Friday, July 16, 2010
The Goldilocks Method of Setting
Have you ever read a book where the world felt…thin? It feels like if you skipped ahead of the characters in the story, you’ll see the stage hands setting the props up. Or the setting itself felt like one giant cliché? Or maybe not a cliché, but it didn’t really bring anything to the story? Characters went around and did plotish things, and the landscape was always a vague forest, with taverns, inns, and the occasional wolf?
Or, on the flip side, have you ever spoken to someone who is writing historical fiction/fantasy/science fiction or any other genre that requires you to research or make up the setting who has been working on said setting for years?
Been there, done that on both accounts. I have read lots of fantasy books where the world barely felt real, and I have talked to numerous authors who are still “researching” for that book they are going to write.
Madness I say. There’s a better way. A way to develop your world that you know enough about it to make it come alive around your characters, but not let worldbuilding/research bog you down so you’re making up every single country in the world and every language, and the history for the last 500 years, and so on.
Today we’re going to talk about how to worldbuild a culture enough so that it feels real, and the rest of the world around them feels real, but you don’t spend weeks getting there. It’s kinda like those two for one deals you see at shoe stores. You get to build your culture, you get to make things seem real, but you get to side step Wordlbuilding Hell where you toil for years on a setting (I think this toiling is partially where we get so many infodump in fantasy too…the authors thinks, Dang it! I spend time making this up, now the reader should know all about the intricate weasel trading policies of the four colonies of Fantasyotopia).
First, let’s answer the question: Who needs to worldbuild?
I use the term “worldbuild” to include historical fiction author who’s primary goal is to research their setting, not make it up.
So if you’re writing a story set anytime other than right here, right now, you need to worldbuild your culture. Even if your story is set twenty years ago, you will need to do a bit of research. We all know how much technology has changed over the past few years. If you have lost perspective, go watch a movie from the eighties.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Hilarious, wasn’t it? And that was just thirty years ago. Less than one person’s lifetime. Not just technology, but hairstyles (A side pony tail? Really, 1980’s? Really?), makeup, and music (who could forget Hair Bands? I love me a good power ballad. That is actually one of my favorite genres of music, I am not afraid to admit it. In fact, I think I will play some eighties music right now…) have all changed in a sort span of time.
You need to give your readers the impression within your novel that the world your characters are living is as fleshed out and developed as our own world. Without actually doing all of the development necessary to make your fake planet as diverse and developed as Earth is.
Yeah…that pretty much sounds impossible, right?
The trick is you divide and conquer. Before I start worldbuilding I make myself a short of list of the areas in the character’s lives I am going to be moving around in the most.
So if the character is a cleric, “religious hierarchy” will be on that list. If the character isn’t a cleric or particularly religious, no “religious hierarchy”. “Weasel trading” or “hairspray for musicians” perhaps, depending on their professions.
You also need to include what aspects of culture will affect their daily lives. So if they live in a country similar to America, you might add “schooling systems” “common professions” “modes of transportation” etc…
The point here is to figure out what aspects of the culture will directly impact your plot. If your characters are weasel traders, then you’d better figure out how those weasels are breed, the going market values for rodents, if the weasels have magical powers, how the weasels are transported, how one gets into the weasel trading business, etc.
If your character has nothing to do with the weasel trade, then you probably don’t need all of that specific information. If the country is a major weasel exporter, you might figure some of that information out, but again, the point here is to figure out the most important information you need to know.
I like to start with these personal details, and work my way out to the country in general, but you could go the opposite way, and figure out general facts about the country you’re setting the novel in, and move into the city your character is from.
Developing plot and worldbuilding usually happen simultaneously for me. I sort of go back and forth. I might decide while brainstorming my main character has inherited a weasel farm (or a nursery? What would you call where weasels are raised?), which in turn leads me to developing the specifics of the weasel trade.
When I decide I need to know more about the world in general, I do what I call “broad strokes”. I figure out what countries neighbor my main character’s country. If they are friendly or hostile. If they trade weasels for marmosets with the main character’s country. I figure out the trade triangle, and if there are weasel bandits that sail the four seas. I could create a ring of pirates, with a Weasel baron in the middle, who believes that weasels are gods incarnate, and he and his pirates seek to free all weasel kind. These development would then give me ideas for plot complications. What if the Weasel Baron stole the main character’s cargo? What if she chased him to get her cargo back, because she’s bankrupt without the money the weasel trade will give her?
The key here is to develop the information you need specifically, and have a vague feel for the rest. It’s not that you can’t develop more of your world. I tend to develop lots of different stuff for a story that never sees the light of a manuscript, but I don’t spend years working all of this out. Usually I have a good feel for the state of the world, I know some specifics crucial to the plot, and then as I am writing the first draft I make more stuff up in my free time.
But then, I am a weirdo who LOVES worldbuilding. That’s just me. You can always fill in more information about the world as you need it too. Let’s say you are a major pantser, that is, you write without plotting a single thing. And somehow your character winds up on the other side of the world, far away from her weasel farm and the Weasel Baron. You can either fake it, and add details upon revision, or you can stop writing to spend a little bit of time to worldbuild what you need to know (like, How does a person sneak into Port City without the proper papers? How does a character get out of Port City jail after being caught without papers?). Personally, I prefer to stop and do some quick worldbuilding, just because every time I wing it, and worldbuild later, it totally changes the story.
My last bit of worldbuilding advice is to find some pictures online, via Free Digital Pictures.net or Wikicommons that looks like where you want to set your story. I am extremely visual, and just having some pictures of the area my story is set in makes it feel real.
These pictures that have been scattered through this post? That’s my next setting, the place I am worldbuilding.
What else? What do you guys do to make sure your setting feels real enough to vacation there?