Posts Tagged ‘worldbuilding’

Viewpoint Characters
Background: a character should be a product of the sum of his cultural and personal experiences. There should be elements of both nature and nurture. For example, werewolves (or vampires or even humans) will likely have certain behaviors in common because of their biology and biochemistry. Werewolves, for example might have a need to change, particularly at certain times, or for rarer meat or any number of things depending on the rules you establish for your world. How your particular character deals with these urges or with others inside or outside the group or life in general will largely be informed by their personal and familial history.

Because urban fantasy is so hot and snarky, sassy characters are in, I see far too many submissions in which the heroine, say, is all punchy and prickly for no particular reason. What makes your character the way she is?

Uniqueness: while your main character or characters should be identifiable and sympathetic to the reader, he or she should also be unique. Even if you’ve chosen something that’s fairly common…let’s use a vampire here…it should not be your standard vampire. While I don’t necessarily want my vampires to sparkle in the sunlight, Stephenie Meyer took the idea of vampires as the ultimate preditors with everything meant to draw prey to them and ran with it. Try to give your hero or heroine a different twist.

Strength, Weaknesses and Quirks: a real character, like a real person, will have all these things. They’ll have fears, loves, dislikes, passions, quirks, etc. No character should be a type. No person is entirely consistent or sweet or evil or any one single thing. Everybody has something about themselves that it would surprise others to know.

Relatable: No matter how unusual a main character you choose, the reader should find him or her relatable and sympathetic. You may lose some readers if you choose a main character with whom they have nothing in common or who they feel is too immoral, although this can sometimes make a novel stand out. I’m thinking here of Jaye Wells’ assassin heroine in Red-Headed Stepchild, in which the voice carries you through. Example, an excerpt from the opening:

Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal. So I ignored the chipped onyx polish. I ignored the dirt caked under my nails. I ignored my palms, rubbed raw and blistering. And when a snapping twig announced David’s arrival, I ignored him too.

He said nothing, just stood off behind a thicket of trees waiting for me to acknowledge him. Despite his silence, I could feel hot waves of disapproval flying in my direction.

At last, the final scoop of earth fell onto the grave. Stalling, I leaned on the shovel handle and restored order to my hair. Next I brushed flecks of dirt from my cashmere sweater. Not the first choice of digging attire for some, but I always believed manual labor was no excuse for sloppiness. Besides, the sweater was black, so it went well with the haphazard funerary rites.

Choosing a POV Character
I’ve avoided saying “hero” or “heroine” here because sometimes, like in the movie Despicable Me, the terms don’t really apply…at least not at first. Here are some things to consider:

Is your character an Insider or Outsider: are they already fully immersed in the world & or is the reader becoming aware along with them? Sometimes the best way to introduce a reader to the world of the weird is to introduce the protagonist to it, so that they begin at the same level of knowledge, basically, as the reader. Take Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series. Her main character is more or less an everyman. Everywoman anyway. She’s a graduate student. Exams, roommate, jeans, t-shirts, junk-food addiction, particularly under stress…until she’s attacked by one vampire and rescued by another, though the only way to accomplish that is to complete the change. In the world Chloe has created, becoming a vampire isn’t as simple as waking from the dead. It’s political and practically feudal in its code…learnable in a multi-volume Canon to which she does not subject her readers…only her poor character. However, it’s also intriguing simply to launch your reader into the world, as Kalayna Price does in Grave Witch, right from the first line, “The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me. Some days I wished he hadn’t – particularly when we crossed paths on the job.” Here, the heroine has grown up with her abilities, and the reader accepts them just as the protagonist does, taking them in stride.

Reliable or Unreliable Narrator: a reliable narrator is most traditional. This is someone whose observations we trust. An unreliable narrator is often an anti-hero, someone who may have a reason to twist the facts presented. The best example I can provide of the latter is Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David. It’s fascinating, because you’re constantly analyzing what’s said to try to get at the true person behind the narrative. In fact, to me the true brilliance of the book is the psychology behind it.

