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Un-Con Redux Part III: World Building for Non-SFF Writers

Third of three posts recreating workshops you may have missed at Un-Con 2019.

What shaped you into the person you are today?  Your experiences, certainly, but I’m talking about your foundation, the bedrock of who you are.  Certain things about you are fundamental and unchanging.  You are rooted in influences that you didn’t choose.  That foundation comes from factors beyond your control, that are bigger than you, and that you probably don’t question.  Probably you don’t want to.  You simply are who you are.

Why?  Three factors shape us more than any others: family, faith and where we come from.  Family sets our view of ourselves, our way of operating, our limits and expectations for ourselves.  Faith is what we believe, not only about cosmology but about people, society, civilization and the nature of things in general.  Place, though, is the least understood and, in manuscripts, the least utilized of our shaping influences.

Science fiction and fantasy writers have a keen understanding of how different worlds shape different assumptions, limits and behavior.  When you live in a world with different rules, you’re a different person.  But here’s the thing, we all in our everyday realities come from different worlds: different hometowns, different regions, different histories, different educations, different value sets.  We are products of our places.

You can hear those differences in the ways we talk about ourselves.  In my family we used to…  Mama always told me…  Where I come from, the way things worked was…  There are differences with every neighborhood, town hall, school, sports team, police force, doctor’s office, racial group, social strata, sense of history, local heroes, legendary villains, bogeymen, and more.

Those differences put boundaries around characters’ thinking, limit what they can do or cause them to rebel.  They are facts and forces, and for each one there can be a character who represents that dimension of place.  Protagonists, too, are subject to the influences of where they’re from and where they find themselves.  Building the world of your story, then, can both enrich it and make it more realistic.  Place can become a character.

So, how is that done?  SFF writers start with what is different in their worlds and then work out the logical consequences.  Change one thing about landscape, climate, civilization, history or living beings and there will be cascading effects.  SFF readers love that speculation and the immersive experience it creates.  Technology and magic are frequently the basis for different SFF worlds, but there are many other ways to make a world particular and unique.

Even if the world of your story is our everyday “ordinary” world, start with these questions: In the world of your story, what is the one thing that is the most unlike anywhere else?  What difference would tourists notice the most?  How does that difference (positively) condition or (negatively) constrain your protagonist?

 More ideas:

In the world of your story, what is socially acceptable and what is not?  What custom do people keep?  What are standard greetings?  What is considered good manners?  How are deference and respect shown?  What in this place is uniquely honorable—or dishonorable?  Who is shunned simply for how they behave?

In the community of your story, who rules?  What legislated laws are different?  What are iron-clad social rules and unwritten laws?  How are those enforced?  How are violators punished?  Who are the police of conformity and who rebels?  Name the social strata of your story world.  Who moves up, but must be beaten down?  Who falls, and is shunned?  Who transcends their class, conforms too much, slavishly plays by the rules?  Who doesn’t give a shit? 

On which rung of the ladder does your protagonist belong?  Whom does your protagonist respect?  Whom does your protagonist disrespect?  How does your protagonist live up to, or rebel against, social expectations?  What’s at stake?  What’s the cost of conformity—or disobedience?  What’s the collateral damage?

What is the best known, most remembered piece of local history?  Who is a local hero?  Who is honored?  Who is legendary?  What historic event stirs pride?  What are local holidays, memorials, statues, symbols, flags?  What is the secret history?  What past injustice is not spoken about?  What group is oppressed, and by whom?  What past injustice or genocide is excused, dismissed or denied by those in power?  Who are legendary outlaws and what do they stand for?  How does your protagonist identify?  How will that change?

What do people in this place believe?  About what do they disagree?  What are the sects, factions, splinter groups, breakaways?  Where does your protagonist belong in that range?  Where does your protagonist wind up at the end of the story?

In religion, chart differences in doctrines, rituals, holidays, text, prayer, music, saints, worship style.  What is required of believers?  What is proscribed?  Who obeys?  Who cheats?  What is the most obvious hypocrisy?  What is the triune nature of the divine (e.g., Father, Son, Holy Spirit)?  What is the hierarchy of the clergy?  What comforts or chafes your protagonist, or both?  What’s wrong with this religion? 

Who is rich?  Who is poor?  What’s the big industry?  Who’s the big employer?  What are the complaints of labor?  What do workers demand but not get?  What jobs are open to which groups?  How is discrimination masked?  How is the economy rigged?  What limits mobility?  How are tax laws, credit worthiness, zoning exceptions, scholarship grants and more structured to benefit the haves and keep down the have nots?  Why should there be a revolution?  What injustice bothers your protagonist the most?

What’s the climate in your story world?  What’s the greatest plague: flood, fire, drought, hurricane, tornado, earthquake?  What are the seasons?  What’s unique about sunshine, rain, snow, winds?  How has the climate shaped this world’s way of life, buildings, clothing, livelihoods, folk wisdom?  What’s the weather event everyone remembers?  What disaster is overdue?  Bring it on!

As you can see, your story world can have a big influence on your protagonist and on the story itself.  But for that to happen, you have to build it.

What’s different in the world of your WIP, and what effect does it have on your protagonist and the story itself?


About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].