I find it almost ironic that my first post on Today’s Author is on a subject near and dear to my heart: Building believable worlds.
However, it isn’t just the world I want to discuss, but the characters who live on them. The cultures of the world, the scope and expanse of a world are all important. How does a world define our characters? Earth has gone a long way to define us as a race. We are defined by the locations we live. Those of us who live near oceans or rivers have learned to fish. Those of us who live in the desert have adapted to the heat and the dry winds. Those of us who live where snow falls eight months out of the year have adapted to the cold. Our cultures are defined by the world we live in, whether we like it or not.
Imaginary Places, Imaginary Friends…
I’m not going to talk about the real world. I’m going to talk about Alskoran, a world of my own creation, the world depicted in the map at the top of this post*. (Yes, I drew it. More on that later.)
Alskorans is a continent divided by conflicting cultures and people. It doesn’t look that way from this view. It just looks like a bunch of lines defining where people live. Surely that can’t make that much of a difference, can it?
It can, and it does. I’d like to call your attention to three places on the map. You can’t see it from this angle, but take a look at the Rift. If you were to consider the real world compared to mine, the Rift is like the big brother of the Grand Canyon. The really big brother of the Grand Canyon. So big, it takes the best horses in the world more than two weeks to navigate the canyon trails to go from the top to the bottom. It is a dry, hostile place, with a great river cutting through the depths of the ravines. Danar, to its north, is a desert wasteland. He who controls water controls life.
These two places have drastically different cultures. The people of the Rift live and die by the quality of their sturdy horses and their skills riding them. The river offers them life, and it may as well be a God to them, because they don’t believe in Gods. Life and death are constantly at battle with one another, and the people have evolved to handle this fight very well. The Danarites, on the other hand, have a very strong belief system. Their Goddess provides water, and water means life or death to them.
The people of these two locations, although very close to each other in geographic terms, are drastically different. Horses are rare to the Danarites. The Rifters are the premier horsemen of the continent. The Danarites live in a place similar to Death Valley on the west coast. Horses can’t really survive there. The ones that do survive belong only to the elite, because they’re the only ones who can afford to water them. Without horses, their trade is limited. In Danar, they are a self-sufficient people, suspicious of anyone who isn’t them. The Rifters live in an equally harsh terrain, but in the depths of their canyons, there are grasslands and fodder for their beloved horses.
All of these things are due to where they live.
Then there is Kelsh, which is to the east of the Rift and south and east to Danar. Unlike Danar, it is a fertile land, with forests and lush farmlands.
Resources are at the root of the ongoing conflicts between Danar and Kelsh. No one remembers what triggered the ongoing feud between the peoples of the two regions, but the conflicts have developed to a point it is almost genetic in nature.
Their cultures have evolved to account for this ongoing dispute.
Location, Location, Location…
Location plays a huge part in defining culture. Whether you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world, understand how the location of your people changes the culture of your people. If you want a people to behave in a certain way, you need to account for that in their lifestyle. Cultures are formed because of necessity. Cultures evolve for many reasons, including an easing of lifestyle, luxuries, and religion. Trade can change cultures, as the people learn about how other people do things. Immigration really changes things. There is a reason America and Canada are referred to as mixing posts and salads in the cultural community. When you put a bunch of different cultural groups together, the lines separating the cultures will eventually blur.
So, how do you build a realistic world, a realistic people, and a realistic culture?
Start with understanding the world your characters live in. Your setting shouldn’t just be a place your characters stand on as they do the things they need to do. The best stories include the world as a character. Sure, the world doesn’t (often) have lines, but it’s always there. It’s a huge factor in the behavior of your real characters. Yet, time and time again, I read books where the world is nothing more than a cardboard cut out. It’s left with no depth, no realism, and no vibrancy.
Understanding Your World
If you want to build strong characters, start by building a strong, vibrant world. Even if your story takes place on Earth.
What? That doesn’t make sense! I can almost hear the questions now: Why do I need to develop Earth? We all live here! We know what living on Earth is like! That’s a waste of my time.
It’s not. Seriously. It’s not. Unless every story you ever write takes place in your home town featuring people you know, you need to research. If you live in Manhattan and want to write about someone living in Boston, you better do your research. New Yorkers are used to streets that make sense. Bostonites? They can navigate their way through a rubberband ball. They have to. Their streets are more convoluted than the typical mirror maze. I’ve been there once as a driver, and the idea of going back scares the liver out of me.
Boston’s confusing roads have become a part of their culture. The people have adapted to them. If you’re writing about Boston, and you’re from New York, you may forget this tiny little detail that impacts the life of a person from Boston on a daily basis.