Is this someone you can torture: I know, this sounds crazy, but this is one I learned from experience. Part of the reason that you have to give your characters flaws, aside from the fact that we all have them, and it makes your characters more realistic, is that it gives you something less than noble about them that you can hang onto when you’re putting them through the meatgrinder that is fate. I’m completely serious here. If your character is too much like you or too beloved, you’re going to have a very difficult time carrying through with the conflict. You’ll want to protect them, and therefore demolish any tension almost before it’s begun to build. I’ve seen it time and again, along with overuse of adjectives and exposition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first character I wrote who really spoke to people was a teen fashionista I took from chic to eek by vamping her out and taking away all her tanning options. No reflection, now way to fix her hair and make up…her own personal version of hell. Yes, she was fun to torture…for me and for the reader as well. But she also had to be capable of, as she says, putting on her big-girl panties to deal with it, which brings me to my next comment….

Hidden strengths: In Joss Whedon’s Firefly, very bad man Adelai Niska says that during torture you meet the true person. In a novel, your action tends to be a bit larger than life, unless your lives are much more exciting than mine, so characters tend to be pushed beyond normal endurance. They’ll either break or find hidden strengths that allow them to survive and win the day. Breaking is obviously the less heroic choice.

What POV will best suit your character’s voice. There are really only two acceptable options, since omniscient narration doesn’t tend to appeal to modern readers. That’s narration where events are relayed from some external perspective, as if it’s being watched and not lived. It’s very distancing and doesn’t provide any lens through which we can view the world or emotional impact, because nothing is at stake for the teller of the tale.

The first person, or the “I” perspective, is popular, especially in urban fantasy these days. It can be very intimate, but it can also be limiting, since it’s best (though not exclusively) used in single point of view narratives. Caveat here: be careful that it doesn’t sound like your character is speaking directly to the reader. A reader wants to disappear into a book and live vicariously alongside the characters, which isn’t possible when we’re aware of ourselves. Also, one person can’t ever truly know what another is thinking, so while you can give us cues in dialogue, expression and body language, you don’t get to put us into someone else’s head.

Third person is perhaps the most commonly used. This is the “he” or “she” perspective, where we’re still in a particular character’s head at any given moment, but which character may change with a chapter or section break. There are caveats here too. If you choose to write from more than one perspective, it’s important for each voice to sound truly distinctive so that the reader doesn’t forget even for a second who they’re following. Also, even with the ability to tell a tale from multiple viewpoints, you’ll probably want to limit the number of characters, lest the book become too unwieldy and a reader lose the thread of one character’s story while we’re tied up with another.
Populating your world
Antagonists: Peter Watts’s Blindsight, which I referenced earlier, proves that there doesn’t necessarily have to be an antagonist, although there does have to be a threat. In his novel, it’s our own complete inability to even conceive of the alien species we encounter and discover how to safely interact. However, most novels need an antagonist, a visible, fightable enemy and someone who’s more than a match for the hero or heroine so that we truly believe the danger and are kept on the edge of our seats over the outcome of all conflicts. The antagonist should not be a cartoon personification of evil, but should have real motivations, whether they be selfish, sociopathic, misguided, vengeful or whathaveyou. Often, the most intriguing characters are those who are at war with themselves and the most interesting novels are those that make the reader really think about their perceptions and preconceived notions. Carol Berg plays around quite a bit with the perceptions of good and evil in her worlds.

Secondary characters: Your secondary characters should have personas and voices all their own, not just live and breathe to ask questions that allow exposition to be delivered in dialogue. But be careful that they don’t run away with the story, which is especially likely when it comes to the comic relief. Secondary characters come in all shapes and sizes from love interests, to friends to family and pint-sized piskies. Whatever shape they come in should not resemble cardboard.

Creatures: Be certain to make your creatures your own, even if you draw on an established mythos. If an elf, a human and a dwarf walk into a bar, chances are you have a D&D adventure and not a truly unique novel on your hands…unless you’ve done something particularly tricky with your world. For example, Rob Thurman’s “elves” are so far from our conception of the Fair Folk that there’s no recognizing them. In fact, Cal Leandros, the hero of her bestselling series, is half auphe or, as he’s labeled himself, “half-human, half-monster, all attitude” and while she has trolls and vampires and one unabashedly Pan-sexual Robin Goodfellow, she’s fleshed them out to the point where they’re truly original.

