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World-Building 101 – Part 2

March 17, 2012

Ah, blue sky and green grass. Really? That’s the best we can do? Well, sometimes the simple path is the best. Readers need a level of comfort when navigating a new world. Familiar things like blue sky and green grass can work as an anchor for a world inhabited by dragons, wizards, and unicorns. When I worked as a musician, it was the cover tune that helped build a relationship between performer and audience. I loved to play my own songs, but it was the cover tune, the known factor, that helped build the connection necessary in the entertainment business. The same principle can be applied when building fresh worlds for our fans.

A great example is the movie Avatar. Six-legged creatures and tall, blue N’avi are much more palatable in the context of green forests sitting under a blue sky. The human compound served as another “happy place” that returned a level of familiarity.

This doesn’t mean that your world must have blue sky and green grass. These are just examples of one way to add comfort for a reader trapped in the world of the writer’s twisted dreams. There are countless other ways to accomplish the same task. A familiar landscape, rivers that actually run downhill, or trees with their roots in the ground are silly but clear examples of building in familiarity.

It is rare when an author is able to pull off a completely foreign experience. It takes many, many pages and well-crafted storytelling to build a totally different world that is easily navigated. In C.S. Lewis’ classic space trilogy, Lewis gave us an entirely different world where nothing was familiar and every description countered our own reality. He balanced this with a known element, the human protagonist. No matter how disoriented his world made us, we were always able to run back to the comfort of human perspective.

As I discussed in Part 1, new worlds fall apart in the details. As writers, it is imperative that we have a complete picture of our own creation. When I say details, I mean as much of the minutia as possible. Does your world have snakes? Are any of them poisonous? What do they look like? Where do they live? Is it necessary to know this type of information if you have no plans to add a snake to your book? I think it is, because you may not plan on it, but your characters don’t always listen to direction. They tend to ad lib. If my character is racing down a wooded path, I want to give him every opportunity to do so in a real world. If you haven’t thought out the wildlife in your (his) world, how is he going to surprise you by running into a snake, or scorpion, or eight-legged cat-like creature with two heads and claws as long as a man’s arm? This type of intimate knowledge allows the creative juices to flow. A fully realized world lets the characters interact with you, the writer, and send the story into new and wonderful directions.

Look at how you interact with your own environment and nail down those same physical attributes in your new world.

In Part 3 of this series, I will take a deeper look at the many physical aspects that I believe are necessary for effective, and fun, world-building. Be sure to post your own ideas in the comments.

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