Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Worlds -- The WHEN of World Building

Readers, whether they want to or not, come to a story with preconceived ideas. They have learned about the world through reading, movies, art, other media, and in history classes. While those ideas may have nothing to do with the reality of the time, the author can use the readers' preconceptions to enhance their story's setting without lengthy descriptions or any description at all.

What do you imagine when you read, “Hail the Centurion”?

How about, “His gauntlet-covered hand grasped the spear's shaft"?

Or, “The ballroom was a crush with all the society in attendance.”

Or, “The gun belt felt strange strapped to her hip, the colt was heavy, but its very presence was weightier.”

Or, “Simon used the laser to site the missile.”

Words have history and different societies' titles contain a sense of place. So do tone and wording preferences. You can use these to help establish aspects of your culture even if yours isn’t the same culture at all. If you use words similar to those used in the Roman Legions, your setting will take on that flavor. If you use the society rules or objects common to the Regency, Victorian eras, the Wild West, or even those of a contemporary situation, your reader might well form preconceived ideas of what your society and culture are like. Those preconceptions color your world, and let the reader participate in your world building!

This is like using a shorthand for your setting, and saves you, the author, much writing. Now, your setting may have nothing more in common with ancient Rome than military titles used by the Romans, but by using their soldiers' ranks, you only have to point out the changes from that norm to establish a new story reality.

So think about the WHEN of your story world.

1. Is there a historical period similar to your setting in some aspect? What are the features in common with this historical period?

2. Are there titles, speech patterns, objects, clothing, equipment, weapons, cultural practices, you can borrow and incorporate into your setting?

This might take some research, but it is worth the trouble. You need not worry that you will be stuck in that historical period (unless you want to be). You are using wording to create a parallel in your reader’s mind, letting them create part of the setting.

But you want to create a completely different world? Won't readers become engaged in the story by forcing them to use their imaginations? Here's a warning. If you create everything from scratch and imagination there is a good chance your readers will never relate to your setting, or they might become so frustrated trying to understand your world that they never finish your book. Give them some known vestige of their world to relate to.


Christopher Hoare said...

Yes, Rhobin. I think every writer who uses a setting different to that of their readers has to struggle with having them 'believe' the fictional world. When I started my Iskander series the North American world was still starry eyed over the technological 'marvel' of shock and awe. My stranded moderns were credited with being so totally superior to the inhabitants of the 17th century world they arrived in---purely by virtue of being modern---that I had to use stratagems to build up the threat of the 'ignorant ancients'. Shift the readers a few years later and these illusions have been markedly brought down to earth and the power of the human mind has been recognized again as superior to mere mechanical gadgets.

Rhobin said...

Sounds like a well thought out world, Christopher.

Rosalie Skinner said...

I agree that you have to give your readers some vestige of their world, to relate to. Once you have them comfortable, you can take them anywhere.
Another great article. Words, and how we use them, are important.
Introducing the wrong element in the novels timeline can destroy belief.