Continuing our series of guest posts, Susan K. Hamilton, the author of Shadow King, brings us some important tips to make your world-building great.
Fantasy and fiction author Susan K. Hamilton published her first fantasy novel—DARKSTAR RISING—through Xlibris in 2003. The experience only fueled her interest in writing and in 2016 she was a Top Ten finalist in the Launchpad Manuscript Competition. Her entry—SHADOW KING—will be released later this year from Inkshares, and she is working on a new manuscript tentatively titled THE DEVIL YOU DON’T. An avid horse enthusiast, Susan spends her spare time (when not writing) at the barn and in the saddle. She lives near Boston with her husband and cat.
Five Lessons I’ve Learned About World-Building
When writing fiction, especially when it is some sort of fantasy or science fiction, the world you build is a fundamental and critical part of your story. Your world is the backdrop, and sometimes the bones, for your story. There are many wonderful and terrible ways to create your world. Top-down world building means you work from the broad concepts—politics, religion, cultural social mores—and directs how your characters interact. Bottom-up world building, as you may infer, grows more organically: as your characters evolve, so does their world.
Frequently the two types of world-building can co-exist. You may start with one, and then find there is a need to switch. And you also can vary in how extensive or minimal your word is.
Personally, I have written two novels (that the public currently has or will have access to), as well as three others that are in various states of disarray. Each one of these has required that I build a unique world, and I’ve learned several lessons about world-building through my various efforts, both the successes and the mistakes.
Lesson #1: Don’t let anyone tell you “no”
There isn’t one right way to world-build. You are the all-knowing, merciful (or merciless as the case may be) God or Goddess of your Universe.
It’s your world; build it the way you want.
Don’t let anyone tell you that top-down world building is best or bottom up is best. What works for J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, R.A. Salvatore – or me, for that matter—might not work for you and that’s okay. We all think and work differently; that’s one of the wonderful things about creativity.
Personally, I feel I’m more of a bottom-up world builder. While it might be possible for me to get an idea for a world, if I don’t come up with a character who speaks to me, I don’t end up connecting with the world emotionally and then I get tired of it very quickly. Writing the story and meeting the characters makes me wonder what kind of world I want them to live in, love in, and—yes—often die in. That’s where the fuel for my world-building comes from. So often my world emerges organically and the story unfolds.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve never delved into top-down world building.
I think a great example of my blending of the two can be seen in my first novel, DARKSTAR RISING. As I wrote the first draft, I started to build a world around my main character, Darkstar, adding details as needed so that the world suited the story I wanted to write.
But then I hit a point where I realized Darkstar was really starting to interact with people from other countries and races, and I felt like I didn’t have a solid grasp of who these people were. That was when I switched to more of the top-down system. I took my countries—and the characters who were from there—and put some thought into each. I thought about religion, customs, social mores, how the genders related to each other, and more. I knew I had to define these broader parameters because these things would influence how my characters interacted.
That system worked for me… But remember: Your world. Your method. Own it.
Lesson #2: Your memory isn’t as good as you think it is
When you find those key, critical parts of your world, the ones that are the foundational bricks and interdependencies, for the love of everything good, write them down SOMEWHERE.
I don’t care if you’re totally tech-savvy and know how to build a wiki to keep track of your world (which sounds like a pretty cool option), or if you kick-it old school and use a notebook, or if you’re somewhere in the middle with an Excel spreadsheet. If your story is detailed enough, at some point you’re going to forget something, and you’re going to need to look it up.
Having a system is going to make that so much easier for you.
If you don’t have a system to help you remember, you run the risk of putting conflicting details in your story, and these—even very minor ones—can create a kind of cognitive dissonance in your readers. If this dissonance is significant enough, it will pull your reader out of the flow of your story, and no one wants that.
I’ll confess, I’m not the greatest at writing things down, and when I do, it tends to be a bit of a hodge-podge. In fact, I just went through some of the folder I have for SHADOW KING and made an attempt to organize it into “Older Material,” “Background,” “Drafts,” and then a folder for things pertaining to my publisher. And even with that, it is still pretty disorganized.
I tend to just keep track in a Word doc or Excel sheet where I can keep the things I need to reference about both the world itself as well as the characters’ bona fides. I probably ought to make myself a standard template to use; but that’s been on my “gotta get to it one of these days” list for a long, long time. I’ll be starting work on my next manuscript soon so maybe this is the time!
Oh, and one other thing: back up your files. Seriously. You’ll thank me for that someday.
Lesson #3: Do the autopsy—even if you don’t want to.
If this is the first time you’ve done world-building, you’re going to look back on parts and think, “Sh*t, that didn’t go the way I planned.”
