How do you think of our world? How is it organized, in your mind? Geographically? Planet, continents, countries, regions, states, counties, cities, neighborhoods, streets? Politically, by a range of authority from dictatorships to democracy? By religion? By class?
Do you see the world as dichotomies? City versus country, ocean versus land, young versus old, starving versus fed, believers versus the lost, fashion versus style, Yankees versus Mets?
For you, is history a textbook about everyone else? Are you sitting on the riverbank, watching history pass? Or, are you in the waters, actively swept downstream or paddling upstream against the current? Is history, to you, mostly your personal story? Does that have an arc?
How do you measure time? By birthdays? Or, by changes inside you that you don’t write on your refrigerator calendar? Do you measure time by toys, from rag dolls to Barbie to American Girls to skateboards? By shoes, from Keds to Christian Louboutin? By jewelry, from mood rings to charm bracelets, to pearls, to piercings?
Worldbuilding is not just for science fiction and fantasy authors. For those writers it is, of course, imperative to make clear how their alternate worlds or futures work. Society, authority, laws, religion, and more must be worked out, consistent, named, detailed, and made credible and understandable to readers. Even magic, when done well, is not just wand waving but an operating process with costs and consequences.
Authors of historical fiction have similar imperatives but in truth all authors create worlds, which may feel on the page vivid, generic or absent, like a grayed-out screen behind the forefront action. In many manuscripts I read, the story world is presumed, or lightly detailed, or overly schematic, or—almost always—described in mainly visual terms.
The real world of your life is not just what anyone would see through their eyes. It’s your concept of it. It’s the blend of the history of others and your own. It’s an impression, a puzzle, a long shot and a close up, an anxiety over status, a role-playing game, a family rock in rushing rapids, laws to ignore and principles to hold dear, a journey through a garden and a stroll across a continent, the clothes in your closet, the car in your garage, the hopes you have, the realities you face, the people you disappoint and the strangers to whom you are kind.
To you, time is both instants and eras, an enemy to fight and a friend in troublesome days, a cell phone app and a cardboard box, a burning responsibility and dead grass on fire, crashes and freefalls, a drowning pool and autumn air. Time isn’t a constant chronometer, but a whimsical god and an ever-changing relationship. It whirs, heals, recalls, edits, comforts, terrifies and more. It’s invisible yet as clear to you as bacteria under a microscope or the moon through binoculars.
Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1979) is the story of John Smith, who as a boy sustains a skull fracture which he forgets and, as a young man, a head-on car collision that puts him into a coma for four-and-a-half years. When he wakes up, he has second sight. He can see the past and future of people he touches. The period of Smith’s coma is covered by King from the points of view of Smith’s parents and Smith’s girlfriend, his fellow schoolteacher Sarah Bracknell. Having just decided that she loves him, Sarah is devastated by Smith’s accident and is herself, for a while, suspended in time. The year is 1970:
Sarah Bracknell kept school during her days. Her afternoons and evenings were not much different than they had been following the breakup with Dan [her college boyfriend]; she was in a kind of limbo, waiting for something to happen. In Paris, the peace talks were stalled. Nixon had ordered the bombing of Hanoi in spite of rising domestic and foreign protests. At a press conference he produced pictures proving conclusively that American planes were surely not bombing North Vietnamese hospitals, but he went everywhere by Army helicopter. The investigation into the brutal rape-murder of a Castle Rock waitress was stalled following the release of a wandering sign painter who had once spent three years in the Augusta State Mental Hospital—against everyone’s expectations, the sign painter’s alibi had turned out to hold water. Janis Joplin was screaming the blues. Paris decreed (for the second year in a row) that hemlines would go down, but they didn’t. Sarah was aware of all these things in a vague way, like voices from another room where some incomprehensible party went on and on.
Sarah is a character who because of grief has left the timeline. She is suspended, her world devoid of history, her future blank. King captures his story’s place and time by dropping concrete details of real historical events and made-up story world happenings (the Castle Rock rape-murders), and then by juxtaposing those with the quality of Sarah’s experience. She was in a kind of limbo, waiting for something to happen. The story world of The Dead Zone comes alive not because of what we see but because of what Sarah feels.
Building your story world starts with defining how society works and how it looks. But that is only a start. Your story world is the whole experience of your protagonist of it. To fully immerse us in that world, try these methods:
- List the following factors in your story world: unique laws, unspoken rules, familiar customs, common assumptions, civic goals, social values, signs of security, status symbols, honors and taints, tokens of power. Next, list your protagonist’s opinion of each of those. In each case, assign another character whose opinion contrasts with your protagonist’s.
- Who are heroes, icons and saints in this story world? Does your protagonist share the common view, or have private suspicions? Whom does your protagonist emulate or ignore? Against whom does your protagonist rebel? Whom would your protagonist hate to disappoint?
- Whom in your story world does your protagonist like, and why? Of whom does your protagonist have a low opinion? Why must your protagonist conceal that? When does it burst out?
- Draw your protagonist’s family tree. How many relatives? Where does each live? What does (or did) each do? Who is successful, who is crazy? Who’s rich? Who’s in jail? Who loves your protagonist the most? Whom does your protagonist treasure, and why?
- What’s going on in this story world that has nothing to do with the plot? Pick something and write a newspaper account of it. Then connect it to the plot. Whom in the story can be involved? How does your protagonist think that involvement has changed that person?
- Map your story’s river of time. When is the river narrow and rushing? When is it broad and still? The narrow, rushing part is for the most dramatic action. Instead of rushing, instead time dilates and slows. In broad and still stretch is when you can majestically summarize. At these spots, time collapses and speeds by. At each part of the river, what is your protagonist’s experience of time? How does your protagonist measure it?
The setting of a story is both its time and place. The most effective way to bring those alive is not by coldly describing them from the outside, but conveying your protagonist’s whole experience of them from the inside. Not outside in, but inside out.
The world is more than what we see. It’s how we bleed through our days and laugh through our nights. It’s home, history, holidays, hotrods, beer, ugly shoes, beautiful hearts and most of all how we feel about everything. Your world is richly experienced—by you. Your story world can be too—by your protagonist.
What’s something about your story world that’s different? How is your protagonist’s experience of that different than yours or mine might be?
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