Friday, July 17, 2009

Welcome to My World—A World-Building Checklist

About the author:

Deborah Cooke has published over forty romance novels and novellas, including historicals, contemporaries, paranormal and fantasy romance, under the names Claire Delacroix, Claire Cross and Deborah Cooke. As Claire Delacroix, she currently is writing a trilogy of future-set (post-nuclear but pre-Apocalyptic) romances for Tor, each of which features a fallen angel hero. Book #2 in that series, GUARDIAN, will be an October 2009 release.

As Deborah Cooke, she is writing the Dragonfire series for NAL Eclipse, which features dragon shape shifting heroes in contemporary society. Book #4 in that series, WINTER KISS, will be a November 2009 release. She also contributed a short story to the MAMMOTH BOOK OF VAMPIRE ROMANCE II, which will be released in October 2009.

For more about her books, visit her websites and, or pop by her blog Alive & Knitting at

Chef is breaking out the bear claws, muffins and espresso for you to nosh while we delve into Deborah Cooke’s in-depth worldbuilding workshop:

Guardian DelacroixOne of the most commonly cited reasons for reading popular fiction is to lose oneself in another place and time. Although plot, characterization and language all play a big part in ensuring that a book is compelling, the “world” where the story occurs should also captivate the reader.

I am particularly fond of intricately constructed - and well described - fictional worlds. Time and place is less important than the sense of actually being in the universe constructed by the author. When I think of the stories that really stick in my mind, invariably, they’re ones that are powerful examples of world building. New Orleans may or may not have ever been the way Anne Rice describes it, but it will always have the lush gothic aura for me that she describes so vividly. Is there a place called Manderly? Does it matter? Daphne du Maurier’s description will more than suffice. I’ll never forget the rigors of life in a lunar colony from Heinlein’s THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRISS, or Tolkien’s extraordinarily detailed Middle Earth from the LORD OF THE RINGS. The list could go on and on. The setting, or the world the author builds for the reader, is a big part of what makes good fiction compelling.

World-building is the act of designing and then describing a setting with such clarity that it feels like a real world to the reader. World-building is given particular attention in fantasy and speculative fiction, as the setting is assumed to be unfamiliar to your readership and thus must be explained. However, it is no less important in historical fiction, and the same argument can be made even in contemporary fiction. Not all of your readers share your experience even of the world we know and love. Presumably you have chosen your setting for a reason - in order to ensure that your reader gets the message, you need to introduce him or her to the place in question.

When an author world-builds well, the setting is distinct from our own, yet the reader still feels a common bond with the characters. This is trickier than it sounds, as it is a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. There are no accidents in making this come together well. So, let’s look at a tip list for world-building:

1/ Choose Your Book’s Setting Deliberately

That's not really as devious as it sounds. You should pick settings or worlds for a reason - because the setting highlights the conflict, or because it’s seldom used, because it’s a world you know a lot about, or simply because it’s a setting that characteristically sells well. (Be warned that if you choose to make up a world to avoid doing research, you’re getting into more than you’ve bargained for! Inventing a consistent world is far more work than researching an existing one.) Whatever the reason, you need to know why you’ve chosen it. From that, you can decide what you need to highlight about that setting in order to get the most from your choice.

For example, you might choose a 8th century British setting because the story you want to tell is reminiscent of old Celtic tales and you think that the Arthurian setting will showcase those plot elements. Alternatively, you could set the same story in an entirely different era - perhaps in the midst of a modern war - to showcase its romance by contrasting the story with the setting. We see this with Shakespearean plays - directors often change the setting of the play with the intent of showing the timelessness of the conflict. This can work brilliantly or not work at all. If you have a plan, particularly if you’re going to defy expectation by setting MacBeth in post W.W.II Indochina, you’ll have a better chance of success.

