Every fictional novel not set in contemporary times requires world-building. You might be able to “cheat,” as it were, and do it via extensive research about what a past time period was like, rather than creating a brand new realm, but the situation is similar.
Either way, the details are what sets your story apart. They lure readers in to take a closer look or push them away by showing a world that just wouldn’t work. And even if your world is fantasy or science fiction, and you get to be the arbiter of how things work, you can’t just throw a few ideas together. You probably can’t just have your favorite clothes, food, and music be the current trends of your culture and call it good.
Because worlds are more elaborate than most people think, and if you don’t plan one properly, it’ll fall apart. Here are two things to consider when creating your fictional world.
Cause and Effect. A person’s past is going to affect how they view their world. Most novelists know this, and most do a decent job making sure the past effects the present. Their character’s upbringing, heritage, and class all affects who he or she is.
But there is a larger element to this, too.
Consider: What sort of traditions does your world have? Are there traditional roles, where men and women are expected to do certain things at certain ages? What sort of religions have been in place, and how do people view these ways of thinking and approaching life now? Does your character have a soft place in his or her heart for a certain time period or era (the “good old days” of your world)? Do they do anything to celebrate that time period or to hark back to that time (wear a certain armor, carry a particular sword, behave in a certain way, etc)?
And how would the past view your character? What she or he does–is it traditionally accepted or a break from the past? Has her career normally belonged to men, or does his background typically prevent him from holding his job–or getting the job he wants? These will subtly influence your characters, possibly making them try harder or resent criticism more…or be less secure of who and what they are.
Connectivity. Every little element affects other elements in your world. Even in the past, people made decisions based on other people.
Let’s take the very end of the 18th century as an example. In fashion, during the 1700s, big wigs and wide skirts were in…but not just because someone decided to make them popular. Fabric was expensive, and a wide skirt allowed its owner to display more wealth than a narrow one would. The preferred fabrics were still silks and satins, obtained from trade with the east…which added to the cost. Similarly, washing hair was not common, so to disguise oil and grease, the rich wore wigs or powdered their hair.
Then, starting towards the end of the 18th century, a change occurred. There was a backlash against the lavish court of France, and the dress common with it (as part of the French Revolution), and so the new ideal become narrower skirts of a simple cotton muslin (a less opulent fabric). As the Greek ideals of liberty and equality were explored in politics, so the clothing became more interested in drape and flow, like the robes depicted in Grecian statuary. Still, the rich found a way to differentiate themselves from commoners by having a fine, delicate (and almost see-through) weave that commonly came from India. Yet, with the shift to muslin, local industrialists had a demand they could satisfy with local materials, and so mills sprang up across the country (which led to all the social issues found in the mid-1800s).
This is why international politics is important in world-building, even if no wars are being fought and your characters aren’t that interested in politics, per se. Where does “true power” lie in this world of yours? If money is power, it will determine how your characters act. Or is it knowledge, or magic, or heritage, or physical might? And how does your character’s country view its neighbors? Is it cautiously embracing its views, hoping to avoid a blood revolution (as England did in the time discussed above)? Or is it disdaining the new ideas and holding onto tradition? These unrelated things can trickle down to affect what your character eats, wears, or does for a living.
A Literary Example
We can see how worldview affects a novel by looking at Jane Austen’s books. She wrote during the late 18th century, and the things her characters struggled with (whether those of a lower birth could marry those slightly above them and what a woman should bring to a marriage) were influenced by the social changes going on in her time period. People were increasingly making money through trade (like Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle in Pride and Prejudice) and, over the generations, these families would move into upper society (like the Bingleys did), and then look down on others because they were insecure about their own heritage.
Notice that a lot of the details about the time period don’t show up in Jane Austen’s books. Unlike what is generally expected in most genres today, she didn’t describe how people or places looked, and yet the details of her world still crept in (how much more will they have a place in what we write today?)
So most of the world-building you set up won’t play a direct role in your book, or should even appear in your book, but the elements of a world, which we take for granted when we write about a contemporary time period, should still be there. When we create a world, we need to be just as detailed, in general, as our own past, knowing more about the place then we put on the pages so it will have the authentic feel of a world someone could live in.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photos by lauramusilanski and quicksandala, Creative Commons