I’m sure we would all agree that great characterization and plot are essential to developing a great story, but let’s not forget that every time you develop a story, you are building a world. Whether it’s a Regency ballroom, a contemporary boardroom, or an intergalactic game room, you are building a complicated world that you hope your reader will love. Great world-building skills can turn a good story into a great one.
I’ve been fascinated with world-building ever since I saw the first Lord of the Rings movie. If you’re like me, you gasped the first time you saw Rivendell. I wanted to live there and be an elf. And when I saw the forest where the Lady of the Wood lives, I was amazed. Forget the ring! I wanted to live in a tree house. Actually, I wanted to share one of those tree houses with a hunky male elf.
Not many of us have the skills that Tolkien had. And not all of us are writing fantasy. But no matter what kind of romance we’re writing, we still want to create a world that will draw the reader in so completely, she doesn’t want to leave.
So how do you create a world that is more than easy-to-forget window dressing for your characters? How do you make it real?
I. Describe with Detail
This can be a challenge. Most writers I know are at their best when writing action or dialogue. Many of us struggle with description. But the good news is description no longer means you need to emulate Nathaniel Hawthorne and spend twenty pages describing a house. In fact, this kind of writing will get your book thrown against the wall—or your manuscript rejected.
So how do you go about using detailed descriptions effectively?
- Trickle and weave
Instead of writing a page of description, pare it down to one paragraph or a few sentences. Trickle in description on a need-to-know basis. Choose the most important details and gloss over the rest. We all have an idea what the standard parlor in an 19th century London townhouse might look like, so pick out a detail or two that stand out and make this parlor different from other parlors.
There will be more description toward the beginning and middle of your book when you’re setting up the world. This is important because at the end, when the action speeds up, spiraling toward the climax, you don’t want to take time out to do a detailed description. That would totally destroy your pacing.
- Evoke all the senses
Avoid just using the eyes. Remember you are in a character’s head and experiencing all of his or her senses. When your heroine creeps into the attic, she doesn’t just see cobwebs and trunks layered with dust. She feels the sticky veil of a cobweb brush her cheek. She hears the tree branch thump against the windowpane and the rustle of mice scurrying away. The scent of mold and moth balls tickles her nose. This makes it more real to the reader.
Don’t use all five senses with every description or it will start to sound like a repetitive laundry list. Just pick a few…which brings me to the next point—
- Use words sparingly
Don’t overdo it. Make your point –the attic is creepy—and move on. Don’t state the obvious or succumb to the need to explain everything. Your most powerful writing will be the biggest punch for the least amount of words.
- Make the details relevant to the characters or plot
Back to that nineteenth century parlor—you have only a few lines to make this parlor stand out among every other parlor in London. Do the blood-red walls make heroine think the owner is bloodthirsty and ruthless? Do the womanly touches in the room make the heroine think the hero is clinging to the memory of his first wife? Choose details that reveal something about character or plot.
Think about movies or TV shows, especially ones with some suspense or mystery. Sometimes the camera will rest on an object for a few minutes—it may be a totally ordinary object, but you know it will become important later on. The same theory applies to writing. Include details that will later become important. There’s a theory that a detail needs to be mentioned three times before its true impact is revealed. I’m not one to believe in iron-clad rules when writing, but if something is going to end up important, it is a good idea to mention it a few times.
*** Very important—If you want the world you have built to be memorable to your reader, then that world must impact the character and plot. Your characters must react mentally and emotionally to the world they’re living in or otherwise that world becomes nothing but pretty wallpaper.
- The second way to build a great world is to make it special.
What’s a good example of making something special in your world? Think Hogwarts. If there was no Hogwarts, would Harry Potter’s world be nearly as fascinating? Not every book needs something on that grand a scale, but do consider stepping out of the comfort zone. Once you’ve set up your world, it is very important to follow the rules and be consistent. However-- no world is going to be perfect—it’s inhabited by characters who are not perfect.
Jane Austen understood the importance of occasionally being daring and setting your world upside down. One of my favorite scenes from Pride and Prejudice is the one where Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet meet by accident. He’s just been swimming in a pond, so he’s wet with an unbuttoned shirt and no cravat. He’s not properly dressed, and they’re not properly chaperoned. They’re both taken completely by surprise to the point they can hardly talk. This meeting goes completely against the rules of the Regency world, and that is exactly why it’s so delicious.
- The third way to build a real world is to make it as complete as our own world.
Tolkein was the master of this to the point that he actually created languages, wrote pages of elfin poetry, and added a ton of appendixes that detail the entire history of Middle Earth. Most of us aren’t going to go that far, but a certain amount is a good thing. You want your reader completely enveloped in your world, so at home in that world that when your book ends, they feel a loss, even a sense of homelessness that makes them yearn for your next book. To create a complete world, we can use our own world as a model.
- Setting—the most obvious aspect to world building.
There is something magical about a good setting. And there are some settings that evoke an emotional reaction from us. Maybe one of these will make you sigh: Scotland. Manhattan. A Caribbean island. The Enterprise. Pemberley. Stonehenge. These are powerful settings. Why not include a powerful one in your next book?
Make the setting relevant. In Beauty and the Beast, the entire world at the Beast’s castle was under the spell as long as the Beast was.
A good setting can help the story make sense or further the plot. Perhaps the best example is in Lord of the Rings, when Merry and Pippin find themselves in a forest, and the trees become characters and move the plot forward. The Ents (giant trees) destroy the first tower.
You may need to develop a map of your world—whether it’s a different world or the Regency world. Do you need to draw a blueprint of your house or castle or office building? Pay attention to architecture, furnishings, landscapes, plants, and animals. What kind of plants or animals will you find on the Scottish moors or on a tropical island? What does the sky look like? The climate and atmosphere? How do you travel about and how long does it take?
Dialogue will reveal much about your character. Where does your hero or heroine come from? What time period? How old are they? Male or female? What is their social status or level of education? Do they have a strong sense of morality or sense of humor? Their personalities—are they formal and stiff or easy-going? Each character’s speech can show everything about them or everything they’re trying to hide.
If you’re writing a historical or a time travel, your character will use sentence structure and vocabulary that fits his or her time period. Your Regency heroine will be overset, not upset. Your medieval heroine won’t be upset, but sorely vexed. Obviously, you have to do your research. Nothing can destroy world building faster than wrong dialogue.
Language must also be appropriate to your hero or heroine’s career. If your hero is a police officer or Navy SEAL, he and his comrades will have their own lingo.
Cursing—how your characters curse tells a lot about them and the world you’re building. If your hero swears by saying “By the three moons of Zelnar,” he’s either crazy or not from this planet. Your medieval hero might say “God’s toes” and your modern hero, “Holy crapoly.”
The language your characters use will not only define their character and set the time period of your book, but it can also set the tone of your book—
Serious—“He has fallen into shadow.” (Lord of the Rings, J.R,R, Tolkien)
Humorous--“What’s the name of this game?”
“Choo-choo,” he said. “You’re the tunnel, and I’m the train.” (One for the Money, Janet Evanovich)
Do you want a special world that people will remember? Then give it some great lines of dialogue.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore.” (The Wizard of Oz)
“Play it again, Sam.” (Casablanca)
“Do I detect the revolting stench of self-esteem?” (The Producers)
“African or European swallow?” (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
“Beam me up, Scottie.” (Star Trek)
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Gone with the Wind)
Don’t forget the power of language when you’re creating your world!
Be accurate to your time period. Detail and consistency are important. Everyone knows exactly what kind of shoes Cinderella wore to the ball. And we’re all shocked when Mr. Darcy appears without his cravat!
Don’t forget hairstyle—you can tell an elf by his hair. Or personal grooming habits. How do your characters wash up?
Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz are both great examples where something the heroine is wearing actually moves the plot forward. The prince needs to find the girl whose foot fits the glass slipper. The Wicked Witch of the West wants the ruby slippers. Where would Zorro or Batman be without their costumes? Would the Devil who wears Prada be quite so diabolical if she was wearing Dr. Scholl’s? When it comes to shoes and clothing—make sure you have the right fit!
What your characters eat will tell a lot about them and their world. Beware of clichés—not everything on alien planets tastes like chicken. Have fun with the food! People eat some really disgusting things. Which is worse: coddled eels or fried twinkies?
- Culture—this is a big one!
1. Everyday life
What is the normal routine for people in your world? How has your story upset that routine?
2. Social hierarchy/ political and legal system
King, dukes, and earls? Starship captain, pilot, engineer?
What is against the law in your world? How are people punished? Who is the most powerful? Who are the most downtrodden?
3. Rules of etiquette, traditions, taboos
4. Popular culture—current books, music, celebrities, artists, etc. Use details—if your earl goes to the opera house, what opera is being shown? What do your characters do for entertainment? How do they party? What are the holidays? Is there a popular sport? Example: Quidditch in Harry Potter.
5. Religion/ mythology -- what do people in your world believe currently? What did they believe in the past? What sort of religious practices do they observe? Are there secret cults?
6. Attitudes and prejudices (toward gender, race, religion, social class, sex, etc)
7. Courtship rituals -- how does one find a mate in your world?
8. How do people fight in your world? Weapons? What kind of military do they have?
9. Economy—what kind of jobs do people have? How do they buy things? What are the tools of their profession?
10. What kind of diseases do people get and how do they treat illness? How do they give birth? How do they bury the dead or mourn?
Do your research. Make your world consistent and logical, but also occasionally daring! Make it special and complete. Hopefully, by using some of these suggestions, you’ll be able to create a world that will totally engross your reader and leave them begging for more!
Kerrelyn Sparks is the New York Times bestselling author of paranormal romantic comedies. Two of her books, How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire and Secret Life of a Vampire, have won Prism awards.. Her latest release, Eat Prey Love, is book number ten in the Love at Stake series. For more information, please visit her website, www.kerrelynsparks.com.
Must love children.
Mortals need not apply.
Carlos Panterra is looking for a mate, a woman who will love and care for the young orphans he's recently taken under his wing (or paw, as the case may be). When the shape shifter spies the beautiful Caitlyn, it's like sunshine amidst the darkness. At last, he's found the perfect woman, except . . .
Caitlyn Whelan is mortal. Worse, her father is the head of a CIA agency bent on hunting the undead. Still, Caitlyn knows that Carlos is the man for her, shape shifter or not. So she jumps at the chance when her sister offers her a job to work with him, determined to show Carlos their attraction is more than just animal magnetism. But danger lurks in the night, and their unleashed, untamed passion might just get them both killed . . .