Let There Be Light: Creating the World of Your Novel
Your World, Your Rules
Middle Earth. Hogwarts. Narnia. Panem. Fictional worlds created by authors, worlds populated by unforgettable heroes, vicious monsters, fantastic friends, and sinister enemies. Worlds with danger around every corner, fantastic elements woven throughout, and adventures waiting to be undertaken. The world you create for your novel is the world your characters will populate, your readers will love and want to revisit, and you yourself will want to carefully craft. This is your canvas. Use it wisely.
But how does one make a world that readers will enjoy? Depending on your genre, there are multiple kinds of worlds that you can make. Will you give Tolkien's Middle Earth a run for his money with your fantasy realm? Will Suzanne Collins's Panem feel like paradise compared to your twisted dystopian vision of the future? So selecting a world is key, whether it's for a fantasy, dystopian, or science fiction story. Once you've picked a name for your world, city, or nation, then it's time to create. No matter what genre you decide to write about, there are some key characteristics that all fictional realms need to possess. Please note that I'm writing about worlds you as the author are inventing. These characteristics may not work as well for stories that insert characters into our planet Earth. Sure, you can turn Earth dystopian or have the story take place on Earth (but, in that case, some element of your world must remain), but these characteristics are specifically for your "world," the realm you create.
Your World Must Be Unique
What makes your city, your nation, your universe different than those from other authors' cities, nations, and universes? Does gravity work the same on your alien planet as it does on ours? Can people wield magic in your fantasy realm and does that mean everyone can use it? In your dystopian city, are rebels imprisoned or executed on the spot? Making the "rules" of your world is probably one of the most important parts. This is a world you made; now you need to control it. Establishing how your society works, how the government rules, how magic is used, how aliens exist, why robots are running around, and where the Dark Lord came from are all parts of crafting your world. By doing so, the readers know what can and can't happen in your world, why the monarchs or leaders act why they do, and how the hero can have magic while everyone around him is a dead battery. I honesty think this is fun to do. Whether by having a character explain the history, having the hero remember how the villain came to power, or having a poem explaining the purpose of magic, there are several interesting ways that you can build your realm.
Your World Must Be Recognizable
Tolkien wrote that Middle Earth is actually an ancient version of our world. Hogwarts is slotted nicely somewhere in England. Rick Riordan's Camp Half Blood and Suzanne Collins' Panem fit into America. Not all invented worlds have such connections to ours, but the principle works well sometimes: these authors realize that their fantasy realms need to be recognizable. As a reader, we need to be able to identify with the world that has been created for our enjoyment. Even with worlds completely detached from our own, there are still governments, occupations, institutions, food. There are people or monsters that resemble some aspect of people. If you invent a world inhabited only by purple goopahs who work in humdadingas, but you never identify what those are exactly, your story will die pretty quickly because the reader has no idea what you're talking about. People can picture Middle Earth because they know that the Shire would be similar to a primeval village, that an Elf is like a tall man with very awesome accuracy, and that magic, though more of an "idea" than a tangible substance, exists because it can be displayed in forms like fire and lightning, which we deal with all the time. If your world is familiar to us, we will have no trouble picturing it in our minds.
Your World Must Have Conflict
Your world will probably be in danger. How it's gotten to that state will require some explanation, such as Galadriel explaining how Middle Earth was thrown into danger with the rise of Sauron and the losing of the One Ring. However you bring danger, the idea that there is some menace is a powerful one. It brings conflict into the story, conflict which your hero is going to have to stop. Maybe it's a Dark Lord seeking to take over the land, or an absolutist government enslaving the people. Your hero's mission is to see the evil lord destroyed or the sinister plan defeated before it can be fulfilled. Conflict brings another element into the story: Loss. Loss for the hero, certainly, but also for the realm you have made. While actual lands don't die, places like Camp Half Blood and Hogwarts get attacked, so the world you create could sustain physical damage. Most likely, the loss will deal with the idea that this once beautiful and flourishing world that you have painstakingly created will be turned into a grim cesspool of darkness and slime if the villain has his way. If the conflict isn't resolved, your world will be laid waste. And that's a hard thing to do, especially given the fact that millions of people may inhabit your realm. So conflict is essential in world building. It gives both the reader and author something to lose.
Your World Must Suffer
This is a natural consequence of bringing in conflict. Not everything is going to go right for all the good guys all the time. Characters could get sick, injured, or killed. And while you probably won't be destroying the realm you've made, it can suffer. This is where the physical damage comes into play. This is where Smaug destroys Dale and Lake Town, where Districts are attacked and bombed by the Capitol, where Princess Leia's homeworld is blown up, where Hogwarts takes damage from the final battle between good and evil. Kingdoms can burn, cities can be devastated, villages massacred, and forests torn apart. If the villain can hurt more than the hero--if he can hurt the world itself--the stakes are raised. This is now beyond one guy or gal. This is now about the fate of where they live and where their friends and families live, too. And it's another way of bringing pain. Hogwarts is the central setting for Harry Potter and friends. It's like an actual character, so hurting it is like hurting a person. How could the villain be so cruel as to harm such a beloved landmark? Characters will hate to see their world harmed or mutilated, and the readers will think the same. In a sense, it's become their home as well.
Your World Must Be Restored
At the end of the day, unless you're feeling really sinister, your hero will win, the bad guy will be defeated, and your world will be made right. That means the oppressive government will be overthrown, the Dark Lord will be destroyed, the proletariat will be freed, and all the depressing Wizard towers and corporate skyscrapers will be demolished to make way for quaint villages for the happy populace. Maybe your landscape will bloom again, or your destroyed school for special kids will be rebuilt. Your world will have survived the evil that has been strewn throughout and will come out stronger, a bastion to the truths of justice and love. Future generations will not have to fear evil and will face the promise of a new dawn in your fictional realm. Up until now, your hero has been looking around at his or her home, town, village, country, nation, or planet and has been wondering how he or she is going to be able to survive in it. But now, the status quo has returned. Unless you're George Orwell (who left the authoritarian Party in control of Oceania) or C.S. Lewis (who destroyed Narnia, but brought everyone to heaven), you'll most likely let your hero sit down and, with a sigh, say, "I'm home."
© 2014 Nathan Kiehn