Whatever your strategy, you need to understand your key reason for choosing the setting

2/ Know Your World As Well As You Know Your Own

Or even better. The more you know (or decide) before beginning to write the story, the far easier your job will be. Every time you run off to research a detail or replot a universe, you risk losing the pacing and even the thread of the story itself. So, map it all out ahead of time, chart the big issues and when you run into something you haven’t considered, just flag it and keep writing. Although the world building is important, it always takes a back seat to the story.

You’ll need to define what’s different about your world and what’s distinctive about it, as well as what’s the same as our world. A key issue here is consistency - you may lose readers with a single loose end which they know doesn’t work. For romance, in any period, social histories are the most helpful as they give you information on how people lived (or live). In creating a fantasy world, you might consider yourself to be compiling a social history. It might help you to actually write a guidebook to your world, or at least build a binder of notes so you have a reference.

When you begin to write the novel itself, remember that there are always compromises to be made - you’re not writing an anthropological study of your fantasy world, so you can’t include every detail in the book. Similarly, a contemporary doesn’t have to include a map, etiquette guide and telephone listing for your chosen setting. When writing historicals, you will have to take a stand on anachronism which you find a comfortable compromise. Working out all of these issues in advance can save yourself a lot of grief.

So, how do you manage the detail?

3/ Be an Alien of the Same Species as Your Reader

How do you make the world familiar to your reader? This is a challenge, depending upon how different your setting is from the world your reader is likely to know.

Start with the obvious details that the reader is unlikely to understand.

If you are selling commercial fiction - like romance - to a New York based print publishing house, you can make an assumption that most of your readership will be residents of the USA in the early 21st century, which means they understand some things as a given. Cars, telephones, grocery stores and televised sports to name a few. They will understand jokes about men needing to have the remote, channel flicking, voice mail and deciphering nutritional information on Cheetos’ bags. They may or may not know what it’s like to live in Teeny Town, Arizona, or how it feels to hang-glide, or what medieval consanguinity laws were. Notice and explain what you cannot expect readers to universally understand. You won’t always get this right, because you can’t know all regional differences, but you can make a pretty good run at it.

4/ Describe the Exceptional and the Unusual

That's how people observe and it’s another good trick for managing detail. You notice the woman with the green hair on your way to work, but not the ninety-seven brunettes that you also passed. We observe by discrimination, noting exceptions rather than consistencies. You'll do most of this automatically - no need to explain that all the characters have two arms, two eyes and two legs unless otherwise noted - but it's a good guideline to keep your descriptions from getting out of control. It’s a useful attribute to give aliens of the space-time continuum as well, which we’ll talk about in a few minutes.

To get a handle on what could easily become a mountain of description, imagine that you are a time traveler - regardless of what niche you’re writing for - or a visitor from “away”, maybe a remote island - what would you notice specifically about this setting?

5/ Describe What the Reader Needs to Know

This can be anything from the mood of the times, the political stability or instability, a foreign country, a class of society, the particular ambience of the private estate where the story takes place, the scene of the crime. This is the reason, essentially, that you chose this setting. If there's anything the reader needs to know in order to understand the plot or the motivation of the characters, ensure you show it to them. Mystery writers are often very clever about this, sliding in the detail that makes it possible for the reader to identify the villain, but burying it so that the reader’s eye slides past it.

6/ Describe What the Reader Wants to Know

Reader expectation is a strange and unusual beast, and its appetites vary from genre to genre. Part of understanding your chosen genre is understanding what the reader hopes to find within the covers of your book.

For historical romance, the reader expects to be immersed in the period setting. Don't forget the clothes, the hair, the furniture, the food, the lingerie, the prancing Lippizaner horses. For a Regency romance, there is even more specific detail expected - these readers revel in Regency trivia. Similarly, a contemporary that takes place on a military base, or within a police station, needs the “insider” detail to satisfy the reader. A space opera will need to have details about the space ship, how it’s managed, what it’s like to live on, who’s in charge. This is part of your compact with your reader. Recognize why the reader is buying this book and deliver to that.

