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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 flat.
Imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts, without its policies, its strange creatures, its talking objects and portraits, its Sorting Hat, its challenges, without its medieval quality. Imagine Harry Potter in Mary Poppins's world.
Without a new order in the world, there is no story. So, story-building is about deconstructing or destroying to rebuild something new. Usually it is the hero’s life that changes, his values, his beliefs, and sometimes it is also the world around the hero.
In the TV show "Reaper," the heroes would just be a bunch of losers if their world wasn't turned upside down. The changes in the world reveal their inner qualities.
In the story, Sam took a dead-end job at the Work Bench after dropping out of college. He passes his time hanging out with his friends Ben and Sock, playing video games, and pining for Andi, a co-worker.
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 integrity and resourcefulness.
The home-repair superstore is the perfect backdrop for the story. The characters use the world around them to prepare for their missions. For example, they use fire extinguishers, skateboard pads, work clothing, fire alarms, gloves, goggles, and helmets to gear up against a fireman from hell they need to apprehend and send back to hell. The laidback management of the shop allows them to take time off and borrow items unsuspected. Because the world around them is imperfect and predictable, it allows the characters to be who there are. The world serves the story and the characters.
The world serves two purposes:
- to help the story
- and to reveal the characters.
The ordinary world helps Sam to be himself.
For example, Sam is caught taking time off. The manager tells him that he needs to work at night to do the inventory as a warning. This change of routine allows Sam to borrow items from the Work Bench without anyone noticing. He is also able to change the inventory in his favor.
At the same time, the world around Sam takes another meaning when he realizes that his parents sold his soul to the devil and now he has to find a way to get back his soul before it is too late. The stakes get higher when his ordinary, routine world is overturned. His beliefs, such as his parents never causing him harm, are changed. The devil constantly tries to make him his minion, and Sam falls for some of the Devil’s tricks, but always regains his integrity at the end. The hero (Sam) struggles in the new world, but stays himself. The world around Sam seems to take on new connotations. The hero changes because the world pushes him to evolve and be more and more resourceful. The ingenuity and bravery of Sam and his friends are proven over and over again. Without the world changing their lives, these heroes would only be losers instead of super-heroes.
The world is everything, isn't it?
Well, not really, but it is 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. But the world isn’t just decoration; it underlines the story’s meaning and themes. It makes them pop out.
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. Indeed, world-building can develop your characters to their maximum potential. A world poorly designed might make your characters sound awkward and misplaced. Often bad world-building comes from simplifying things. Monolithic worlds or worlds with no diversity will sound unappealing or cliché.
Sometimes writers go to the other extreme and develop their world too much, so instead of making the story more clear, they clog it.
But 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
- World-building is not the focus of a story
- World-building is not just for fantasy or science-fiction
- Setting is the place where things happen.
- 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.).
Setting is also the time when your story occurs. It can also be the weather or the season.
Setting is also the time when your story occurs. It can also be the weather or the season.
In contrast, world-building is about
- the socio-economic system inside your novel
- the beliefs of people
- the landscape and how it dictate the way people live
- the languages and problems they cause and bridges they create
- the cultures and folklore and how they rule societies
- the fashion and how it conditions people
- the details only locals would know about
- the natural resources and how they are used
- the foods
- the infrastructure and how routes link people
- the magical system
- anything that involves an interaction.
- In summary, setting reflects mood and atmosphere; it is rather passive. World-building is dynamic and constantly changing.
2) 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 backdrop to the story or it is there because the author wanted a practical place to stage her “play”.
3) World-building is not just a number of 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. Very few other places in the real world could have satisfied the requirements of the world in the novel.
The story could not have happened in a house or in a sewer or at the fair. Only on a farm would a rat have access to the other animals without being killed by the farmer. Rats naturally cross barns and no one really worries about that as long as they do not hurt other animals and do not come into the farmer’s house. The farm life offers many opportunities to add conflicts and new events to the novel because the animals talk to each other.
And only in a barn would a spider be allowed to construct an elaborate web without being disturbed by a housekeeper’s broom.
Plus, the world of the farm offers a natural story question: will Wilbur the pig be killed by the farmer? After all, pigs are raised for the meat, not as pets.
4) The story does not serve an amazing world. Instead, the amazing world serves the story and helps the reader or viewer discover how to navigate the story problem.
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 queues are original and fascinating. But that is not what attracts us to the story. Instead, it is what pulls us deeper into the story. We want to know more about this world. We want to understand how it works.
Is what attracts us to the movie the conflict, then? Humans want to steal a special mineral from the aliens. The GI Joe aspect is actually what kept many viewer away from the movie. It is interesting, but it would be boring if the story were only about war.
What really hooks us are the characters. Here is a wheelchair user 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. We can see how the problem is solved using unique means.
What fascinates the audience is how common problems 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 rules of the games are shuffled and the fascination comes from understanding how the new rules work.
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.
5) 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 is 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 the movie “Street Dance,” for example, two very different worlds meet: ballet and hip-hop. Two troupes of dancers need to create a new choreography based on each other’s strengths. That is their challenge. That is the problem in the story. The diversity of the dancers’ styles create many conflicts and moments of self-discovery. Their worlds interact and lead to growth. This is a realistic story with a fascinating and unique world. No need for fantasy here.
World-building is not a setting, a backdrop, simply descriptions, the focus of the story and only for speculative fiction. For all these reasons, good world-building might make the difference between a good story and a great story. Because good world-building is basically storybuilding, it might make an interesting story into a story where the reader loses himself for hours.
World-building is an essential art and is too often forgotten and under-estimated.
Worlds linger in the reader’s mind much longer than any story.
If you think 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. Think about great classics without their unique worlds. The world-building goes hand in hand with forming a compelling character.