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Monday, May 13, 2013

Worldbuilding to Visually Reflect Story Theme and Character Values by Jamie Leigh Hansen

Worldbuilding will never have just one way to do it. There are many things to consider and master in creating a world for your novel and series. Recently, I was part of a worldbuilding workshop with 5 other published IECRWA authors. At each of 3 tables, 2 authors gave an important aspect of worldbuilding to consider. My contribution was the link between visual aspects of the world, the story’s theme and the character’s values.

Outside of a movie, or some kind of visual media, how often is that considered. Most likely each time we try to make a book trailer or envision what we’d want our book cover to look like. But those are snippets or one single visual. And a single setting is not the entire world.

"The world of the novel is composed of much more than description of landscape and rooms. It is milieu, period, fashion, ideas, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood and more. It is capturing not only place but people in an environment; not only history but humans changing in their era. Description is the least of it. Bringing people alive in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it. [It's] capturing a snapshot of place, moment, character or all three with clarity so vivid that it freezes indelibly in the reader's mind." — Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

Futuristisc, Fantasy and Paranormal writers have a contract with the reader to fulfill. A promise different from most other genres or subgenres because our stories vow that we will provide a fascinating glimpse of a living, breathing world and not just an intriguing or detailed setting. But how do we provide that beyond the bare bones of here’s the planet, the mountains and lakes, the clothes and the flora and fauna – boom, you’re now in Middle Earth. Love it.

"It is the combination of setting details and the emotions that are attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing." — Donald Maass, The Fire In Fiction

Examining three popular movies and how they link theme and character values with their milieu in a visually stunning way that actually made me want to pay movie ticket prices to see on a bigger screen than my 50” TV helped me see the link.

Story Theme:

The Hunger Games - What would you do to survive? The contrasts of rich/poor, abundance/starvation, volunteering/being forced, realism/fabrication fills each location with danger and challenges both natural - bugs, fire, predators - and man-made - the audiences, clothing, fences. The stage. The train. The forest. Even the mere fact that the hunger games exist shows the sacrifice and toil someone will undertake to survive and what challenges they will face in doing so. The entire movie has these tests set up visually, but they were in the novel first. Visually depicted in a way to grab the reader’s imagination. The story showed a map of society divided by fences, classes and levels of both compassion and desperation.

Lord of the Rings – There are many themes to choose from in this novel and the truth of weakness, strength and power is one. From the tiny, peaceful Shire full of lush greenery, growth and smiles to the large world of man to the ethereal, separate world of elves, we see that the strength of a sword (or axe) arm, the sharpness of a man's wit, the age-old wisdom of a long lived people are no more important than the child-like innocence, heart and spirit of a joy-filled Hobbit. Each land in Middle Earth represents its people in a stunningly visual way. The hope and greed of humans is portrayed with tall, molding statues and ambitious buildings that are crumbling. The intelligence and knowledge revered by magi in their packed libraries filled with scrolls and artifacts. The aloof beauty of Rivendale nestled within nature, fitting as if created to be there. The dark, evil land of Mordor with volcanoes, lava and the abominations - orcs.

Harry Potter - Good vs. evil, magic vs. conformity. The muggle world is shown in shades of gray, the colors bland and unnoticeable. It’s the same, house to house, car to car. Voldemort exits in darkness, wearing black and rarely seen in the light. Hogwarts, the Weasley house, Sirius Black's - the magical world is full of vivacious, vibrant colors, normal things with extraordinary twists. Cars that fly, Willows trees that whomp you, staircases that change direction. The nature is lush and overblown, to strangled into neat little boxes. It is good to be different in Harry Potter's world.

You may have noticed that in examining theme, you actually see much of the second component: Character’s values. Who they are as a society and as a race is also described. In a well-built world, this isn’t done by accident.

