Today the ultra-talented H.M. Jones, author of the dark fantasy MONOCHROME, joins us with some insight into world building and some advice from fellow author Tamora Pierce.
One of the most asked questions I get from both readers and fellow writers is about world building. Readers love to hate the world of Monochrome (my dark fantasy), and that truly fills my black heart with pride. But even as a writing instructor, it took time to generate an answer that was better than, “Well, it just came to me.” That’s partly true, but it’s mostly a lame answer. So, eager world builders, here’s some actually helpful and honest world creation advice.
Be a Thief, Like Tamora Pierce
I’ve been stuck in the land of Tortall since I was seven. Even as an adult reading Pierce’s books to my children, I’m in awe of how real her world is. I know its corners, its people, its pitfalls. So when I met Pierce at one of her readings my first question as an aspiring writer was: “How did you make Tortall so real?”
And in her cheeky manner she retorted, “I steal a lot.” She laughed it off with everyone else and specified that she spent a lot of her time reading other good world builders and seeing what they did best. But she said it was more than that. It was about stealing from reality. She traveled a lot, experienced places outside of her own sphere, and researched the places she couldn’t travel to. So her world is tangible because it’s not far from our historical or current reality.
That made me think of my favorite world builders: Tolkien, Rowling, Lemony Snicket, George R.R. Martin. They all have that thievery in common. George R.R. Martin’s work is very Middle Ages, gritty old world. Tolkien is all mountains and wild, untamed New Zealand hillsides. Rowling’s Hogwarts is, for all it’s magic, just like middle school and high school was for so many of us, albeit with more ghosts and wand waving. Any young woman who read the Hermione yule ball scene feels me on this one. That’s high school in a nutshell—put tons of effort into looking stunning and have some young dude completely take you for granted. Lemony Snicket takes places we think we know—fishing villages plucked right out of a Dickens novel—and makes it his own. We can place ourselves in these worlds because they are linked to a reality we already know, even if in an offhand way.
Make it Moody
Think about the worlds that stick to the back of your mind. They have a feeling, don’t they? Labyrinth has a dark, fantastical, confounding feeling. Orwell’s Oceania feels stark, grey and heavy. It feels like the pounding of militant feet. Tatooine feels isolated, hard and hopeless. If you’re nodding along with me it’s because the writers of these places had a feeling they wanted conveyed in their world. They had emotional qualities tied up in that area and they used that mood to help guide the landscape. I’m assuming all this, of course, having never interviewed these people. But I’m also not.
When I went about creating Monochrome, I knew what I wanted people to feel when they stepped into it: afraid, uncertain, morose, desperate, and mind-numbingly gloomy. I wanted to make the emotional state of depression so tangible that readers could walk through it. The authors I love gave me those feelings each time their characters stepped into a new place. When I creep into Borgin & Burkes I feel frightened and unsettled, just like Harry. But only a few blocks away I can hop into Weasleys’ Wizard Weezes, where hilarity and joy reign. Choose your colors, your landscape, your clothing, your lighting, and your smells based on the mood you want to convey in that place.
Map Your World
My last piece of advice is simple. Map your world out physically, even if you have no hand for artistry. Mapping out my own worlds with rough tree-like things, city-like things and little descriptions, swatches of clothing, and splashes of color makes it more real to me. Many of us rely on our tactile and visual senses, so play to those. If you’re handy with a computer, graph it. If you’re an artist, paint, draw or charcoal your world out. For complex worlds where clothing, housing and weaponry all need to be thought up, look up different fabrics, shoes, and textures good for certain climates. Create a collage of what your people would wear, what they’d use to hunt with (if they’d hunt at all), the colors that would be logical for their station/city/rural outpost.
Just close your eyes and settle yourself in a sturdy but comfortable chair in the Shire. Picture its lush foliage, neat gardens, sprinkled hobbit holes, pipes, vegetable fields, and full larders. It’s the color of spring grass or cherry wood trimmings, is it not? It’s the smell of baked ham, eggs, and apple pie for first breakfast. It is the sound of quiet merriment, the pleasant baa of sheep. Touch the heavy cotton, simply dyed. Tolkien knew his world, truly thought about the comfort of a hobbit, the hard-as-steel home for a dwarf, the graceful greenery of an elf, the heat and fire of an orc. Each place has its own colors, textures, customs, culture and personality.
Martin’s worlds are so tactile that the authors of the Feast of Ice and Fire cookbook were able to show us what the different areas would taste like. When I first took a bite of Bowls of Brown I felt like my mouth had been transported to flea bottom. Martin clearly put a great deal of precision into his mapping out, an awful lot of research and a good deal of description.
World creation is not just a few descriptors neatly placed. Good worlds reach into reality, engage your emotions and become a truly tactile experience. History, and literature can get you started, but only your own full characters and their emotional, physical and spiritual needs can complete your world.