7/ Human in the Alien - or Familiar Themes in Unexpected Places

Now we come to the question of introducing commonality. Although your setting may be strange and unusual and the characters just as odd, in order for the reader to care about them, those characters must be understandable. Essentially, you must find the human in the alien, if you’re writing fantasy, or the modern in the archaic if you’re writing historicals. As readers, we cannot cheer for characters whose choices make no sense to us or whose goals are inexplicable. We certainly can’t fall in love with them.

This doesn’t mean that the characters must be your neighbors in fancy dress, but that you should use the same technique of selectivity - choose whatever needs to be distinctly odd about the character and make the rest of him or her familiar. The character might show emotions the same way that we do or feel similar emotions but hide them - this is far easier to portray than a character who has no emotions at all. Unless that’s the point of the character, like Spock, whose oddities were limited to his ears and his impassivity. It is no coincidence that all of the emotionless characters in Star Trek ultimately developed emotions - and watcher empathy, as well.

Conflict and goals provide another point of commonality. A character who wants to fall in love, or is fighting family disapproval, or needs to marry and have children, or has any number of other recognizable goals is more understandable and thus more sympathetic to the reader. Eve in the J.D. Robb series is a cop who wants to catch murderers - this makes eminent sense to us regardless of the unusual world she inhabits. For romance, the protagonists have to have viewpoints on love and partnership, though one of them may not know exactly what it is. Having one character more in tune with the reader’s expectation is another trick to not only drive the conflict but make the alien more familiar.

Finally, there can be social trends in your world that are resonant of trends in our own world. In my future-set series, the Republic has endorsed slavery by the late 21st century, although it’s different than it has been in the past. There have been nuclear wars waged over oil reserves in this same world. These are plausible possibilities that have some familiarity for readers. Similarly, the science works the same way in my fictional world as our own - I used medical reports from Hiroshima and Chernobyl to speculate upon the effects upon humans of those nuclear wars.

8/ Consistency

Your world has to be consistent, wherever it is, or its inconsistencies have to be explained. This includes the customs, the role of women, religion, food sources, travel, religions and all other facets of social history, as well as its language and names. There are books and computer games that review what skill sets a society has to have to achieve certain accomplishments, and histories of the development of just about everything. Even for an alien universe, you need to place your civilization somewhere on the continuum and know the implications of that placement. One of the fun things about world-building is putting what we think of as disparate elements together and making them work in a different way, but as mentioned earlier, this is a lot of work.

The protagonists and secondary characters who inhabit your world need to be consistent with it as well, and their expectations should be shaped by it. Look also at character’s occupations in contemporaries and historicals and consider what is plausible for this person to know or be able to do, to own or to dream about.

9/ Structure

Structure for novels is a topic that could lead to an entire workshop in itself. In terms of world building, though, the structure of the book can help you to manage the information.

First of all, don’t tell your reader more than he or she needs to know too soon. If you front-load your book with technical explanation, the reader will lose interest before getting hooked by the story. Your main focus at the beginning of the book is introducing the characters and the conflict, and getting the story in motion. Don’t bog these passages down with a description of the complex interlayering of religions on your Venusian futuristic society. The characters and the conflict are what “hook” readers and persuade them to read on in fiction - not an intricate analysis of the geopolitical landscape of 17th century France. However pertinent such details are to the story, save them until after the reader is hooked. Nora Roberts does this very well in her J.D. Robb books - people are sometimes three or four chapters into the book before they say “wait a minute - cars don’t fly.”

Fallen DelacroixSecondly, use structure to illuminate the world you’ve dreamed up. In FALLEN, I had the challenge of a particularly intricate society to present, and the need to do that without slowing down the pacing of the book. The reader had to know about the Republic’s politics, history and laws to understand - for example - why Lilia was in trouble for wearing her pseudoskin in public. I chose to insert blocks of Republican law code and newspaper articles at critical points in the story. Both of these types of writing are terse and fact-oriented, so they didn’t take up a lot of space. They got right to the point. It didn’t make sense for Lilia to expound on all of these items, even though she knew them, because everyone around her knew them too. The insertions worked well, especially as they were typeset in a different font.