Something else to think about: you obviously can’t use all creatures from all traditions or gods from each pantheon…what a crowded novel that would be! How do you explain those you bring in without seeming to shun all the others? I can’t answer that for each author, but in my upcoming novel, Bad Blood, I used my knowledge of comparative religion to add in little things here and there letting readers know that my Greek gods have also been other things to other people. For example, Hermes correlates not only to Mercury in the Roman pantheon, but to Iemisch from South America, Loki of Norse mythology, Coyote and Spider from Native American cultures and all the other trickster gods.

I enjoy using myth and legend, but it’s often tricky, because readers will have certain expectations based on the versions of stories that they’ve read. For the old myths, which weren’t written down until long after the ancient world had played its version of telephone with them, there are multiple variations. The good news is that you can choose the one which works best for your purposes. The bad news is that not everyone will like your interpretation.

Now, I’ve harped on unique and original, and you can, of course, create your own creatures out of whole cloth. The trick will then be in building the image without making reference to any known animal living or dead and still making it as vivid for the reader as something they can readily envision.
The balance of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.

Internal: what makes it personal for your protagonists? What invests the characters invest the reader. Maybe it’s danger to themselves or a loved one or the need to clear someone’s name. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes the hero or heroine, and thus the reader, who’s approaching things from that perspective, care very deeply.

Edmund R. Schubert in Writing Magical Words writes about the importance of having your character want something. He says “the difference between good, publishable fiction, and pretty, wandering words that no one cares about is determined by whether or not the writer can create a sense of expectations in the reader and then meet those expectations. “Wanting” is just the simplest way of setting that sense of expectation in motion. Part of your conflict in a story, at the personal level, is that something is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving what it is that he or she wants.

External: what is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.

As you can all see, I’ve gone a bit beyond worldbuilding with this whole workshop, but everything ties together like a tightly woven tapestry to give you a beautiful finished product.

It’s a special challenge when creating a new world to which your readers must be introduced (or the changes you’ve made to a familiar one) to do so and maintain a pulse-pounding pace while also developing characters and plot. This can lead to a lot of exposition, which often sounds clunky and inhibits a smooth narrative flow.

One of the best ways to head off info dump is to begin in the right place. If you start the novel too long before the main story so that you can provide set-up and context, you may lose the reader through the lack of immediacy. If you start too in media res, there’s a ton of backstory that you’re going to have to fit in, which will slow down your pacing. This means that you’ve got to choose the moment in time where the key elements that are important to the overarching plot are developing, but early enough in their development that you can provide context before everything goes kablooey. In other words, we have to understand what’s normal before it all goes to hell. Also, we have to care.

That said, there are times where a prologue, which is generally offset in time and sometimes in point of view, from the main storyline might be necessary to provide backstory, but there are right and wrong ways to do this as well. There are almost no hard and fast rules, since if you do anything well enough, you can probably get away with it. However, in general, you don’t want to start with an omniscient narration told from the point of view of some celestial being or star. I would advise you to be careful of starting with a myth, parable or flashback. N.K. Jemisin does this in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but the snippet is short, relevant and personal:

 I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.

Anyone who’s ever awaited the birth of a child, particularly if you’re the one carrying the child knows that you can’t wait for that baby to be born. The fact that any mother would seek to prevent or delay this…it’s huge. Immediately, the reader wants to know why.

However, in general, you want to begin in the present in the voice of one of your main viewpoint characters. It’s a reader expectation that the first person we “meet” is going to be a major storyteller.

Here are some simple says to avoid info dump:

-Don’t introduce characters before they appear (i.e. “Maia prepped mentally for her meeting with President and his aid, who had been hurt in the “police action” of Kentaga in ’34 and as a result bore horrible scars as constant reminders”). It would be so much more powerful to experience her reaction when the aid comes through the door.

-Once a character appears, do not stop your action to give us his or her history, but reveal it through dialogue or context. Remember that body language and vocal cues can teach us as much about a situation as dialogue tags or exposition. For example, in the above interaction, Maia would certainly notice the scars. She might even stare and get caught, which could be a tense or emotional moment during which the aid could tell her of the origin of his war wounds. In other conversations, one character might be clearly deferential or authoritarian or flippant. Whatever the tone, the interaction itself will enlighten us as to the relationship between these characters with much more relevance and interest than simply telling us.

