Monday, February 05, 2007

Whose World Is This Anyway?

I just found out that along with RITA winning author Robin D "HeartMate" Owens, I’ll be teaching a world building workshop at RWA National in Dallas this summer. The title of the workshop is above and I hope, based on how I’ve constructed the blurb, to bring in more than just SFF writers. Not that I don’t love SFF writers. I do. But I think SFF writers are more attuned to world building than those that write in other genres and…as those who attend the workshop will find out—world building isn’t solely an SFF disease.

Good world building should be as integral part of your story as good dialogue and good characterization. This is true if you write chick lit, cozies, westerns or space opera or any other genre. If your characters exist and interact in a setting, then the setting is important.
It’s even more important you learn how to use that setting to improve your characterization and dialogue.

Just as we are affected by our environment, our social system, our culture, our religious upbringing, so are your characters. This kind of influence doesn’t stop at the outer orbit of Moabar. It’s equally important in Michigan.

Let’s say you write romantic suspense. Your male protagonist is a cop from Newark, NJ—a pretty tough place with a large ethnic population. Let’s say for reasons you—writer—invent, that NJ cop finds himself in Pensacola, Florida. Or some tiny town in Idaho. Trust me, it would be as if he had been beamed to Moabar or some other place on the outer reaches of the universe. Even though he’s in the same country, there will be language differences: accent and slang will differ. What was soda in Newark will be pop in Idaho.

Let’s take another slant: you’re writing a chick lit set in Palm Beach, Florida. You throw in a few palm trees, half a dozen BMWs, a couple of Rolls Royces. That’ll do it, right?

Wrong. For one thing, Palm Beach is a lot more than that.

For another, your reader might be from Small Town, Idaho and to him or her, Palm Beach is the same as Moabar or the outer reaches of the universe.

You, writer, have to make Palm Beach or Pensacola as real and vibrant and memorable as you would Port Rumor or Marker Station. You have to write those locales through fresh eyes—your readers’ eyes and your characters’ eyes.

Because I am a science fiction author and am more attuned to world building, I see many contemporary (or non-speculative fiction) novels that fall flat in the area of world building. I see many lost chances where the writer could give the reader a much deeper insight into a character by utilizing world building—and they don’t.

Your character is a product of his/her environment and affected by his/her environment. Never forget that.

Let’s go back to that contemporary romantic suspense where our tough guy cop from Newark, NJ finds himself in Small Town, Idaho. The cop is probably a helluva lot more crude than the Idaho farmers are used to (not saying farmers can’t get raucous—they’re just different than a Newark beat cop). He’d be used to interacting with people more abruptly with probably more personal space. The farmer’s daughter—a nice church-going gal—who runs the local Ma and Pa restaurant, is used to hugging her customers and inquiring about every aspect of their personal life. She’s more easy-going and trusting because of the world she grew up in. If you plop that cop down into that setting and DON’T make him uncomfortable and a fish out of water, than you have no understanding of how environment affects characters.

And you need to.

If you’re getting comments from crit partners or notes in rejection letters from agents and editors to the tune that your characters are flat, take a look at whether or not you’ve included good world building in your story—and in your characters’ lives. Pensacola isn’t a cookie-cutter beach/military town and Palm Beach isn’t a cookie-cutter rich town. Cookie-cutter towns make for boring reading. Flat world building.

And we all know the world isn’t flat. So don’t let your world—or your world building—fall off that edge into the abyss. For every major setting in your story, know that locales climate, religions, educational level, economic level, politics, social strata and mixture of cultures (if any). And then look at your characters and contrast each one’s world building elements—personal religion, education, economic level, etc.—with where you’ve placed them and see how that impinges on their place and progress in the story.

Whose world is this? It’s one you’ve created. Use it fully.



  1. Thank you, Linnea, for another great one.

    Another thing I've learned from my fellow aspiring writers is that it's easy to get lost in the world-building and let the story fall through the cracks.

    I just read a published novel and am reading another published novel which demonstrates this radically. Both are Historical Romance and both have brilliant world-building. Sadly, the first had a lame plot and the heroine started out a powerful woman and sunk into spineless whiner. Broke my heart, because it had such potential. It was by a debut author though, so I have high hopes her storytelling will be in better balance if she gets another shot. It would be a crying shame to waste such talent.

    I'll be reviewing the second novel, MY LADY KNIGHT by Jocelyn Kelley, on my blog tomorrow.

  2. Anonymous2:32 PM EST

    What Kimber An said. LOL
    Seriously, one of the reasons certain authors' work resonates with readers and makes them stellar examples of the genre (and thereby destined for the "classics" shelf and eternal reprints) is the worldbuilding, and the way characters in and out of their comfort zone react.
    Wish I could be at the workshop in Dallas ~ it promises to be exceptional!

  3. Kimber, some authors don't trust their characterization and hence bury themselves in world building. Sad but true.

    As for spineless whiners, any TSTL characters get me tossing a book against the wall. ;-) ~Linnea

  4. Okay, Linnea, ya got me. What's a TSTL? 'Too Stupid To Live' or something you can't post on the Internet in good conscious?

    P.S. Our local library just bought ALL of your books, Linnea! Gee, I wonder who could have been twisting their arm?


  5. TSTL = Too Stupid To Live and I can't claim invention of that. It's a romance acronym that's been around a good while. ;-)

    Thanks for the arm twisting! I sent out some promo materials to some Alaskan libraries and some indy bookstores there recently. Hopefully that'll help. ~Linnea

  6. Anonymous1:35 PM EST

    As a neophyte, (did I spell that right?) I have found world-building indeed seems to swallow me up. The back story of the characters and their worlds (and there are several worlds here) do make my little mind reel. I'm trying not to get lost in there, but it's hard not to. And the info comes to me in little bitty bites. *sigh* So much to learn!
    P.S. Workshop? *eyes glassing over*