In A World… is a series of posts about world building, where our contributors share strategies and tips for creating well-rounded worlds.
If you write speculative fiction, you have probably heard the advice before to treat your world like a character. This advice is definitely spot on and is a key to creating vivid, dynamic settings for your stories, but it also leaves a lot unexplained. Characters have dialogue, action, and personality. Characters change and develop. Characters have a voice. How can you possibly treat both character and world the same way?
In reality, your world does have dialogue and action and voice, and there are specific techniques you can use to bring your world’s character to the surface. Here are some tips I use regularly in my own writing.
This one is the easiest, isn’t it? Every speculative writer knows the power behind a strong description. In order to write dynamic descriptions, it is key to remember that (just like characters), the goal is not to take a photograph of your world so that your reader clearly sees every detail in perfect, boring clarity, but to cast the world in a filter, only a few necessary details visible through it. You need to start paying special attention to things like mood and tone.
For illustration, a description of a boy that just says he has black hair, brown eyes, and muscles is pretty darn boring. What does this actually tell us about the boy? Nothing that matters. He could be a star football player. He could be a deadly, expert assassin. He could be a sailor. A model. Anything, really.
What could be more telling is the jagged scar that snakes down his chest, across his heart. The impeccably cut designer suit he wears. The dirt caked beneath his fingernails. The easy way that he smiles. These details don’t truly tell us much about the basics of his looks, yet I have a better picture of the sort of character behind these words. More importantly, I have interest. Who is this boy with jagged scars yet easy smiles?
So, when describing your world, you must use much the same technique. Don’t tell me a bedroom has a bed and a vanity and a nightstand in it. Tell me about the rusted pipes jutting out of the ceiling and the roars of the train car audible outside of the window. You are not taking a photograph, so stop thinking in details. Think in colors, in textures, in angles. The unexpected will make your writing, and your world, more enticing.
How does a world have action or dialogue? Beyond the core cast of my story, I always have a number of characters—some named, some not—who appear for a chapter or so. They aren’t protagonists, only stock characters. They’re there to serve my main character a whiskey neat or deliver her a fresh-pressed dress. They might only have a handful of lines of dialogue at most. Because these characters are so fleeting and unimportant, a lot of writers overlook them as potential tools for anything but that moment.
But in fact, those characters can tell us a lot about the world. By being nameless and undeveloped, they are more an extension of the world than they are a character.
How do they speak? What are their mannerisms? What clothes do they wear? Think of their description and action as an opportunity for the world to make an impression on your reader. These characters are part of your world’s backdrop, and they’re usually under-utilized.
- Let your characters speak their opinions on the world
One of my favorite characterization tools is to describe a character from another character’s perspective. The contrast between a reputation and what someone thinks of themselves can be enlightening. The same goes for the world: two characters never think the same thing, and one character might have a totally different opinion on a place than what comes across in the description. Whenever I’m stuck unloading a lot of important exposition on the reader, I like to end my paragraphs or follow them up with a punchy line from my point of view character so the reader gets not just information, but perspective.
Here’s an example of adding personal perspective:
“Tropps Street was the center of the casino district, and–as far as anyone on the North Side was concerned–the center of the city. Everything shined on Tropps Street: the glint of costume jewelry, the golden teeth of the bouncers’ smiles, the waxy sheen of faux leather, and, of course, the neon reflections in the puddles of rainwater, piss, and emptied liquor cups along the sidewalks.
There was nothing like the casino district. From the moment Levi had arrived in New Reynes, he’d made it his home. Then he’d made it his territory. One day, he would make it his kingdom.”
Whenever I have to introduce a new place or provide a lot of objective description, a line like this at the end helps me bring the reader back around to the character, and it changes the interpretation of the description itself. Tropps Street sounds objectively pretty nasty, but to Levi—to someone in the city—it sounds like a kingdom.
- Pick some signature details
I’m a big fan of giving a character a detail or two that you can use repeatedly. A signature phrase, a food choice, an article of clothing. I try to do the same thing for my world. Color schemes? Of course. A made-up, favorite cocktail? Naturally. A fantastical curse word? F*ck yes! For as many hundreds of creative details you add to your world, remember to always come back to a favorite few to ground the reader.
I hope this advice is helpful! As you can tell, I’m a writer who digs into the nitty-gritty details in order to develop a world. I’m the worst about drawing maps or naming details or essentially knowing anything about my world that isn’t absolutely relevant to the story. Bottom line: keep thinking about your world’s aesthetic and reputation and consider if every new layer you’re adding is further developing or contradicting the character you’re trying to create.