Likewise, while you’ll have to set a scene and give us description of settings, it’s much more immediate to show how the chill air hit the sweat that still clung to her from the sweat lodge, practically turning it to a thin coating of ice than to simply tell us that it was a cold night.

Also, what do your characters take for granted? What do they swear by? Culturally, a curse is generally something which profanes the sacred, taking God’s name in vain, as it were, so there’s a wealth of information in a curse.

Remember that your characters are the lenses through which we learn about events and the world. They’re the storytellers. Thus, unless something is relevant to them at a given moment, they won’t be thinking about it and the reader won’t be hearing about it. We’ll talk more about characters later.

Magic Systems
There are several key elements in developing magical systems.

Reasoning – is your character a supernatural being out of myth and legend? Are his or her powers genetic? Drawn from a special source? Take it from the superheroes – whether your character is a god like Thor or the last of an alien race drawing power from our red sun like Superman, your character’s powers have to come from somewhere.

Limitations- no matter how broad those powers, they must also be finite. A hero or heroine with no weaknesses makes for a very dull story with no suspense, no fear of failure and nothing that’s a true challenge. Even Superman has his kryptonite.

Balance- the powers arrayed against your protagonist(s) must match or even exceed them so that it’s not mere firepower but creativity and ingenuity that overcome.

Internal logic- once you’ve established the rules, you can’t change them without very good reason, set-up and explanation. For example, in my Vamped series, I have traditional vampires who cannot survive the sunlight. However, in the second book, the Feds, who’ve made my teen vamps an offer they can’t refuse, have developed a concoction that will allow them out in the sun for brief periods of time. The catch is, and there should always be a catch, no one is sure exactly how long that is. It’s never been tested, and my vamps are the guinea pigs.

David B. Coe, in the book How to Write Magical Words, suggests that magic should also have a cost. In his Winds of the Forelands series, for example, the magical race is less hearty than their non-magical counterparts, because every spell cast shortens their lifespan. Steven Harper, in Writing the Parnormal Novel, agrees. To quote “Magic rarely comes free. Otherwise, magicians and magical creatures would rule the world. Be sure you’ve chosen appropriate, consistent limits.”

Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you keep a file on your rules and limitations, what each character or creature type can do, etc. It’ll also help to have a cheat sheet for your world, both for your own reference and for your editor and copyeditor if you’re working on a series. I can’t tell you how often authors have depended on their fans to remind them of something they’ve done in book one and forgotten all about by book four. Fans WILL remember, and they’ll call you on it.

I’ll illustrate here a unique magical description in an excerpt taken from Kalayna Price’s Grave Witch:

Releasing my connection to the magic stored in the obsidian ring, I unclasped the thin silver charm bracelet on my wrist and shoved it in my pocket. The extra defenses the charms gave me vanished. The chill of the grave pressed against my mental shields like icy water lapping at the edge of my consciousness. I drew in a deep breath and sank deeper into a trance. The grave essence lifting from the corpses within my circle persisted, thundering against my mind. Beckoning. Taunting. Demanding.

I dropped my shields.

A racking wind rushed through me. The clammy touch of the grave slid against my skin, beneath my flesh.

I opened my eyes.

My vision had narrowed, leaving the world covered in a patina of gray. Flakes of rust covered the stainless steel gurneys on either side of me. The threadbare and tattered linen sheet covering the body on the gurney to my left rippled in the breeze blowing through me. The linoleum floor under my boots had worn away, and the cement beneath it crumbled. Outside the circle, John’s wrinkled jacket was pocked with holes, but he was filled with light, his soul a dazzling shimmer of pale yellow. I looked away.

In the novel, her heroine Alex Craft’s grave sight has limitations: the grave reaches for her, its chill fills her up. It takes her sight awhile to come back, meaning it’s too dangerous for her to drive, and if she uses the sight for too long, she’ll be functionally blind. She has to go about with shields up except when she chooses to use her power.

Part III is here.

For those who’ve asked me whether I was going to post my Worldbuilding Workshop on-line somewhere, here it is at long last!  (The beginning anyway.)  Special thanks to Gerald Blackwell, who redrew the diagram because I couldn’t figure out how to get it to transfer from Word!  Welcome to Part I.  I hope you enjoy.  There is more to come.