Boston grew in a different way than New York. That history has stuck with the people of Boston. It has defined a different culture than its southern neighbor. Boston and New York, while both American Cities, are nothing like each other. I’ve had the pleasure of being guests of both cities, and how much they differ is absolutely amazing to me.
If you want to write about Earth, you need to know what you’re writing. You don’t just need to know the modern setting, but the history of the setting as well. It really makes a big difference on making the city feel alive. To making your setting feel real.
To skip across the ocean for a moment, this is one thing JK Rowling got right with her Harry Potter series: She made England feel real. She gave it a history. She gave it a culture. Then, she changed it up on us. She made it a place easy to imagine, easy to relate to, and then she gave it a feel of England.
That takes a great deal of skill. To write in such a way where a setting feels nature, a writer has to understand the location and its impact on the people living there.
Your setting is a character, and it’s one of the most important characters you have. You develop your living, breathing human characters (or non-human, as the case may be) but many don’t take the time to really understand the world their characters are from.
Sure, you may have an idea for the type of character you want to create, but how did that person become the type of person they are? A person born and raised as a slave isn’t going to take to independent thought easily. It’s nurtured for them to be anything but independent, self-reliant, and bold. Someone who was taken to be a slave in the middle of their lives is a different story. Understand how your culture and world will develop your characters.
If you need a real-life example of this, consider North America versus China. The way Americans and Chinese view the world is completely different. A good first step is to study real cultures, real people, and identify why the stereotypes of these cultural groups exists. Then, use it to your advantage.
Bringing a World to Life
The hardest part is bringing a world to life. Ironically, you do this through your characters and their interaction with the world. Just as the world defines the characters, the characters in turn define the world. For example, a culture with high water needs may build a dam. This changes the nature of the world around them, while the changes to the world also change how the characters react to each other, trade, and so on.
We can argue about the chicken vs egg situation all day long, but one simple fact remains: A great book has both characters and setting.
After all, we don’t just call Tolkien’s work “The Lord of the Rings.” No, we imagine ourselves as revisiting Middle Earth.
And Middle Earth is more than just the people. It’s about the places. What would The Lord of the Rings be without Mount Doom? Without Mordor? Without The Shire? Each of these places has culture unique to them, and that’s a huge part of why so many of us love Tolkien’s novels. We’re not just told about places, we’re taken there.
When you start writing your book, or even as you continue it, don’t just think of your setting as a cardboard cut out. Instead, view it as your most important character: The character who defines the lives, the motivations, the traits, and the customs of all of your key players.
Your world may not have lines, but it plays one of the leading roles.
* A Side Note about Maps: I draw maps, including cultural boundaries, kingdom lines, and terrain types as a way to help me define my world. This exercise is important to my process, though I don’t expect many people take it to quite the extremes I do. It does help me make my cultures feel a little more authentic, however. And it helps me see what characters see when they look at a map.
I usually do not draw maps of my world, mostly because I usually don’t plan any of the storyline out enough to have the world mapped out in the first place. But one of the novels I’m working on (the one that I think has the most possibilities for publication) has an intricate map that kind of built itself up in my head all on its own. If I could draw, I’d have it sketched out nicely like you have done. Unfortunately, when I try to draw it, it just ends up being a bunch of lines and dots that have no scale or useful dimensionality to them.
But despite that I agree that your world and characters need to go hand-in-hand. A civilization that lives underground, in the dark all the time will have developed different techniques for seeing than one above ground in the sunlight all the time. It is “easier” to write it with everyone having eyes that function exactly the same way as yours or mine do, but the reality is that they would be different if the environment were drastically different.
Great topic, and well handled. I’m with Rob on the map drawing and completely with you on settings importance in story. To put terminology to it, setting is roughly two pieces: geographical and social. I love how you touch on how intertwined they are. And how important it is in mainstream stories as well as fiction-world stories.
An example for anyone who may be a little skeptical: Changing locations for a person (or character) often has much more social impact than locational impact. I heard an interview with an African writer who said the first thing she had to learn when she came to the U.S. was that she was black.
I have always loved drawing maps for stories! I put one at the front of my novel (for my own happiness). I love yours.
Love the map.
Terrific article, RJ. One of my books takes place in a city I grew up in, but I had to create an imaginary home site for the story. It was really important to me that the location be a true possibility, so I consulted a real map and found a place where my home could be. In reality, it may be a privately owned empty plot or it may be uninhabitable for some reason, but at least I could show you on a real map where the house stands. I also invented the street for the house’ address, but the streets leading up to it you can drive today. The personality of my imaginary house fits comfortably with the real neighborhood, and I enjoyed the process.
I like the idea of what you wrote in regards to Harry Potter and how you introduce the familiar to the reader and then augment that with something deeper, something unique, something unfamiliar. You establish yourself as a reliable storyteller and, perhaps, your narrator as reliable too.