There are many challenges when it comes to crafting a novel from the ground up. Among them, building an immersive world that won’t baffle, confuse or frustrate readers. Often times, this is a part of the writing process that is overlooked, thus creating a flat and sometimes boring experience.
For today’s guest post, Keir Alekseii takes us on a journey on how she builds her worlds that hopefully helps you build yours!
Let’s see what she has to say:
Every writer has their own strengths. For some, character-building is cake. Others are power plotters. There are writers that have lyrical prose, and there are world builders.
Me? I’m a world breaker.
Sure, “a broken world” is the setting of every dystopian novel you’ve ever read. But it plays a big role in fantasy, too, particularly in my favorite sub-genre: Urban Fantasy. Consider Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, where magic breaks the world. Or maybe you’re more of a Kim Harrison fan, where Rachel Morgan lives in a world broken by genetically modified tomatoes. How many of our beloved heroes are rushing to prevent the world from becoming broken, or more broken?
Steps to “Break” Your World
The first step in this process is, of course, to figure out what causes the break. I’ve discovered that sometimes the answer seems innocuous, like a tomato. Other times, magic might “return” and topple skyscrapers. Or, maybe the really big earthquake finally happens.
Sometimes, breaking the world looks a lot like fixing it. What if COVID-19 really were a hoax? Or maybe it just didn’t happen at all. By my definition, “breaking the world,” isn’t about destruction so much as it’s about making a change that has enough of an effect that the resulting setting is a brand new environment, with brand new problems for my characters to deal with. This is probably why I like the Hollows’ tomato so much. It was meant to fix the world, but instead it created a plague that killed humans and outed non-humans. The butterfly effect that this had on Rachel Morgan’s problems was one of the most compelling pieces of her puzzle, to me. (Disclaimer: I’m a molecular biologist, so I may be biased)
That brings me to step two of this process: now what? Now that the world is broken, what does it look like? This ripple effect is how you know you’ve accomplished a worldbreaking. If the change you made affects communities and countries, not just your individual characters, you’ve probably succeeded. Some (boring) questions I ask myself to figure out if I’ve done it right are: has the economy changed? Is healthcare the same? How has this affected daily life for people on the street? How did major political and religious bodies react or change?
As boring as these questions are, you can’t really say you’ve done “world” breaking if only the life of your characters has changed. No, every inhabitant of the newly broken world needs to be tangibly affected by the “breaking” action. There should be a distinct before and after.
Depending on how you break things, your jumping off point will be different. For example, a world broken by magic looks a lot different to a world broken by a tomato, which is also different to earthquakes or nuclear bombs. If you’re like me, you know that one of the nicest things about fiction, particularly fantasy, is that you don’t have to be realistic in how you decide to break things. You can do it with dragons, magic, or gods, as easily as with tsunamis, earthquakes or nukes. Better yet, you’re not limited to breaking just your world. There are AU (alternate universe) fanfiction writers who skillfully break secondary worlds all the time, just to give our favorite characters a chance to try something new. Or someone new, but that’s a different discussion.
Once you’ve broken things, assessed and catalogued the global consequences, and have a good handle on any new or altered cultures, beliefs or languages… well, you’ve pretty much built a new world. Now what?
Now we stray into familiar territory: if you’re writing a story, step three is about your characters. In my opinion, once the breaking is done, the most important question is: what new or interesting problems do my characters encounter in this setting? After all, that’s why you’re giving a new playground. Of course, if the answer to this is “nothing,” then you should try breaking something else.
Perhaps what you thought broke the world is just the tip of the iceberg. At this point, you can try using one of your characters to do more of the breaking. I’m a sucker for a protagonist that accidentally sets off the apocalypse, especially if they’re desperately trying to find an “undo” button. You can also ask yourself: does your character react to the change in a way that makes other dominoes fall? Or is something done to them, after that first change, that tips the whole world into chaos?
For some writers, the more you think about this, the more you’ll realize that your own worldbuilding process has often been about breaking things, and seeing what happens next. For me, I build as often as I break, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a preference. I’m sure you can guess what that is. Ultimately, whether you put your characters into a broken world, or use them as tools for the breaking, I guarantee that this perspective will give you a new angle to write from.
So, go break something.
About the Author
Keir grew up at the knee of Arilyn Moonblade, fought Thread on Pern, and went to Battle School with Ender Wiggin. After two and a half decades reading books of all shapes, sizes and genres, she finally settled on a favorite niche: Urban Fantasy. Since then, Keir has read (and re-read) The Hollows series by Kim Harrison, the Meredith Gentry series by Laurel K. Hamilton, and the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. You know, just to name a few. As a writer, she aims to achieve similar success at building deep and fanciful worlds with compelling characters that you will never admit you cried with, for or over. Keir has published two short stories: The Clock Tower Girl (The Written Word Mag, October, 2008) and Silver Burdens (Lorelei Signal, July, 2008) and was privileged to become a Cropper Writing Workshop resident (2019) and a Voices of Colour fellow (2020) to the MVCWI, which was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Places You can Find Keir: