Welcome to My World

When you hear the words “world building,” do you think of Westeros and Asgard? Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings? Neverland, Wonderland, Oz, and Narnia? In other words, do you tend to associate world building with the fantasy section in a bookstore?

Fantasy Castle with turrets and stone wall, clouds in the background.

While some of the most memorable worlds ever to capture the human imagination have come from fantasy writers, writers in other genres build worlds, too. Every work of fiction, every story that takes place in a fictional world, has a specific set of rules, customs, and expectations tied to the place and time in which the story unfolds.

If your story is set in the past (historical fiction or alternate history), or the future (SF or futuristic fiction), you’ve got a world to build.

If you’re writing a story that shifts cultural expectations (upending norms in, say, Silicon Valley or on Wall Street), or transports readers to a place in the world they know nothing about, then you, too, must practice the art of world building.

I’m currently coaching the MomWrites podcast writers, Abby Mathews and Mel Parish, both of whom are creating unique worlds into which readers will be able to escape. In Abby’s story, aimed at middle-grade kids, readers enter a magical world of storybook characters. In Mel’s, the action takes place in a dystopian reality, where characters have an opportunity to prolong their lives indefinitely, but not without a terrible cost. In both stories, there are characters who have to cope with problems arising from the fictional realities in which they find themselves. The challenge for both Abby and Mel is to figure out a way to show readers the fullness of the worlds they’ve created without stopping the action to do so.

Photo by Julian Paul

On the lookout for ideas that might help them with their work, I found inspiration in an unexpected place: I attended a talk offered by Crystal King, author The Chef’s Secret and Feast of Sorrow, called “10 Takeaways for Authors Writing Historical Fiction.” Though Abby and Mel aren’t writing historical fiction, I realized many of the same rules could be applied to building worlds for their genres.

Here’s Crystal’s list of advice (in italics) and my notes on how it can apply to other genres:

  1. Know your era. Not “just the facts, ma’am” but how it feels to be living in that particular time and place. What would people (or other creatures, depending on your genre) be likely to care about, talk about, dwell upon on an ordinary day? What would matter to them, upset them, spur them to act? If someone from your world showed up on my doorstep and started a conversation, what cues would tell me they probably aren’t from my neck of the woods? Create that impression for your readers.
  2. Consider setting as you would a character. Give it personality traits, develop a relationship between the setting and the characters in the story. (Examples: The Shining by Stephen King, The Hobbit by Tolkien, and The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.)
  3. “Outline” your story, characters and world events. Figure out what’s going on in parallel in the world you’ve created, beyond the events taking place in your story. Can you set up the timeline (or “outline”) for your story so that “macro” and “micro” level events collide at just the right moment, increasing the conflict and tension? (Think of the snowstorm in The Shining, for example.)
  4. Don’t give history lessons; you aren’t a historian. Put another way: avoid info dumps. Show readers the historical (or scientific or technological or magical) details at the exact moment when those details serve a specific purpose in the story. Show how the characters interact with the history (or science/tech/magic). Ask yourself : Why would my character need to know about this RIGHT NOW?
  5. Get the little details right. “Right” as in accurate (double-checking facts and figures), but also right as in consistent. Keep a running list of names, dates, gadgets, slang, spells, and so on. That way, you can keep your sanity when you’re trying to remember the name of the whatsit or whether Howard is the guy who says “huzzah” instead of “kudos.” (Examples of books that get the details right: The Stationary Shop by Marjan Kamali, and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.)
  6. Employ backstory sparingly. Don’t avoid backstory entirely! Just don’t dump it in where it isn’t needed. (See #4 above—the same applies to backstory. Use it to serve the story.)
  7. Visit the location. Well . . . if that’s possible. If not, look for other ways to experience in real life what you’re trying to create on the page. The idea is to get a feel for what it would be like to inhabit that world. Not only visually, perceptually, but viscerally as well. For example: Mel (of MomWrites) went to a shooting range to find out what it would be like for her character to hold and shoot a gun for the first time.
  8. Try to be fair. A world isn’t just a setting or a cast of characters—it’s also a cultural mindset. Especially with historical fiction, it’s important to avoid judging characters by present-day standards. Try to see the world from their perspective, even if it offends you. Then, use the story to make your point, allowing your characters to question the way things are.
  9. Be cautious with dialect and vernacular. If you aren’t 100% sure you can pull off a particular dialect, do more research. Talk to people who know and understand it well.
  10. You can’t get it all right. At some point, you have to stop fact-checking and move on. Does the world you’ve created seem authentic and credible? Is it an integral part of your story, reflected in the way your characters think and interact? Is it serving a purpose, deepening the story and helping to reinforce the point you want to make? If so, it may be time to cut the ribbon and declare the world ready for visitors.

For more on the subject of world building, check out:

Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction by Elizabeth Crook, who offers similar advice.

Picking the Right Setting Details by Becca Puglisi (Writers Helping Writers)

I Love Complicated Characters

Like many people, I read stories because I want to understand human nature. What makes us do the things we do? What thought processes do we go through, and what beliefs inform our decisions? What do we value, and how do we prioritize those values? My favorite stories—fictional or nonfictional—are the ones that show me characters who are a complicated stew of laudable and nefarious impulses, forced to act in difficult situations.

That’s why I was delighted with a session I attended at Muse and the Marketplace 2019 entitled, “She’s Terrible, and I Love Her: On ‘Unlikable’ Female Characters.” The presenters, Kelly J. Ford (author of Cottonmouths) and Michelle Hoover (author of Bottomland), provided a handout with a list of tricks used by successful authors to round out the humanity of “unlikable” female characters. I’ve since taken their list and organized it into three categories of strategies:

  1. Reveal who the character is in relation to other characters:
    • Give the character someone to love.
    • Include other characters who like or love her.
    • Show her beside a comparatively worse character.
  2. Temper the character’s unlikable traits with more likable ones:
    • Show her performing a redeeming action or pursuing a worthy goal.
    • Give her a redeeming skill, talent or interest that others don’t have.
    • Give her a compelling narrative voice—witty, intelligent, humorous.
  3. Develop (the reader’s) compassion for the character’s motives, if not her actions:
    • Weave in an intriguing or tragic backstory.
    • If she’s an outsider or isolated, show us why.
    • Give her agency and culpability, some control over her circumstances.
    • Let us see her breaking rules—unapologetically.

One more trick that didn’t fit into those categories: go “all in” on the female character’s disagreeable qualities. Ask yourself—or anyone who objects to the character—why they find her unlikable. Would the same set of traits be a problem if the character were male? To make a point, consider going over the top and creating a character who is everything a woman “shouldn’t” be (e.g., loud, crass, manipulative, self-centered, unfriendly, scowling).

The presenters provided interesting examples of authors who used one or more of these tricks to make their female characters more palatable. Of all the titles, the one most familiar to me was Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which portrays an outsider, Olive, who is flinty and coarse but volunteers for the Red Cross, talks a former student out of committing suicide, and deep-down loves her son. By the end of the book, I had become quite fond of Olive, perhaps because she reminded me of someone I love. (More on that below.)

Revealing Who the Character Is in Relation to Other Characters

I have always been fascinated by differences in perspective. For example, how is it that two siblings, after having been raised in the same home by the same parents, can look back on their upbringing with entirely different impressions of what transpired? Memoir writers certainly struggle with this predicament: in writing the story of their lives, they have to decide whose memory to trust when their own memories differ from the recollections of friends or family members. Whose perspective is the most reliable? Why is theirs the one you would choose to believe—or ignore?

We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families.

Tara Westover

By showing who a character is to someone who loves her (or who is loved by her), you give readers a chance to see her in a new light.

Tempering the Character’s Unlikable Traits with Likable Ones

I grew up with a grandmother who some might describe as “unlikable.” She was cranky, irritable and pessimistic. If she thought you were overweight or didn’t like what you were wearing, she wasn’t shy about telling you. She was impossibly hard to please and drove my parents absolutely bonkers.

In this story, I was the “character” who adored the “unlikable” woman. Though she was cantankerous even with me, I valued her authenticity. She dispensed with niceties and never pretended to be cheerful or friendly when that wasn’t how she felt. I could always trust the face she was showing me, and her tiny apartment was where I felt free to be myself. When it was just the two of us, she told me stories about how she had become a teacher and raised a child on her own during the Great Depression, after her husband (my grandfather) had deserted her. She’d never owned her own house or had much money in the bank, but she made whatever she had on hand feel like plenty. She showed her love for me by turning triangles of toast into boats floating on a sea of Campbell’s soup, sewing fabric scraps into doll clothes, and transforming walks through the woods into treasure hunts.

Black and white photo of woman circa 1918.
Grandma Mac

In the story of my mother’s life, my grandmother was the most likely candidate for the role of antagonist. In the story of my life, Grandma Mac was the hero. I can’t predict whether you would have found her likable. I suppose that depends on your point of view and how well these “tricks” (her backstory, her redeeming actions and talents) work for you.

Developing Compassion for a Character’s Motives

The last item on the list of tricks—developing compassion for a character’s motives— is especially interesting to me, because it reinforces a fundamental truth about storytelling. If you show readers why a character does what she does (her motivation), they’ll be more likely to care about what’s going on in her story. As we all know, it’s far too easy to judge and misinterpret a person based on actions alone.

I believe this is the most powerful storytelling trick: To help readers relate to your unlikable character, show us who she is on the inside. Use her intriguing or tragic backstory to reveal why she feels the way she does. Show us what’s influencing her thinking and driving her decisions. What’s at stake for her? If she’s breaking all the rules, maybe they need to be broken. If she’s keeping to herself, maybe she has a compelling reason for doing so. We might still disagree with the choices she’s making, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t empathize with why she’s making them.

A Final Note

For an excellent article on the importance of “unlikeable” female characters, check out Not Here to Make Friends by Roxane Gay, author of Not that Bad and Difficult Women.