World Building

by J.T. Ellison

I was at the bank the other day, which is always a trip, because our bank branch is staffed with characters. There’s the comedian chick, the brooding manager, the upbeat and chipper trainee, and the artist. The artist and I get on well, because he’s a writer. He’s done songs, he’s done poems. But lately, he’s been working on a movie script.

You don’t expect to get enlightened at the bank. If anything, that’s about the last place I’d ever go. But the artist dropped a bomb on me, just a simple term that he used to describe what he was responsible for with the script he’s co-writing.

He’s the world builder.

Now I’m sure all you screenwriters just rolled your eyes and said DUH! but I’ve never done any screenwriting, nor worked in Hollywood, and this termed concept of world building was a new one to me.

Of course, I understand that I already have an intrinsic grasp of world building. I do it every time I sit down, open my laptop and create. Each story, each character, each setting, all goes into the world I’m building. I’m the God of my own land, the High Priestess of the Page.

I make the rules.

Oh, heady day!

Science fiction and fantasy writers do a bang up job of world building. Hobbits become heroes, dragons befriend young slayers, vampires turn vegetarian. Trees can speak and witches float around in soap bubbles. Lions rise from the dead and the labyrinth of our subconscious fears are realized. Good and evil have Janus faces, and nothing is as it seems.

In these alternate realities, there are fairy godmothers, guardian angels, and every possible incarnation of death. In Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT series, the books work not because of the vampires, but because of the underlying story – a teenage girl who is uprooted and ends up in a faraway land where normal rules don’t apply. This transportation into a new world allows for a willing suspension of disbelief – that’s the trick. That’s the key.

It’s the driving force behind our culture’s creativity.

If you build it, they will come.

Historical romances sweep us into a land unknown. As a little girl, I remember getting lost in Karleen Koen’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, only to emerge on the other end with a fascination for all things historical. Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series is completely transcendent. I am there. I am present. I am so entranced that I can see and smell everything the characters do. I’m not reading a book, or a story, I’m plowing through an alternate universe.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books did that for me also. I still lament that I wasn’t able to attend Hogwarts, with all its bizarre idiosyncrasies and history.

Imagination in the hands of a competent world builder is something to be treasured, read and watched over and over again, striking a resonate chord with all who fall under its spell. It’s just plain bliss.

The mythology behind these grandiose otherworlds are evident. They all have one thing in common: A hero, called to a journey. I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, (I’ve got a post coming on why I’m mad at Vogler…) and the whole concept of mythos and world building are foremost in my mind as I sit down to write a new Taylor Jackson novel. How am I going to bring Taylor’s world alive for you? What parts of Nashville have I missed in past novels that will give a real flavor to her world? It’s more than character, it’s using setting to define your story. I’ve always said Nashville is a character in my books. I want to show the essence of the city, the piquancy that comprises its hodgepodge cosmopolitan nature.

But I run smack into a brick wall rather quickly. My world? Already built. I’m using real places, real people, real streets and sights and smells. I can’t deviate from what we know this town to be without causing a fervor – and that’s rather limiting.

I started a standalone a few years ago, between my non-published novel and All the Pretty Girls. It’s about a female assassin named Cassiopeia with a chip implanted in her head that can be turned off and on, activating and deactivating her for duty. Sound familiar? Yes, Joss Whedon just released a television show, DOLLHOUSE, with a similar premise. I haven’t watched it because I don’t want to be influenced, because I’m still writing this book. From what I’ve heard, the brain chip is the extent of our similarities, so I’m not worried about finding a market for it once it’s done.

But it’s fun to write, because it expands reality a bit. I’m hoping this book allows me a chance to build a world outside of the careful construct of Nashville. It will take place all over the world, and I have the opportunity to make that world whatever I want it to be. Look at Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION. Sitka, Alaska becomes a world unto itself, with its own rules, its own idiosyncrasies. The characters live inside the construct Michael has laid out, and it works because we’re in the hands of a master manipulator, a writer who knows exactly how to twist the world to his own image.

