World Building Basics

Whenever a writer creates a story, no matter if it is romance, thriller, science-fiction, fantasy, or even historical nonfiction, they engage in world building. For some genres, the world is 80% to 90% already fixed in place. After all, if the author produces a thriller about an out-of-control president trying to become dictator in 2017 America, most of the “world” is already known and accepted by the readers. The writer doesn’t worry about what the outer buildings look like, how the city/state/country operates, or even what currency is used.

However, the author still must build a “world” in terms of the president’s inner sanctum, his personal taste in clothing, his support people, and what objects, rooms, or architectures have deeper meaning in this novel. For instance, does the White House really have a Kennedy Rumpus Room (as in Mars Attacks) or a secret tunnel for sneaking out? I love watching the old show, West Wing, but figure the workrooms of the White House probably don’t really look like the show’s depiction, which were created for easy filming.

indoor fairy house side view

World building on a small craft scale. My fairy garden.

The world-building phenomenon doesn’t stop with the written word. Any avid role-playing gamer, video game developer, or even architect understands the importance of planning the big picture and the many details that go into a given place and time.

Incredulity in the Setting

Of course, the farther the story stretches away from reality and the here-and-now, the more the author must create the setting. Historical texts, science fiction, and fantasy all must include a clear and defined world that not only engages the reader but also makes sense. Sometimes making sense is the hardest part.

Readers and TV/movie viewers all have a disbelief point (called my bullshit line) where they inherently know something in a setting doesn’t work. For instance, using poultry for financial exchanges may work in a fantasy novel, but trading chickens for ship parts looks stupid in science fiction. Plus, carrying baby chicks around in space suits while experiencing zero-g is difficult and silly. The movie, Life, (reviewed in a previous blog) is a great example of crossing the bullshit line.

Common Rules of World Building

The disbelief point comes from breaking concrete rules of all worlds. Bypass those rules and the story becomes stupid/silly/terrible very quickly. Here are a few overarching principles that should never be crossed or ignored.

Science

Science is true and usually unbreakable everywhere and every when. Therefore, living things should die/freeze in space, people can’t fly without assistance, and bullets, gasoline, poisons, and magic should all work in predictable ways. This includes NOT standing near a pool of gasoline and igniting a match unless you want to lose all your body hair. The vapor is more ignitable than the pool.

Common Sense

People must wear clothes that make sense. Going around naked causes sunburns. Wearing diaphanous material in a winter wonderland is dumb even indoors. Heating costs and buildings always leak. People must also eat food and drink water daily, so going for days without any sustenance should create horrible effects.

Magic

Magic must make sense for the situation. It should have an effort cost and not act like a gun with a never-ending supply of bullets (a fault of many television shows). Don’t use it for the answer to everything. Magic should also follow scientific principles. For instance, if you put a cream pie into a “bag of constant falling,” you will decapitate yourself (or someone else) when you open the bag again since the cream pie is going at a tremendous speed. This idea came from a Dungeons and Dragons adventure with physicists (fun folks who like to get creative with their weaponry).

High Tech

Although I agree with the idea that high tech advancements become indistinguishable from magic to a primitive race, high tech must also make sense. One machine doesn’t do it all. Personally, I don’t believe in the machine-turns-to-god idea. High tech should also have a cost for using it and a possibility of breakdown.

Consistency of the Story

Any established rule of the story’s world must not be broken later, at least not without a tremendous cost. If an angry mob storms the palace because of a class system of cruelty and poverty, one man giving a speech isn’t going to stop the bloodshed. Stopping to sleep in ancient ruins should include nasty things like bugs, snakes, or mice in the overgrown areas. They don’t have to attack the characters, but the place isn’t going to be a pristine wonderland either.

Conclusion

This blog only represents the highlights of a deep and complex part of writing great stories. World building is both fascinating and daunting in its depths but critically important in that the writer must understand of the grand ideas and minutiae details of his or her world. In the coming weeks, I’ll post a number of blogs on world-building specifics along with some thoughts based on my own novels. Please feel free to add your input, ideas, or stories of the complexities of your worlds.

 

 

Imagining Story Characters as RPG Players

As an old Dungeons and Dragons™ player, I sometimes think about my characters in terms of how I would role-play them. This allows me to crawl into their mind and understand their motivation in any given situation. The moral and motivational terms used are general but completely applicable to most fiction characters.