You know what? Even if this is your fifth novel, or tenth, from time to time, you’re still going to ask yourself that very same question. That sentence crosses my mind, and comes out of my mouth, more times than I care to admit.
We’ve all done it. Mistakes are how we learn and how we do things better the next time around. There’s no shame in that, but you need to remember to learn from your mistakes.
Once you’ve completed your story, I highly recommend you do some sort of personal debrief or post-mortem. Think about how you went about not only writing the story but also how you built the world and the characters within it. I bet you think of a few things that bogged you down or sidetracked you.
This is a much harder thing to do than it might first appear. For starters, once you’re done with a story, you want to move onto the next thing whether that is marketing or pitching what you just finished, or starting to write that next great manuscript in your head. Who has time to go back and deconstruct what you just did? We’re burning daylight!
You should. I should. We all should.
We should make the effort to figure out what didn’t go so well and then remember those things so that maybe, just maybe, we can do it a little differently next time. Conversely, if you found something that worked AWESOME, then keep doing it! There is a reason people tell you not to mess with a good thing.
Lesson #4: Don’t just build empty cities
World-building is wonderful, and it’s fun, but a world without characters and emotions and turmoil is nothing more than an elegant ghost town.
Fill your cities, your countries, your planets! Fill them to the brim with love, hate, despair, adoration, revenge, recrimination, passion, lust, bravery, cowardice, insecurity, arrogance, hope, sorrow, joy, betrayal, forgiveness, humor, and sarcasm. Fill them with the wise and the foolish, the smart and the stupid, the seers and the blind.
I mentioned this earlier but I’ve definitely noticed that my method for world-building is inextricably connected with my characters. As the characters grow, so does the world. As the characters grow, they tell me about their hopes and fears, about their childhoods, and those details inform the world I’m creating.
In my current book, SHADOW KING, the very first thing I created was my male lead: Aohdan Collins. Once I knew who he was, the world he would live in started to take shape. This was an interesting world to work with. Because the novel is a dark urban fantasy, the main setting is the city of Boston, so there were certain things that had to be real and concrete, and that I didn’t need to create. What I did need to create was this alternate Boston where Aohdan (who is a Fae) and his companions exist, blending elements of the human realm that we all know with elements of the faerie realm that Aohdan and the others have brought to the world.
And in Aohdan’s story there is plenty of love, lust, ambition, betrayal and revenge. One of the things I found especially interesting was how the faeries and humans interacted in my world, how much prejudice there was (or wasn’t).
Each aspect of the world is enhanced by the emotions that fill it.
Lesson #5: The Devil’s in the Details
This lesson is a crazy, kissing-cousin to #4. When you’re building worlds, you need to fill them with characters and feelings, but you also need to make sure you remember the little stuff. Because the small stuff matters!
Have you built an industrial city? Make sure people get soot on their hands, and have the odor of fuel on their clothes. Is your society agricultural? Include the smell of warm soil and fresh vegetables, of sweaty horses and cow manure. Include the grunt of oxen as the pull the plow and the feel of calloused, work-weary fingers. Do your characters gather at a seedy pub? Include the sour taste of inferior wine and the greasy texture of stew made with gristle and half-spoiled vegetables.
Those are the details that make a world come alive once you’ve built the beautiful bones: What does it feel like, what does it smell like? Are there places where your reader would feel at home? Where they would have a beer with a friend? You don’t have to overload your work with these details, but a few very vivid ones, strategically placed can make your world so much more real to your readers.
In my own work, I tend to focus much more on dialogue than I do on details, and I often need to remind myself to go back and look for opportunities to put these small details in. At one point in SHADOW KING, one of my characters is walking down the sidewalk, and it is winter. At first I didn’t say much about the snow but when I read the scene over, I realized that snow in the city can look a lot different than snow in the country. So, I made sure to add in that the snow was gritty and blackened from dirt, sand, and salt used by the DPW crews. It was only a few words here and there, but in the end I think those details help (plus, they are a good reflection of how this character feels on the inside during that moment of the story).
You’re missing a huge opportunity if you leave these things out.
These are just five lessons I’ve learned as I’ve made my way through my various stories and manuscripts. I’m sure for some of you they’re familiar, for others maybe I sparked a new idea or two. And I’m sure that there are thousands of other lessons out there that we can all benefit from – I’d love to hear more about your lessons in the comments!
Discover Susan’s latest book, Shadow King!
Shadow King was a Top Ten finalist in the 2017 Launchpad Manuscript Competition out of over 1,000 entries from 24 different countries. It will be published by Inkshares through their Quill imprint later in 2017 (anticipating fall, but specific release date is TBD).
Connect with Susan:
Inkshares: www.inkshares.com/books/shadow-king (if you register on the site, you can follow both her as an author and Shadow King as a book)