"The world of the story: a complex and detailed web in which each element has story meaning and is in some way a physical expression of the character web and especially of the hero." — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

"Creating a unique world for the story - and organically connecting it to the characters-is as essential to great storytelling as character, plot, theme, and dialogue." — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

Character Values:

The Hunger Games - Kindness, compassion, honesty vs. superficiality, greed and entitlement - Katniss is continually placed in situations where her values must be tested. The world isn't just locations, but situations. People are starving. Kids risk their lives for "entertainment". People are restricted from providing for themselves - hunting - and told to be grateful for what is given to them at the whim of others – but Katniss hunts to feed others. Katniss volunteers to be a tribute to save her sister. Katniss has to learn to play the game just to get a healing cream for Peeta by kissing him and promoting their "romance". Even the food exemplifies the differences in values between sickeningly sweet confections versus the necessary nutrients in bread and meat, the wholesome versus the superficial. A tribute saves Katniss from danger and she remains loyal to that tribute, even to the point of providing the tribute a "burial", a common courtesy that is against the rules.

Lord of the Rings - Humility, kindness, joy, peace, loyalty and perseverance, forgiveness, friendship. All these qualities a hobbit possesses, and they are tested in every situation, even as those around the hobbits fail. They cannot overcome their human greed and weaknesses, their Dwarven anger and belligerance, their unbending Elven judgment, in order to destroy the ring on their own. It is a few of each who fight, but it is the hobbits who shake up the entire adventure, creating a joyful chaos that strangely keeps everyone focused on what is truly important.

Harry Potter - Courage, loyalty, faith, overcoming impossible odds. All the traits Harry possesses are attributed to the house of Gryffindor. Their "team" is rooted for in Quidditch. Their house wins the house cup. The battle of good vs. evil is a competition and good always wins by being, well, good. Honorable. By doing the right thing and overcoming temptations, fears and anything evil or wrong.

Apply these ideas to your own story and see how you can broaden and enrich your world.

Your story:

   1.  What are your story's themes?
   2.  Who is your character as a person? What are their values?
   3.  What are the locations in your novel?
   4.  How can the locations in your novel best to visually, actively test your character's strengths, weaknesses and values? Is there a challenge to overcome, a mountain to climb a fear to defeat?
   5.  What part of your world visibly reflects your story's theme? Lord of the Rings has a map and the story is a journey across and through every part of it. Hunger Games has a symbol: a bow and arrow – old breathtaking, strange and beautiful.
   6. How do your characters feel in their setting: stifled, cloistered, abandoned, wild, free? How are their values visually reflected in that setting?
   7. What changes: time, people, perspective? Is there an item in the world that is tangible and shows growth, death or a different change as the story progresses?
   8.  What does your character think about the world they are in: the era, the perspectives, the technology, the ideology, the religions?
   9. When choosing details of your world, choose the ones that give your character's unique perspective or details that are surprising. Even in an everyday, normal city, what stands out? My two series are set in and around Spokane, Washington. What stand out? A gorgeous cathedral you can see from miles in any direction. An architecturally brilliant high school that is a hundred years old and celebrates the fact. Bring even an everyday setting to life.
    10. Link a value and a theme, then compare and contrast their opposites. Like Lord of the Rings, the hobbits' value of friendship. Compare and contrast friendship at the pub in the Shire and friendship standing over the fires of Mt. Doom.


·         The Fire In Fiction  by Donald Maass

·         Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

·         The Anatomy of Story by John Truby


Jamie Leigh Hansen is a multi-published, paranormal romance author best known for dramatic, heartfelt stories with intense emotion and engaging, unforgettable characters.

Her newest work, Murder Tales, is a series of urban fantasy short stories set in Metalline Falls, WA that features Mary, the only human ever saved and raised by the Murder, vampires and werewolves who work together to police the rogues of their world. Currently available are The Murder King's Woman and The Murder King's Summons, with more planned.

Jamie is also currently involved with BabelFAmily, co-writing The Legacy of Marie Schlau with other writers around the world. They hope the International Literary Project to Fight Friedreich's Ataxia will raise funds for FA research.

She loves to hear from friends and fans at JLH@JamieLeighHansen.com. Updates on her projects and links to social media can be found on her website at www.JamieLeighHansen.com.


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