For those of you unfamiliar with role-playing games, the game’s characters are made up, with their characteristics shown through a series of numbers for each attribute. A role of one or two is terrible while an eighteen to twenty is freaking awesome. The characteristics may vary in name across the different RPG games but tend to include some indication of strength, dexterity, wisdom, intelligence, and charisma, along with a host of more minor attributes.

Alignment: Law and Morals

When I think of RPG characters, however, I don’t think of numbers and abilities. I think in terms of Dungeon and Dragon’s alignment features. Every creature (elf, troll, halfling, human, or even dragon) has an alignment that defines two distinct traits: personal morality and the attitude towards the local legal system. These two factors help provide motivation for every decision the character makes. For instance, will the orc prefer money for a job or perform the task out of loyalty to his ruler?

The alignment forms from the conjunction of two terms and three choices per each term. The legal concepts are lawful, neutral, or chaotic and the moral choices involve being good, neutral, or evil.

Characterizations: Hero, Lawman or Villain?

If you think of your story’s character in terms of some mix of these ideas, the motivation towards any action becomes obvious. Here is a list of what attributes lead to a particular kind of character.

Lawful good: The perfect hero. He follows the law and is generally caring about strangers.

Lawmen. Ideally they are lawful good.

This person never speeds, never lies (unless it avoids hurting someone), nor will he ever break his vow. A good example is the classic comic book Superman or the law man in most western movies.

 

Lawful neutral: Many of us fall in this category. This group probably includes the most honest politicians and lawyers because they are bound to the law although their actions may, at times, be not nice. Shepard from Firefly is close to the attribute. He is a normally moral, law-abiding man who takes up a gun when faced with real evil.

Lawful evil: In a nutshell, Hitler, Ming the Merciless, or Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall fame. This villain twists the law to their own selfish gains. In some cases, the person must create the legal situation to cause the evil. Since this person is still bound by what he sees the morals of society, the motivation involves a lot of subtlety.

Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, played artfully by Max von Sydow

Neutral good: This character is a damaged hero. He is a good man at heart who has no problem ignoring society’s rules for the protection of the innocent. Examples include Batman and John Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame.

Neutral neutral: If you play a character with this, you have a lot of freedom to make any decision you want but the character is often a bit dull. Many NPC (nonplayer characters) or background characters might have this alignment. One case might be the Wizard of Oz from the movie. He worked the system but didn’t really care about good or evil. He simply did what helped his situation the most.

Neutral evil: This organized villain is very methodical and deceptive. Often very disciplined, this character doesn’t care about the law either way but has clear malevolent intentions. Examples include Jubal Early from Firefly, Bobba Fett from Star Wars, or Dexter from the show of the same name.

Chaotic good: This person is the borderline anti-hero. For him, the ends justify the means as long as some good comes out of his actions. Models include the movie version of Wolverine and Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly.

Chaotic neutral: This avatar is the true anti-hero. You can’t predict which way he will go

Beautiful and deadly River Tam played by Summer Glau.

in a battle. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes loved the puzzles of crime fighting but didn’t care about the victims. Others might include James Bond, River Tam, or even Deadpool.

 

Chaotic evil: This is the embodiment of one bat-crap crazy villain. This person is the true cold-hearted psychopath. Although he might disguise his nature, he can’t love or care about anyone. The Joker, Moriarty in the modern Sherlock Holmes BBC production, and Hannibal Lecter are all excellent examples.

Attributes in the Book World

However, the writer must remember that these are broad labels simplifying characters for easier gaming. RPG folks often use these games to safely explore the darker sides of their thoughts and desire without ever really showing this face to society. Then again, isn’t that what writers do as well when they create their people and worlds?

But a book’s character must be more complex. For a great story, they should go through an evolution somehow, possibly into a different moral code. After all, an anti-hero can evolve into a true hero for the right reasons, such as a great love or revenge. Deadpool is an excellent example of this.

These attributes are simplistic, of course. Yet considering how difficult it is for an author to get inside a character’s head, I’m all for any concept that makes the process easier. After all, the best characters dance on the edges of shame, brilliance, greatness, or insanity. Understanding and even playing on that edge alongside them is where the best stories begin.

Happy writing!