Worldbuilding Workshop

Whether you start with characters or conflict, no one and nothing is created in a vacuum. A character will very much be a product of the way he/she was raised, but also what ecology, nutrition, religion, etc. helped form his or her development.

Conflict often comes when an individual or group is at odds with or fighting against what are considered the norms of a society or when cultures clash against each other over ideology (religion), control of resources (ecology) or whatever. And, of course, rarely does it boil down to just one element in opposition, since all are so tied in together.

I’m going to start with that word—conflict. You don’t have a novel without conflict. You don’t have a story or tension or suspense or any of the multitude of things needed to keep the pages turning. If you begin your novel with a character perfectly in tune with her society and the status quo, well, then you don’t really have a story. If, however, you throw a huge monkey wrench into the works—for example, if that same character sees something he or she shouldn’t, maybe a murder or a kidnapping or—maybe he or she starts to question or delve. Or maybe you have a character already on the outs with society—a criminal or a street person or a rebel…. No matter what you’ve got, you need to build a world that stands in the way of the heroes, let’s say, achieving their goals, but also you need a society that’s internally consistent.

So, the first thought you give to worldbuilding will be based on the needs of the story. Is your setting plucked out of history or even the modern world? Is it a space station? An ice planet? A seaport? An alternate New York.

Whatever you choose, your world will have certain challenges, limitations, resources, etc. which will inform the culture.

I’m going to start talking about the Environment, which is to me one of the most pivotal issues in the early development of a culture and hence at the top of my chart. Clearly, people can’t use resources they don’t have and will not develop technologies for which they have no use. At its core, a culture builds on what it has available, creates innovations to ease the burdens of work and do what must be done more efficiently. (As far as other systems, it also develops origin myths and legends to explain the world around it and reinforce the mores of the society. It evolves political systems and laws to govern and settle disputes, separates into family units for protection, affection and shared resources and develops ways of allocating those resources. It also develops common modes of expression so that all of these things can be communicated.)

But back to the Environment: you will not have the same culture develop in a spaceport or seaport as in a desert or island culture. We know based on common sense and experience that a desert or tundra culture will of necessity be nomadic, traveling from one place to another to take advantage of scant resources. Island cultures will probably be caught up with fishing and possibly trade, depending on their placement as regard to trade routes. Here are some things to think about when creating your physical world:

The ecology: consider the climate, the topography, the flora and fauna, soil make-up and water sources.

The demographic features: how big an area does your culture span? What’s the total population? How dense?

Contact: is your culture isolated or does it have contact with other societies? In what capacity – trade, invasion, marriages? What has bled from one society to another? How has this affected the other systems? (Religion and language, particularly, are two things that tend to spread like wildfire.)

On to Technology: what level is your society? Is it Agrarian? Hunting and Gathering? Industrial? This will define not only the actual gadgetry needed and used, but the economy as well, since the concept of wages is absent in many nonindustrial systems. If you’re using our contemporary world for a basis, you may not have to do much development regarding technology, but what if this is a future or post-apocalyptic society? For example, Faith Hunter, in her Rogue Mage series, had to do a lot of research on what would or wouldn’t still function in her alternate version of our world, in which Armageddon has come and gone, complete with plagues, nuclear explosions, and ideologic wars over the meaning of it all. At the end of the devastation (and the opening of the series), only a quarter of the Earth’s population is left behind, along with various powers of Darkness and Light which have fought each other to a stalemate. The only technology that remains is what can be scavenged and repaired, run on limited fuel reserves or powered by the new race of magical beings. It’s fascinating reading and illustrates many of the points I make here regarding worldbuilding, character creation and the development of magical systems.

Religion is often used to explain origins and propagate cultural mores. What’s important? What do people swear by? What do they fear? What are the values your society wants to uphold and how codified are the religious strictures and rituals? There are various kinds of religious beliefs:

Animism – belief that all natural objects are embued with souls

Animatism – belief in mana, a power that permeates the universe and all things and which can be drawn on
Shamanism – belief that special individuals have the power to commune with the supernatural
Ancestor worship –reverence for dead ancestors and belief that the deceased kin have interest in and power over human affairs
Monotheism – the belief in one god
Polytheism – the belief in many gods, which are generally associated with natural phenomena (like the winds or rain) or aspects of life (fertility, childbirth, death)

Rituals are very important to a society. They reinforce the society’s values and mark status changes (rites of passage) and as such can be social as well as religious. A graduation ceremony would be an example of a non-religious ritual. A christening, communion, bar or bat mitzvah and often funerary rights are religious rituals.

