Hello everyone, and happy February!
Hard to believe it’s already 2019. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably made resolutions—some you’ll keep and some you won’t (or maybe you won’t keep any of them; if that’s the case, we can totally be friends).
One of the things I’ve resolved to do this year is to get my life together, and that includes my writing life. Even though it’s hard to remember when we’re screaming at the computer screen and wondering why our characters have hijacked the plot again, writing is a craft, and one always has to be willing to improve. And I will tell you this: one of the simplest ways to improve your craft is also one of the most daunting.
That’s right, kids. It’s worldbuilding.
(I’ll wait for you to finish groaning, and possibly falling upon your fainting couch. Go on; it’s okay. I feel this way about edits.)
The thing is, some of the most memorable books in the last 20 years wouldn’t even be blips on the radar without the worldbuilding components that create their backbones. Can you imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts? Divergent without the factions? What would The Hunger Games be without said games? And let’s not even discuss A Song of Ice and Fire without dragons. Genre writers can be made or broken by their worldbuilding, so it’s not only a handy tool in your arsenal, it’s a necessary one. Plus, it can be fun!
Honestly, worldbuilding is my favorite part of the writing process.
It gives my Ravenclaw self a lot to chew on, and I LOVE the researching and stitching everything together. I love framing the backdrop of my stories with whatever craziness I can dream up. As someone who lived for Syfy Sundays with my dad, who saw every fantasy movie I could get my hands on, who loves science fiction and fantasy novels, I discovered a love for worldbuilding while crafting my own science fiction and fantasy novels. However, while writing contemporary novels, I realized that worldbuilding is just as crucial to that genre as it is to speculative fiction, and even though contemporary means “set in the present world” it still needs some building up.
Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends all use a significant amount of worldbuilding in a contemporary setting, the biggest examples being the bar, Monk’s Cafe, and Central Perk respectively. The town of Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls is a second example. It creates the Dragonfly Inn, Luke’s Diner…. While the show could happen without those places, it truly would not be the same. As someone who’s worked in hospitality, Michel alone is enough for me.
But maybe you think you can get by on your prose, your characters, your dialogue.
Maybe you can, but you won’t get far without the total package. You can have the most beautiful prose, the most memorable characters, the most incredible and quotable dialogue, but if your world falls flat around it all, it’ll bring your entire story down. Shoddy worldbuilding is like a cracked foundation. If the structure is weak, it can’t support what’s on top of it.
Still not convinced? Here are my top 3 reasons why you should improve your worldbuilding skills to improve your writing overall:
Your world informs your characters.
Think about where you grew up. The way you think, act, and speak is all informed by the world you live in. An easy example is accents: I’m Appalachian, so my accent is SUPER FUN and is also frequently commented on by people I meet in Louisville (my current city of residence). My dialect is also different from the non-mountain people I live around. One time I said “reckon” and the person I was talking to looked at me like I had six heads.
Why does this matter? Because I changed my pattern of speech at that time. I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of my accent or my word choice, but I didn’t want to be singled out, either. This kind of tension can add to your world as well. In Angie Thomas’ brilliant novel The Hate U Give, the protagonist Starr lives in two worlds: her poor, predominantly black neighborhood and the mostly-white prep school she attends. As a result, she code switches between dialects used in both worlds, a result of the cultures in which she’s enmeshed. I had to do something similar. Either way, it can add another layer of tension to your story.
Your world separates your work from everybody else’s.
In a writing class, I had once, the prof said that there are about five different plots in the universe, so what sets you apart? Characters, story, and your world. Even in contemporary writing, your worldbuilding will help set apart your story. What do The Once and Future King, Eragon, and Star Wars have in common? The core plot, which is that of the Chosen One. Arthur, Eragon, and Luke Skywalker are “chosen,” or maybe even fated, to save their world. Often, they’re the Greatest, better than any who’ve come before. But the difference is in their worlds. Arthurian England, Alagaesia, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Those worlds make all the difference.
Your world lets your creativity shine through.
I’m a daydreamer in love with speculative fiction, so I think a lot about what could be, what is, and what needs improvement. The most fun worldbuilding experience I’ve had was in writing a science fiction romance where humans were at the top of the galactic food chain instead of the bottom, there were giant cat bounty hunters, and all the aliens thought humans were essentially Chuck Norris. A little known fact about me: Chuck Norris facts are one of my favorite things of all time, so staying true to my personality in this one was absolutely the best. And you can do that too! Look at the things that interest you and find ways to incorporate that into your writing. Have fun with building your dark, beautiful, zany worlds, and you’ll see how much richer your writing time is.
Your world can introduce a whole slew of problems for your characters.
One that immediately comes to mind is the fire swamp in The Princess Bride. For reference, I’m thinking of the movie and Carey Elwes in those pants…ANYWAY. The fire swamp provides Westley and Buttercup with the new challenge of ROUS, Rats of Unusual Size. This bit of worldbuilding leads to the scene I’m sure most people think of when they think of the movie, apart from the poison scene and the scene where Westley is paralyzed and still beats Prince what’s his face and literally the rest of the movie. However, I argue that the fire swamp is one of the best scenes in the entire movie. “Rats of Unusual Size? There’s no such thing.” And then there is. Both Westley and Buttercup easily could have died in the fire swamp, but this scene gives Westley a chance to show off his many heroic skills while reinforcing the tone of the movie.
In your worldbuilding, you can basically do whatever you want, and as long as it makes sense, it works. So have fun, stretch your brainbox, and find out what your characters are truly made of!
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