10/ Use Your Characters

If all of the characters hold the same assumptions, they may never question them, let alone explain them. The reader won’t understand the alien world and thus may not feel an emotional bond with the characters and their plight. Worse, any explanation inserted by the author will feel forced.

This is an alternative method for presenting the data – more similar to the structure of my GUARDIAN, which takes place in the same world as FALLEN. Having two characters together, one of whom understands the world and one of whom is recently arrived or seeing a new facet of the world compels the first character to explain - and the reader learns, too.

Another option is to have one of your characters “like us” and the other not. Ursula K. Leguin did this in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS– we understand the emissary perfectly, and his confusion about the world he’s visiting. This is also used in time travels - one character is usually from our own time, or close enough to it that we understand him or her, and the other is from the other time. Each character’s point of view then provides a glimpse of their own world’s assumptions as well as their uncertainties about the other world. This is a very useful technique for romance, as it helps the reader to make that critical emotional bond with the character. It compels the “alien” character to explain his or her world to the other character and thus to the reader.

But don’t assume that this is used purely for fantasy work. If you take a careful look at historicals that work well and don’t have a contemporary character, you’ll notice that one character (often the heroine for romance) is “just like us” but in different clothes. Similarly, in contemporaries, it’s not uncommon for one character to be readily understandable to us and the other less so - often one will be in the military, or a high powered businessperson, while the second is “just like us”. Again, the contrast in their experiences compels the characters to make explanations to the other, and thus to the reader.

11/ Experience Your World

If a setting is described by its visual elements alone, four of the reader's senses have been abandoned for no good reason. If the reader was there, she/he would use every one of those senses. As a writer evoking that scene, you should use them, too. Smell the setting, taste it, hear it, feel it. Draw the reader right into the experience and make it "real" by describing the observations of those other senses.

Romance is particularly conducive to sensory description. Sensation and emotion go easily hand-in-hand - readers bought your book to feel what the protagonists feel, to relive that heady experience of falling in love. When people are in love, they "feel alive", their senses tingle, they're hungry for sensation. In moments of extreme emotional duress (like falling in love) everything is more vivid, more pungent, more of whatever it is, and it should be so for your characters. The only thing to watch here is that you don't overuse this technique. It can become wearying to read page after page of sensory assault - save it for really important moments, like thresholds of change.

12/ Use Active Verbs

Whenever you associate an active verb with an inanimate object, it flags a reader's attention. You can do this sparingly to attract attention and make your settings more vivid. A good example of this is from Salman Rushdie's MIDNIGHT’S CHLDREN when the protagonist describes his own grandfather, who has returned to his home of Kashmir in northern India:

"Aadam's eyes are a clear blue, the astonishing blue of mountain sky, which has a habit of dripping into the pupils of Kashmiri men."

Skies don't drip, we know that, but the choice of words - here and throughout the passage - makes the entire countryside seem alive. Taken to extremes, the setting can become another character, one that is benevolent and malicious by turn. This is a particular hallmark of fantasy writers or authors who incorporate mythology into their work, or gothic romance authors. It's a very effective tool when writing fantasy romance, as well.

13/ Choose Language Carefully

Be careful of how many words you invent. This is a real temptation when building an alien world especially, but try to limit yourself to naming key concepts in your alternate language. Again, use the technique of highlighting what’s important with a distinctive phrase - this will help to keep your pacing crisp. Of course, if you are going to invent a language, you need to learn something about languages and sounds, to ensure that it makes a consistent, cohesive whole. There’s nothing more disconcerting than a couple whose names are completely different but who are supposedly part of the same society - how many stories of Scheherezade and Bob have you read lately?

World-building is one of the more rewarding challenges of writing fiction. A well constructed world will grab the reader and force him or her to think according to its maxims, and maybe even escape "real life". Part of your job as an author is to vividly illuminate a world of your own imagining and to paint that world with such clarity that for a few golden hours, it IS real to your reader. So, do the extra work and go a bit farther – use these suggestions to make a setting as distinctively your own as your story.