While we’re on the subject of religion…does the belief system here play any part in the magic? In other words, is your magic based on the belief in mana, the power in all things? Do your gods actually manifest? Are they really gods? What are their powers? Are they the sources of the powers of the faithful?

How tied in is the religion to your politics? In some cultures, they’re pretty well indistinguishable and in others, religion has been outlawed. In ancient Egypt, for example, Pharaoh wasn’t just a ruler, he was looked on as a divinity on earth. Clearly, politics and religion were intertwined. In others, say in Henry the VIII’s England, they were at odds and fighting each other for power.

• Anarchy – Rule by all/no one.
• Democracy – Majority rule.
• Monarchy – Rule by hereditary leader. Monarchies are one of the oldest political systems, developing from tribal structure with one person the absolute ruler.
• Communism – Rule by all citizens. In theory, classless with common ownership and decision making
• Technocracy – Rule by scientist/intellectuals.
• Republic – Rule by officials elected by a voting public.
• Theocracy – Rule by a representative of a state sponsored religion
• Westminster system – Rule by republic and representative democracy through parliament
• Feudalism -Rule by lord/king with a hierarchy of nobility, vassals and serfs.

Now, in smaller societies, where the cultural unit is band or tribe, there will, of course, be less complex government, like a chief, headman or council.
Remember that societies may also govern through other, more cultural or psychological means, such as shunning, to punish unacceptable behaviors.

Family unit–

There are a lot of things to think about here from whether people may marry as they choose or whether marriages are arranged, whether it’s acceptable to marry within group (endogamy) or without (exogamy) and whether multiple or serial marriages are allowed or encouraged.

What exactly does family mean in your society? Do people tend to group together in nuclear or extended families? Who or what is at the core of your family unit? Often, the more vulnerable a culture is to the vicissitudes of fate, ecological or otherwise, the more people will cluster together in larger family groups for shared security and resources, and for continuity should death or illness strike down one of the contributing members.

Also, while not usual outside of societies in which there’s an unequal proportion of one sex to another, there are historical precedents for polygany, the marriage of one male to two or more women and polyandry, the marriage of one woman to two or more men.

For a truly unique world involving a very different sort of family unit, I recommend David Brin’s Glory Season. In this, he’s created a world founded by women in which they seek to create a new blueprint of humanity. Interestingly, he looked to lizards and aphids as a model. According to his afterward, “During periods of plenty and stability, they self-clone, churning out multiple duplicates like little Xerox machines. But when the good times end, they quickly swing back to old-fashioned sexual mating, creating daughters and sons whose imperfect variety is nature’s mortar of survival.” From this, he posited a society where woman who have established a niche in their society are allowed to establish a clan, which they continue through cloning. However, recognizing the dangers of stagnation, during the summer season children are begat the old fashion way to allow for a wildcard element. Any wildcard (or var, as they’re called) who’s able to create her own niche is subsequently allowed to establish her own clan.

In other words, there’s no reason to stick particularly to any of these pre-established conceptions of familial units and plenty of ideas to draw from outside of humanity.

Social grouping – caste system – I can refer you here to Glory Season here as well, because the clans are like castes, ranked according to the perceived importance of the niche they occupy, and members of one clan cannot decide that they want to join another or do something outside of what they’ve been born into.

This is partially determined by the technological level of the society, of course, but also by resources, ecology and the like. In other words, what’s of value to a culture. The less technological the culture, the less likely it is that there will be any monetary sort of exchange for goods and services. If the group believes in ownership, it’s more likely to be communal, with resources like food divided up by merit, status or need. If there is a bit more specialization in labor – in other words the society is beyond the hunter-gatherer phase – there may be trade or barter. And, of course, we all understand about monetary systems like capitalism and communism.