But even the most humble story, if done well, can transport us into another’s life, into their world. We see through the characters eyes, feel their disappointments and frustrations. Whether the setting is as massive as Narnia or as small as a trailer park, if the author has done their job, we can lose ourselves in another world, at least for a time.

So let’s hear it, ‘Rati faithful. Who are you favorite world builders?

Wine of the Week: Sebecka Cabernet Pinotage An absolutely luscious South African wine with the cutest cork (yes, I said cutest cork) It’s cheetah print!

 PS: I have a guest blog up on Criminal Brief today! Come over and show their crew some love too!

24 thoughts on “World Building

  1. Chuck

    Hi JT…interesting topic today! Most of what I read, and almost everything I write, is based in real places. That being said, some authors are so very good at giving me a sense of that place. Carsten Stroud is one I enjoy; Ken Follett does a great job too.

    Not sure if you’ve ever read it, or would want to, but Dan Simmons, a fantasy writer, turned out a horror book in the early nineties titled SUMMER OF NIGHT. I’m not a big horror fan, but this one sucked me in because of Simmons’ Ray Bradbury-esque nostalgia. It quickly swept me back to long summer days spent with my buddies, throwing dirt clods and riding our bicycles until nightfall finally crept in and our mothers screamed for us to get in the house. He created a world in that novel that I have to go back to every now and then, typically in mid-summer, just so I can float back to my childhood and relive it for a few brief moments.

  2. Dana King

    Ed McBain was the first name that jumped into my head. YEs, Isola is New York, but I’m not big on New York, and have no more knowledge than anyone else inundated with news from the Big Apple. McBain creates a world based on reality that I feel much more familiar with than I do the real thing.

  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Good post J.T.

    Even though I’m not really into fantasy, there are two particular "world builders" I really enjoy reading. Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. What’s great about the series is Pratchett takes aspects of the real world and weaves them into his own. One example I relly thought was great was in the book Soul Music. He’s got a band in there called Definitely Dwarfs modled after They Might Be Giants.

    The other author is Neil Gaiman. The worlds that he creates are described so well that you really get transported there while reading.

    Incidentally, Pratchett and Gaiman co-authored one of my favorite books Good Omens.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Interesting post, and I was going to mention Terry Pratchett, RJ!

    Another sci-fi writer who does an amazing job mixing what we know of now, with what might be in the future, is Peter F Hamilton. He did a trilogy about a gland-enhanced pyschic PI, Greg Mandel, starting with MINDSTAR RISING, which is set in a post global warming UK. I picked it up by chance in an airport bookshop, read the opening page, and was totally hooked.

    The second in the series is A QUANTUM MURDER, which is a new twist on the closed country house murder plot. A noted professor is butchered in his country house, during a storm that has cut the place off from the outside world, surrounded only by his apparently devoted students. Mandel’s abilities give him acute emphathy – he can tell if someone is lying – but all the students are telling the truth. It’s a great book, with just enough futuristic bits to appeal to sci-fi and mystery readers alike.

    And finally, off the top of my head, JD Robb’s futuristic New York of Homicide Lt Eve Dallas is extremely well realised and keeps me following this series.

  5. Rashda

    Two of my favorites got mentioned — Terry Pratchett and J.D. Robb.

    Another is Thomas Harris. He makes his fictional world so real that I’ve to sleep with the lights on every time I read his books. And I was really glad for digital cameras that allow us to develop our own pictures. 🙂

  6. Louise Ure

    Even in non-science fiction books, world building can be so much more than setting. Take James Lee Burke. He’s given us New Orleans but also this whole new world embodied in the thoughts, back story and mores of his cast of characters.

  7. Stephen Blackmoore

    Favorite world-builders is a tough one. Mostly science fiction and fantasy authors come to mind because the world building is so much a part of the story rather than just a setting; John Scalzi, China Mieville, Emma Bull, William Gibson and on and on.

