culture

Tips for World Building in Fiction

I was surprised during our weekly Writers in the Grove free Monday workshop meeting that some of my fellow members didn’t know about the concept of world building in writing.

When you write fiction, you create a world, literally. It may represent the real world or a fantasy world. It consists of scenes, places where events occur in your story.

Your fictional world is made up of places, people, cultures, traditions, habits and routines, weather, geology, current events, and politics.

I’m working on a story that takes place in 1979. I begin my world building by researching historical events in 1979, then branch into newsworthy stories and topics, and even some trivia. If my story is concentrated solely in the United States, and specifically a location, say Seattle, then most of my research would focus on what happened in Seattle in and around 1979. Here are some of the results of my web search.

Sony Walkman - OriginalIn my research, I discover that the average income that year in the United States was $17,500, and the average monthly rent was $280, a far cry from today’s prices. A gallon of gas cost 86 cents, oil was $24 a barrel, and the Toyota Corolla was one of the most popular cars on the road and the $200 Sony Walkman was in demand by most teenagers and college students. Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album won awards and played out of boomboxes everywhere, blasting “Y.M.C.A.” by The Village People off the charts. The daily news included updates on Voyager 1 as it made its closest pass by Jupiter, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Moral Majority religious movement by Jerry Falwell, 63 American hostages taken in Iran, and Saddam Hussein becoming president of Iraq. John McEnroe, Tracy Austin, Bjorn Borg, and Martinia Navratilova became household names as tennis champions. We watched MASH, The Jeffersons, The Dukes of Hazzard, One Day at a Time, and Three’s Company on television. The big screen played Alien, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Start Trek: The Motion Picture, Norma Rae, The China Syndrome, Being There, Life of Brian, Mad Max, and the Muppet Movie.

If you are writing about 1979, this is the world your characters lived in. They listened to that music, watched that news, those movies, and said funny things like quotes from movies and television such as “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” (Brooke Shields ad for Calvin Klein), “Reach out and touch someone” (AT&T ad), “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (Apocalypse Now), and “You need this for your rent, boy” (Richard Pryor).

Cultural stories might filter into conversations or even the thoughts of your characters such as when then-President Jimmy Carter explained how he almost tipped when an enraged swamp rabbit swam toward his fishing boat, or comment on the first time a milk carton featured a picture of a missing child. Or the fears that swept the globe as NASA’s Skylab fell to Earth, landing in Australia, made fun of afterwards by many when the Shire of Esperance in Western Australia fined NASA $400 for littering. Or maybe how Charles Manson sent a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” card in a humorous attempt to be released by the parole board. Or maybe the dinner table discussion that night might be about the work of Mother Teresa after she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Starbucks Coffee Store downtown SeattleThe world your characters live in influences their personalities, behaviors, even habits. A worker in 1979 living and/or working in downtown Seattle would have made sure they made a swing by Starbucks at 1912 Pike Place for a cup of their soon-to-be-famous coffee.

Now think about your characters and their relationship to this place and this time. Are all of your characters from here? Or maybe one or more of them are from different places, creating conflict when their worlds come together such as a white woman from Seattle falling in love with a black man from Mississippi in 1958, or the reverse. What about a new immigrant from Europe or Africa landing on the shores of the United States or Canada in the 1800s? Or maybe you have a person from Germany finding their way in Alabama in 1943 at the height of World War II? When we travel, we bring our worlds with us no matter where we go.

Your story may begin in any time and place. The world existed for your characters before the start of your story, and they might survive your story. Reveal the world they live in, as well as the world of history and experiences they carry with them through your story, to your readers as they shake hands and get to know your characters.

Here are a list of questions to help you define the world in which your characters live.

  • Why are your characters here?
  • How did your characters get here?
  • Why here now?
  • What makes this place special to the character(s)?
  • What makes this time necessary to the character(s)?
  • What’s important in this place and time?
  • What is it about this place that welcomes your characters?
  • What is about this place that challenges your characters?
  • What is about this place that creates conflict in or between your characters?
  • How is this place different from other places, and how does it matter to your characters?
  • What’s the weather like? Now and seasonally?
  • What’s the landscape, geology, terrain?
  • Is it crowded with buildings, people, or things? Or wide open and spacious, distance between buildings, people, and things?
  • What does it sound like here?
  • What does it feel like here?
  • What does it smell like here?
  • Who comes here? Who stays away from here?
  • How many people live here?
  • What do they do?
  • How do they do it?
  • What are their rituals, habits, routines, traditions?
  • How do people live here?
  • Where do people live here?
  • What do they eat and drink? How is it grown? Where do they get their food?
  • Are there races, ethnic groups, or other signs of diversity?
  • Is there a class system? Social, justice, gender, ethnic, cultural, or economic? How do they interact and react to the world around them?
  • Who are the leaders?
  • What’s hot in the news and gossip columns here? What are people worried or talking about?
  • How do the people interact here? In the streets, cafes, plazas, town squares, virtually, meetings, social hours?
  • What are the laws? How do the laws impact the characters?
  • What happens when a law is broken?
  • Is this a stable society or one on the edge or dropped into chaos?
  • How was this place made? Immigration, governance, wars, etc.?
  • What’s the health of the place? Epidemics? Do the people have an active or inactive lifestyles?
  • How safe is the place?
  • What makes people feel safe or unsafe here? Why?
  • What are the philosophies that guide this society and community?
  • Is this community/society religious? How? Why?
  • How does this society’s infrastructure function? Are there roads? Who builds them? Garbage? Power? Housing?
  • What did it take to build this world?
  • If this world would come to an end, what would it take?

This is just a few of the questions to consider. Go through these, and the questions and suggestions offered in the resources below, then ask yourself: Could this scene happen anywhere else? How would it change? How would it change the characters? How would it change the story? See what happens.

Resources on World Building

One last bit of advice.

If you introduce something new to the world in which your characters live, ask yourself if this change their world. How does it? If it is magic or technology, does it impact only your characters or everyone in society? How? Why? Is it good, bad, or indifferent? How do they adapt to the change? is it good for everyone or just a few?

Remember, your characters live in the test tube of your imagination. Every twist or turn in the story may create a tsunami of change beyond the bubble that is your main characters. Let your readers see and feel the change.

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Prompt: From Within Their Skin

The discussion and prompt today was on diversity in writing. The discussion was inspired by the New York Times article, “I’m Indian. Can I Write Black Characters?” by Thrity Umrigar:

I’ve always thought about it this way: If men can write about women and science fiction writers can write about space aliens, surely I can write about someone from a different race. And I have spent my entire adult life in the United States. Why shouldn’t I write about that most American of topics — race and race relations?

The debate about whether writers should create worlds and characters based in cultures other than their own is an important one. At its core, pushback in this area serves as a corrective to centuries of colonialism, stereotypical portrayals and racist caricatures. But I worry about how we balance pertinent questions about appropriation with the creative freedom to push boundaries and take risks that are essential to good writing.

To add another wrinkle to this debate, I have never been asked about the appropriateness of creating white American characters, as I did in an earlier novel, “The Weight of Heaven.” Of course, this probably has to do with our country’s ignoble history of racism and racist stereotypes, especially about African-Americans. There’s justifiably less concern about misrepresentation of white Americans.

We talked about how the industry whitewashes the characters we write about, and the confusion from the writers and publishers about the growing demand today for diverse characters. We discussed the struggles and challenges associated with writing a character unlike the author, and techniques to see the world through different eyes.

The prompt is to get inside the skin of someone not like you and write from that perspective.

As Umrigar wrote in the article:

I have made my peace with the fact that I have to defer to the publisher’s expertise about the realities of the marketplace. But to limit myself to write books only about India is to condemn me to tell the same stories. And that kind of pigeonholing is a creative death.

So, I will continue to tell the stories that I am called upon to tell. I know I’ll spend many more interviews explaining the characters I create, and that this tension contains its own revealing, dramatic and painful story about our culture and history.

Prompt: Generalizations

The prompt this week was on stereotypes and sweeping generalizations. The comment “all red heads have fiery personalities” labels all red heads, but when applied to the individual may not be true.

We discussed stereotype and sweeping generalization examples and how and where they are applied.

In writing, the inclusion and use of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations are also called characterization frames. When used well, the adjectives that define these stereotypes help the reader to make quick judgment calls about the characters. When used expertly, generalizations set the character up for conflict, with others and themselves. An Asian student struggling with the Asian F demand by parents and culture to get only A or A+ (and anything less than that like an A- is considered an F), may uncover a learning disability which puts the character in conflict with expectations of scholastic achievement within themselves, with their family, with the school system expectations and assumptions, and within their society. A fiery redhead who becomes a quiet librarian, encouraging an antagonist to “light the fire within.” A redhead deals with societal preconceptions and expectations on a daily basis, and such pressures are felt internally as well, as they attempt to live up to those assumptions.

Stereotypes are typically defined by the following:

  • culture
  • expectation
  • adaptation
  • conflict
  • dos/taboos

Culture sets attitudes and expectations about behavior, manners, etiquette, and relationships such as no sex before marriage, the wearing of the hijab, length of skirt, bowing as greeting or handshakes, language usages, etc. We expect certain behaviors within groups and societies, as a large encompassing group or within a small social circle. As we enter a new group, we use cultural norms to start, the expand what are acceptable behaviors within that group, such as a group of high school girls hanging out in the bathroom smoking, trusting the others not to tell on them. People moving into those circles must adapt, or conflict, avoidance or the accepted response in a conflict situation. Teens outside of the smoking girls group learn quickly how to behave around them, even though they are not part of the group. They support the group behavior. Thus, it becomes a social norm and expectation, and conflict arises when they are challenged.

The dos and taboos of a group or society dictate attitude, behavior, and define those social norms. These come in many forms from the innocuous, the choice to wear white shoe in winter, to the dangerous and threatening like road rage.

A character’s actions often define stereotypes, as does their language and thought process. How you choose to use these helps to craft and frame your character.

The prompt is to find a character that is part of a “group” and write about them. What group are they a part of? What are the expectations, behaviors, dos/taboos, and cultural impositions about that group? How does the character behave within that framework? Let us see them in a situation where these sweeping generalizations are challenged, helping us see deeper into the character’s story and development.

Prompt: T-Shirts in the News Again

Recently, the prompt was about describing the response of a character when put in an internal and moral conflict when confronted with an offensive t-shirt. Another t-shirt is in the news again this week as a SxSW conference attendee wore a shirt handed out by Comedy Central at the conference and was taken off a pending flight by Southwest Airlines for violating their dress code.

Taking our original prompt further, what would be the perspective of the person realizing that the free t-shirt was considered offensive, especially after seeing hundreds if not thousands of them on fellow conference attendees? What about the airline staff seeing the shirt and having to respond? What about the passengers watching this event?

A quick search for similar incidents found that in 2011, a couple protesting outside Dollywood for more inclusive and equal rights for LGBT folks were told their t-shirts, which read “Marriage Is So Gay,” had to be turned inside out or they had to leave as it violated their dress code policy, while saying that the park is open to everyone of “all shapes and sizes.” The married couple was a lesbian couple, 76 and 84 years old.

Consider that perspective as an alternative prompt, both from the women’s perspective, the staff at the entertainment facility, and as a bystander. Does age change the character’s response?

In 2014, a scientist working on the Rosetta comet mission wore a t-shirt featuring scantily clad women as sex objects at a press conference, creating a furor. He made a public apology and broke down in tears as he admitted to his mistake, upset that he could have possibly offended or hurt anyone.

What about his story?

In 2013, a t-shirt manufacturing and online sales company was forced to close after a public uproar about the t-shirt they created that implied rape was a good thing. The owner admitted he made a mistake and the mistake cost him his twenty year old company. (more…)