Writers’ Craft 8: World Building

Creating the believable environment for your novel

Doesn’t matter what genre of fiction you’re writing, it is imperative you create a real and believable environment. Do this successfully, and your reader becomes further immersed in the story you’re telling not only through excellent characters and point of view, but through the world you’ve created.

Geography

Oxford Dictionary describes geography as: the nature and relative arrangement of places and features.

Simple enough.

Put another way, you as the writer, must understand what land and water features there are, how civilization has adapted to those features, where those populations lie, and what those civilizations look like. I know, I know, I can hear you groaning again: another outline? Yes. Another outline, perhaps even a map, or several outlines and several maps. Why? Because you need to understand this world intimately so that you can write with absolute authority about this place.

If you’re writing about Earth, certainly Google Maps and Google Earth allow you excellent, current visuals about all of these parameters. Equally, if you’re fortunate enough that you’ve travelled to these places, or will be able to once this pandemic is over, that physical knowledge will stand you in good stead, bring a veracity to the geography you describe. However, if you’re writing about a non-Earth geography, this is where your imagination needs to take over, and that means you need to create that world from rock to sky, plant to animal and insect, and most of all the species of character you’re dealing with and how they interact with their world. Trust me on this, it’s far better to create too much background information from which to draw, than not enough. It’s in that research, or development, you become comfortable with your subject, and that comfort then lends authority to what you write.

Geology, climate and environment

Broken Earth Trilogy

You’re going to say, “Why is she repeating herself here?” Well, strictly speaking geology, climate and environment are separate from geography. Geology deals with how your earth was formed. Why is that important? Well, in the case of N.K. Jemisin’s stunning science fiction series: Broken Earth, it’s all about a remarkable and foreign geology. Jemisin understands this alien world so intimately there isn’t a single moment in the story that doesn’t ring with the reality of what she’s created. The same could be said for J.R.R. Tolkien’s unforgettable opus, The Lord of the Rings. It is a well-known fact Tolkien wrote an enormous volume of backstory for this trilogy, and because of that the world of Middle Earth leapt off the pages and inhabited the imaginations of generations of readers.

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien from New Statesman

Which brings me to climate. Why is that important? Again, because climate affects everything from how your characters interact in their world and through their civilizations. Climate affects mood and movement. And all of that can and should be essential tools you use to develop character, plot, and overall tone of your story. I think back to Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of DarknessThe novel is set in the jungle of The Congo. The story itself is one of mystery, oppression, anxiety, and dark, brooding tale. And Conrad’s description of the climate of the Congo River is executed with such intimacy that it permeates everything. We feel the heat. We feel the monsoon rains. And in turn the protagonist, Charles Marlow, tells his story through the lens of this humid, foreign, fearful climate. There is an implacable inevitability which results from Conrad’s descriptions of climate.

And climate inevitably leads to environment, because environment is utterly fused to climate. One creates the other. As in Conrad’s classic novel of tropical climate, the environment is shaped by that hot, humid climate. Thus we have the jungle of the Congo, an environment which creates a breeding ground for all manner of reptilian, insect and mammalian life which to those early Western explorers seemed as foreign as the Moon to those first astronauts. And, again, the environment Conrad relates is fused to Marlow’s mood and actions. There is utter authority here, truth.

Social structures, language and mores

It could be argued, and I would say successfully, that social structures, language and mores are shaped by geography, geology, climate and environment. And all of that affects how your characters, and how your plot will unfold. So, what social structures are there in your society? Is it based on a feudal system, or an oligarchy, and where does your protagonist sit in that structure?

Language? Certainly language reflects the customs and mindset of a society. Take, for example, the Spanish term for: I really like this, which is: le gustó mucho. Quite literally translated from English to Spanish, the phrase refers to taste, as in: this tastes good. So, that reveals something about Spanish society and the historical importance of good food, and how good food makes you feel.

And language also reveals a society’s mores. So, in your story, what are the unspoken, accepted social conventions of your society? Is a handshake an acceptable and respectful form of greeting, or is physical contact anathema?

All of these minutia are paramount to creating a believable, immersive story for your reader, especially when these elements are revealed through the actions and thoughts of your characters.

How to do all that? Well, to put it in perhaps simplistic, facile terms: let’s pretend. Just play that game we all played as children. I don’t know about you, but I was very adept at playing Let’s Pretend. I’d build worlds and customs. How many of you, for however brief a moment, believed the floor was lava, and you had to jump around the furniture, much to your parents’ chagrin, to avoid being horribly incinerated by the deadly floor? You believed it. Now you’re going to write about that with the same intimate detail and conviction.

We’re dream-makers, we writers. We either virtually visit our own world and relate that to our readers, or we create new worlds and invite our readers to come along the journey. When you write through the eyes of your character, that world blooms in your reader’s imagination, and thus we create this remarkable, silent communication which no one hears, but we all witness. Magic.

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