    I was at a science fiction convention, because I’m a geek that way, where a panelist was going on about how writing sci-fi is harder than writing fiction rooted in reality because of all the world building one has to do.

    I wanted to punch him.

    I don’t think it’s harder or easier, just different. Creating a compelling world is damn difficult whether you’re writing about aliens or 1880’s Whitechapel or downtown San Francisco in 2009. I think the trick is not just being imaginative, but being consistent, and for something rooted in the here and now, being accurate. I wonder if some fantasy and science fiction writers have it a little easier, actually. They don’t have to worry about being burned in effigy because they got their facts on Victorian corsetry wrong.

    Zoe, Peter F Hamilton is amazing. There are scenes from The Reality Dysfunction that still stick with me and I haven’t read it in almost 10 years.

    And Pratchett just goes without saying.

  8. JT Ellison

    Hi Chuck! You’ve mentioned the Simmons book before, haven’t you? Is it terribly scary? I’m such a wuss, horror really freaks me out. I tried to read Joe Hill’s HEART SHAPED BOX and had to stop 1/2 through. And Follett reminds me of Michener. I wonder how Michener fans feel about his world building?

    Hi Dana – great suggestion. It’s definitely up to the author to build the world in ways readers can connect to.

    Hi RJ – I have to read Gaiman. I’m following him on Twitter and find him rather fascinating as a person, so I imagine his books would be entrancing as well. Any suggestions on where to start?

  9. JT Ellison

    Afternoon, Z!

    Hope you’re having good weather over there. I second JD Robb’s futuristic New York, and definitely want to add Hamilton – that’s an intriguing set up. I’ve always wanted to write a country house murder, mostly because I want to have a country house that I can do the research in. Not murder anyone, just hang in the house.

    Hi Rashda!

    Agree completely about Thomas Harris. His crime scenes are something I aspire to – the detail, the ambiance, the very nature of the killer shown through his lair… Perfection.

    Louise, an excellent point. I probably neglected to go into enough detail about world building – it IS more than setting, or character, or story. It’s the whole stew that transports. Hope the tour is going well!

  10. JT Ellison

    Hi Stephen! Good to see you.

    I’ve always though that sci fi and fantasy writers have it easier too. They can make anything up, create alternate realities, allow the impossible to become possible, and so long as they keep track and don’t let the real world slip in, they’re golden.

    Of course, no real, significant fictional world can work without the adept hands on the keyboard, breathing it to life, so in that I postulate that we’re all equal.

  11. Murderati

    Jim, I’ve not read Chandler. Or Hammett. I know, I know…. I just wanted to try my hand at crime fiction without being influenced by the same influences as everyone else. Develop my own style. I think I’m finally ready.

    Great to hang with you at the So Ky Bookfest (and Nashville hotspots) last weekend! Hope you made it home safe!

  12. Chuck

    Hey JT! Yes, I have mentioned that book before. It’s just one of those books you don’t forget. Check out the Amazon reviews. He creates a twelve year old boy’s world, middle America, dead-spot on. And no, I didn’t find it very scary at all. It loses me a bit…just a bit…at the end, but all horror does that to me because I have a hard time with the SOD. Just me overthinking things. (I’ll probably get killed by a zombie tonight while my lab relieves herself. It will be the supernatural world paying me back.)

  13. Brett Battes

    Stephen King has to be right there at the top.

    Like you, JT, I use a lot of real locations like Berlin, New York, London, Saigon… And while I attempt to be true to the cities as much as possible, I have to remember that it is still my-Berlin, my-New York, my-London, and my-Saigon… So if I establish that I have a grasp of the location, I find that I have the freedom to stray a little, and create places within those cities that don’t exist. It opens things up a bit when you want something that’s not really there.

  14. Pari

    I really enjoy your posts. Many of them make me look at my own assumptions. World building to me is far more than location — it’s creating a feel not only of place but of life/experience in that place; it’s all the unwritten rules of existence in a some-where or a some-time.

    Orson Scott Card does a wonderful job of this as does Nancy Farmer. So does Lois McMaster Bujold, Alice Hoffman, Tony Hillerman . . .