But, of course, economics goes deeper than the system used. We all know that sometimes the system fails, so part of the world may also be whether the economy is healthy or not. I admit that this may not be a sexy part of worldbuilding, and it’s not one that I tend to take a lot of note of, except when I feel it doesn’t work. When Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun with Occasional Music came out, it had quite the buzz going, but I have to admit that the place where it all fell down for me were the “baby-heads,” parents artificially growing up their kids, mentally anyway. My problem here was that he was creating too much workforce, and it wasn’t as if the society could artificially create jobs for them as well. I grant you, he was purposely creating a dysfunctional society. However, when it came to the economy, I still had a lot of difficulty suspending my disbelief.

Although, of course, your novel will be written in the language your readers will understand, it’s important to have an idea of how the language of your civilization will sound, not only for naming of characters, but because you may introduce new concepts and creatures that will need new designations. Think about language: it’s full of idioms, slang and other things that may not translate from one language to another and may also end up written as your character would actually speak it (whether in that language or a necessarily garbled translation of it).

Steven Harper has some very good advice in Writing the Paranormal novel when it comes to language, and naming in particular. He suggests avoiding the “Apostrophe of Doom” and adds that odd letter combinations which are unpronounceable for your readers will stop them as they try to work it out. I know that many readers mentally skip names that are too complicated, thinking of them by the first letter or syllable of the name. You take a lot of care with your work, you want to make every word count, particularly names, which hold a lot of power, both in folklore and reality to conjure up certain images or expectations based on the cultural zeitgeist.

Cursing, as I mentioned with religion, is also very telling. The example I offer up here is from Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series, where the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Zounds, which is a running together of God’s wounds, would be Billary’s Balls (Billary being one of the main gods of the world).

How is knowledge recorded and passed down from generation to generation? Does your society share language with the lands surrounding them or is there a barrier? Have they come up with a common trade language in order to communicate?

Perhaps your society is so alien that it doesn’t communicate verbally? Or even telepathically. The most alien of all alien societies that I can think of comes from Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which I can highly recommend for those who like their science fiction hard.

Often a shortcut to all this is to use a known culture as a basis. However, make sure if it’s a fantasy world that any changes you make don’t seem inconsistent. It’s always jarring to me to have a Polynesian-based culture with, say, Nordic-sounding names.

If you’re writing in our world, make certain that reactions to the changes (the introduction of magic, for example) make sense. Is it new enough that the law is struggling to keep up? Old and established? If so, how has the culture changed because of it?

To Quote David B. Coe from a post on Magical Words: “Writers often speak of different aspects of our work in a way that makes them sound compartmentalized. We develop characters, we establish setting, we advance our narrative, we sprinkle in healthy doses of action, we write descriptive passages. The truth is, though, that if we handle these things correctly, there is nothing compartmentalized about the result. Character and narrative development feed on one another, propelled forward by those action scenes, and meshing seamlessly with the worldbuilding or research we have done to make our settings come to life.”

In other words, writing is an awful lot like cultural anthropology…you can’t separate out the elements or you lose out. It all needs to work together.

Click here for Part II.

thieftakerthieves' quarry

Anyone who’s taken my Writers Digest webinar on writing science fiction, fantasy and the paranormal or who’s taken one of my worldbuilding workshops will have heard me quote David B. Coe, who is a wonderful writer, blogger and teacher of all things writing.  He’s a regular contributor to Magical Words, which has a lot of amazing advice for writers and, as you’ll see from the post below, the author of the “tricorn punk” Thieftaker series, beginning with THIEFTAKER and moving on to THIEVES’ QUARRY under the name D.B. Jackson.  THIEVES’ QUARRY is just out today, so let’s wish him a happy book birthday!

History and POV by D.B. Jackson

Out on Boston Harbor, in the distance and to the south of where Ethan walked, lights bobbed on the gentle swells: lanterns burning on a dozen or more British naval ships. Several of the vessels had been anchored within sight of the city for a week or more; eight others had sailed into view earlier this day. They were arrayed in a loose, broad arc, their reflections dancing and swirling like fireflies. They might have been beautiful had it not been for what they signified: more strife and fear for a city already beleaguered by its conflicts with the Crown. — THIEVES’ QUARRY, Book II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, by D. B. Jackson

I have been writing historical urban fantasy for several years now, after beginning my career as an author of alternate world fantasies (under the name David B. Coe). As I have settled in to this new phase in my career, I have found, to my surprise, that establishing a historical setting for my Thieftaker books is not very different at all from worldbuilding for my older series. In both cases, I need to establish for my readers a sense of place and time, so that they feel the setting has substance and meaning; I have to write to all of their senses, using my descriptive passages to make the setting come alive; and I need to weave the backdrop into my storytelling, so that the world in and of itself becomes a player in my narrative.

