.
- World-building is not setting.
- World-building is not a backdrop
- World-building is not just descriptions
- The story does not serve an amazing world
- World-building is not just for fantasy or science-fiction
- Setting is the place where things happen. It’s also the time when your story occurs. It can also be the weather or the season. There is the big picture location (Panem, X Galaxy, world, country, state, region), the background location (The Arena, Chicago, Greenwich village, Hogwarts, etc.), and the foreground locations (District 13, skating rink, supermarket, moat, etc.). The setting are the places where things happen. In contrast, world-building is about the socio-economic system inside your novel, the beliefs of people, the resources, the languages, the cultures and folklore, the fashion, the details only locals would know about, the natural resources, the foods, the infrastructure, the magic system, anything that involves an interaction. Setting reflects mood and atmosphere; it is rather passive. World-building is dynamic and constantly changing.
- World-building is not a backdrop. Because world-building is dynamic, it creates situations and conflicts for your characters. The world interferes and guides the characters. The world has power. If your world is a backdrop, then it is there only to add an exotic background to the story or it is there because the author wanted a practical place to stage her “play.”
- World-building is not just descriptions. Actually, descriptions by themselves are rather boring and tend to slow down the action. World-building stages the scenes for your story. In E. B. White’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, the setting is a farm. But the life of the farm, the microcosm of the farm is very important to the plot. Only in a farm would a rat have access to the other animals without being poisoned or killed. The farm life offers many opportunities to add conflicts and new events to the novel because the animals talk to each other. Only in a barn would a spider be allowed to construct an elaborate web without being disturbed. And only in a farmer’s world would the animals be transported to a fair where they can find words. The world of the farm offers a natural story question: will Wilbert the pig be killed by the farmer?
- The story does not serve an amazing world. Take for example the film “Avatar.” The world is amazing, especially with the special effects. The culture and the beliefs are interesting. The floating islands and the special link the inhabitants have with animals through their hair is original and fascinating. But that’s not what attracts us to the story. It’s what pulls us deeper into the story. We want to know more about this world. We want to understand how it works. But it’s not what hooks us and makes us want to watch the movie for 2 hours. Is what attracts us to the movie the conflict, then? Humans want to steal a special mineral from the aliens. It’s interesting, but it would be boring if the story would only be about war. What really hooks us are the characters. Here is an invalid who is asked to take his brother’s place in an unusual experiment. The other characters in the team are also interesting and unusual. The leader scientist is a woman and she has her own flaws. What draws us further into the movie is the story question or the problem: will they manage to communicate with the aliens in order to sign a treaty with them? Now that we have the heroes and the problem, we can dive into the world and see how the problem can be resolved in a completely different world, under completely different conditions, in a language that the heroes need to learn, and with cultural parameters they need to understand. The world helps us get completely engaged and immersed into the story. The world is the submarine that will help readers explore the story problem. It serves the story.
- World-building is not just for fantasy or science-fiction. In every story we write, there is an element of world-building. Stories that are more realistic rely on facts rather than imagination. That’s the only difference. Thrillers and horror genres require tight spaces or labyrinths. These worlds are often set in jungles, in factories, in undergrounds, in cemeteries, in mazes, in deserted buildings, in forests. They are worlds that require places to hide, places to delay others, places to fall into, places that provide poisonous plants or animals, places where other dangers might add to the suspense. In realistic novels, different worlds add new challenges to heroes and more excitement for the reader. In “Street Dance,” two very different worlds meet: the ballet and the hip-hop culture. They need to create a different choreography based on each other’s strengths. But the diversity of their styles create many conflicts and moments of self-discovery. The worlds interacts and lead to growth.
For all these reasons, a good world-building might make the difference between a good story and a great story. A good world-building might make an interesting story, a story where the reader loses himself for hours.
World-building is an essential art and is too often forgotten and under-estimated.
Worlds will linger in the reader’s mind much longer than any story.
If you think that world-building does not need much attention, think again… We might forget events and storylines, but we never forget how the story made us feel and how the world fascinated us.
We remember the heroes, but what we tend to forget is that a hero without a unique world around him is less engaging and more forgettable. Think Harry Potter without Hogwarts... The world-building goes hand in hand with forming a compelling character.