    Oh, there are so many!

  15. Murderati

    Yeah, Chuck, you need to watch out for that zombie karma. It’s a bitch…

    Brett – you actually do a wonderful job of world building. It’s the unfamiliar nature of your character that allows the reader to really get into the story. I think that’s something else about world building – the actual population of said world can have a decided influence. If we read about a character and know that he’s a Cleaner, and we’ve until now been unfamiliar with that term, it sucks us in. And you do the foreign spots really well too – I always feel like I’m THERE.

  16. JT Ellison

    Pari, thank you. You challenge me as well.

    It’s the unwritten and written rules that work for me when I’m trying to get into a book. What’s feasible? What’s allowable? What’s completely taboo? Once I figure out the taboo part, that’s usually where I tend to go.

    And apologies, those earlier comments labeled Murderati are actually me – I was logged into the site. : )

  17. J.D. Rhoades

    George R.R. Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series takes place in one of the most intricately constructed, complex and above all believable fantasy worlds I’ve ever read. Multiple kingdoms, each with it s own set of intrigues and power struggles, and the sense that everything is about to get knocked sideways when the dragons return and their human Queen comes into her full power…

    Chuck mentioned Dan Simmons–Simmons’ HYPERION CANTOS also knocked me flat the first time I read it. HIs universe gives me that sense-of-wonder that make me remember why I read SF.

    Most of the crime fiction I read takes place in at least a recognizable analogue of the "real world," but I have to say, I LOVE Ross McDonal’d s California.

  18. Ashley Ludwig

    Excellent post – I love the term World Building. As a kid, I danced in the sci-fi aisles – happily plunking down with any Anne McCaffery or Piers Anthony title. Specifically – the Crystal Singer Series – where Anne built an entire society based upon the misadventures of a wanna-be-singer turned Crystal Miner — but Piers Anthony created universes for me… with his Incarnations of Immortality – and the Phaze books. I spent years reading those… totally buying into the fantasy he wove for me.

    Of course, I agree with you on Gabaldon – she had me at the get go.

    As for real world, remember – though you have to stay true to the locals, you are building worlds for those who haven’t ever traveled to Nashville… or lurked about in its darker corners. 🙂

    Thanks for the post!

  19. Catherine Shipton

    This is harder than I thought to list only a few.I admire how a local author was able to show me an alternate world that is close to home. I must also raise my hand to admiring JD Robb’s series too. A short story that I think deserves special mention would go to Mr Battle’s, ‘Perfect Gentleman’ in the KILLER YEAR. That story took me out of a crowded food court in a noisy shopping centre straight into the world he had buiilt.

    The local author I mentioned, Kimberley Starr, wrote a book called, THE KINGDOM WHERE NOBODY DIES in 2004. This was a book where repercussions of childhood actions echoed throughout the story, and the river that winds itself through the heart of Brisbane permeated in an evenhanded fashion. I’m not a huge fan of symbolism that feels the need to club me into submission… Why I remember it years later ,was that on reading this book, I remember feeling a strange disjointed familiarity, where places I sort of knew, suddenly obtained a noirish tint.
    Dark world.

  20. JT Ellison

    Dusty – Argh! More to add to my list??? Just kidding – I’ve been writing down names all day. I love it when the ‘Rati share. I love dragons, so that’s moving to the top of my list.

    Ashley, you make an excellent point. When I first started these books, my Dad read an early, early version. He said something the same thing you did – address the city for the outsiders as well as the natives. It’s a hard balance, actually.

    Hi Catherine! Good to see you! The Australian crime fiction and fantasy landscape is amazingly diverse. I wish more of the authors were known up here.

    RJ, thank you! I’ll put them on the list.

    Thanks everyone!!!!

  21. Laura Benedict

    Late to the party, as usual…

    Larry Brown, Elmore Leonard, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Cormac McCarthy. You’ve talked about Diana Gabaldon before–I should read her, I think.


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