The key to meeting these challenges lies in my use of point of view. A brief primer on point of view: Point of view is the unique perspective through which a story is told. In today’s literary marketplace, point of view is tied inextricably to character. Novels and stories are expected to have, at any given time, but a single point of view character. So, for instance, in the Harry Potter books, Harry is almost always the point of view character. We experience the story line, the other characters, and the world J.K. Rowling has created through Harry’s eyes. His emotions, sensations, and intellect color everything that we read.

Once upon a time — not that long ago, really — many writers wrote in what was known as omniscient voice, meaning that there was a detached narrator who told the story, giving us insights into the thoughts and emotions of every character in a scene. We would hop from one perspective to another, never really settling on a single perspective. That was considered the norm. Not anymore. Today, that approach is known as “head-hopping,” and it is frowned upon. An author can use more than one point of view character, as George R.R. Martin does in his Song of Ice and Fire series, but the transitions to new point of view characters need to be clearly delineated.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled post . . .

In my Thieftaker series, Ethan Kaille is my point of view character throughout every story and novel. My readers rely on Ethan’s descriptions, emotional reactions, and thoughts for clues as to how they should respond to all that happens. In my epic fantasies, I had many point of view characters. But what’s important is that in all these cases, my point of view narrators are the ones I depend upon to make my readers feel they are a part of the world I have established for the stories. I want to make my narrating characters tour guides in a sense. Which is not to say that they need to spend all their time walking backwards and telling my readers about the history of every building, monument, and alleyway. Rather, I want my characters to be immersed fully in their society and culture, so that when they interact with something that is unique to their time and place, my readers will not need to have that interaction explained to them. Its significance and its implications for my story should be clear from the context and from my point of view character’s responses.

This post begins with a passage from Thieves’ Quarry, the second installment in my Thieftaker Chronicles, which is to be released by Tor Books on July 2. It is a short passage — exactly one hundred words long, as it happens — and it actually offers very little by way of historical information. That’s all right. It comes in the first few pages of the novel, at a time when I am not yet ready to burden my readers with too much data. But it does establish the mood that hung over the city of Boston at the time this story takes place. Those ships out on the harbor carry an occupying force of over a thousand British soldiers. For the first time in its history, after a summer of conflict and rioting, Boston is about to become a garrisoned town.

Ethan’s thoughts don’t go into that level of detail, of course. They don’t have to. For the purposes of beginning to establish the tone and mood for my book, the small bit of information I give is sufficient. My readers can picture the ships, with their lanterns reflected on the harbor waters. And because of Ethan’s reaction to what he sees, they can guess that all is not well between the Colonists and the Crown.

Aspiring writers are often told, “Show, don’t tell,” although just as often the exact meaning of this advice is left obscure. When we “tell,” we inject ourselves into our books, bypassing our point of view characters and instructing our readers in how they should respond to our writing. “Showing,” as opposed to telling, means allowing our point of view characters to respond to and interpret the places, other characters, and events that our readers encounter in the course of our narratives. It means describing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures as our characters experience them.

We can do tons of worldbuilding or research, but if we don’t convey to readers why all that knowledge matters to our point of view characters, our settings will remain flat. On the other hand, when we show readers our worlds from the perspective of our characters, we make these settings — be they real world or imagined — something more than just a backdrop to our stories. They become our character’s home, or the alien land into which our heroine has just fallen, or the hellscape from which our hero is trying to win his freedom. Point of view gives dimension to our worlds by infusing our descriptions with emotion. It gives them context, weight, importance. And ultimately it makes them places to which our readers want to return again and again.


D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasy, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, came out in 2012 and is now available in paperback. The second volume, Thieves’ Quarry, has just been released by Tor Books. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.