Category Archives: Library talks

Sneaky World-Building Part 6: The Who

By now, you’ve probably got this whole thing wired. You build the world of your story sneaky by knowing which information is vital to the reader’s casual eye, by limiting how much you whack them with at one time, by keeping the information in a useful, interesting, and compelling context which ideally serves a second purpose (such as adding tension or doubt) at the same time.

Piece of cake.

But if you’re all done spit-taking, I want you to think about one last thing. And if you found this series useful, I’m betting you are likely already doing it. You can’t have achieved this much precision about what to show, when and where, without also having made a decision–perhaps unconsciously–about the character delivering it.

That’s the Who.

THEY Need to Know Too!

It would be not worth mentioning if it weren’t so crucial. The true omniscient third-person voice is a rarity these days (I think it’s one of the hardest): most genre fiction writers realize the tremendous advantages inherent in selecting a more personal point of view. First and second person speak for themselves (Genius! I kill myself), but the sympathetic third person–the one so many tales  are written in today, confronts you with a choice as author. Which of your characters should be the vehicle you use to bring the world to your reader?

The main character will often be the right answer. But always? What about some part of world-building that he or she should stay unaware of, some secret plan of the enemy or a fact that reveals whodunit.  I’ve read plenty of tales where the author changed point of view too often, “head-hopping” through the entire cast as if from a sense of duty, and giving us a two-sentence flash of how everybody’s feeling. Worshiping at the altar of Tell, instead of having one person scan the room and pick up on the signs that give us the same knowledge.

“A strong voice and good storytelling fills the reader with confidence, reassures them that everything has a purpose.”

— Jami Gold

But you can also see the opposite, when one character carries you through some bit of history, thinks about a prophecy or tries to assemble the clues, etc. yet gives the reader that uncomfortable sense that we’ve overstayed our welcome. Why are we here? What sympathy or relevance do these thoughts and feelings have for us at this point? Why is this character thinking about such things right now? That’s when the reader becomes suspicious, breaks the tapestry and spots the camouflage you’ve been erecting.

In other words, picking the wrong character can wreck your attempt to world-build just as surely as putting a phone book of genealogy out there by itself between two sentences of an argument. So don’t do that.

The Ignorant Narrator

One common and effective tactic to handle the Who of world-building is to choose an ignorant narrator. When they don’t know, it can immediately forge a bond of sympathy with the reader. They have a companion now, another character in this little boat piloting the unfriendly sea of your world. They share an important need, and learn (hopefully without realizing it!) about this new place as they voyage together.

Can it be overdone? Oh hell yes. One key for using ignorant narrators is to remember that they are still characters– you need to make them admirable or sympathetic in some way, because nobody wants to be cast adrift with a milksop or a perfect Mary Sue. My favorite example of a famous ignorant narrator is Doctor Watson. He and Holmes head out to the scene of the crime and you just KNOW Watson is going to miss it. Whatever that clue is, the smudge or disarranged paper or something that Holmes stops and looks at a moment, and then declares to be “probably nothing”… ah, THAT is where the action is. But Watson almost never gets it. He sees everything you do– in fact, he sees everything Holmes does– but you can use him as a near-perfect negative barometer. Holmes, of course, says nothing about whodunit until the very end, the stuck-up prig. Watson, when asked, always gives his view and it’s just about exactly wrong. The reader can use that to help deduce what’s more likely to be right, and while you might not catch up to the great detective, feeling superior to his sidekick pushes you further into the story and engages you. Elementary, really, and brilliant. But don’t forget, you LIKE Watson– he’s brave and loyal, domesticated and decent. Nobody marries and lives with Holmes.  It’s a classic example of how to tell, whoops, show the story. With the right character.

Notice you can also flip the script by choosing a villain to narrate. The reader should hate the character, thus gaining a sense of what NOT to root for, and so on. Like Watson, but without the pipe and niceness.

In Exemplum Gratia: Nine Princes in Amber

Our hero awakens in a hospital with his limbs in casts and doesn’t even remember his own name. He feels as if his legs aren’t broken, so he shatters the casts, rather easily beats up the thugly orderlies, and leaves. Corwin is the most classic of the ignorant narrators and a brilliant example of the line between the worlds. Starting out in the ARW, he pursues shady wisps of his memory, all the while displaying clear evidence to the reader–but not to himself–that the default setting for everything is under a caution flag. He’s too strong, he unconsciously behaves in a regal fashion. As Nick Fury so famously said of Loki, “He’s… not from around here.” And we discover this before Corwin does, in a way that presents constant threat, deep uncertainty, and raises our interest in the narrator’s success. I suppose this book gets tagged as a sci-fi/fantasy classic, but like some of my other examples it has elements of several genres (in fact, ALL genres!) blended into it. You don’t have to take in the entire series but the opening book is a bible for world-building done right and the tale just whizzes past. I’m so glad Mr. Zelazny is a time-traveler and came forward to read this series before writing it…

Writing Exercise: The Who

I can’t surprise you anymore by this time. Return to the Writing Exercise- look at that roster you wrote down and try to jot next to each item a name or character type who should be the one to bring it to the reader.  Should it be the main character, or a soul-mate, an authority figure, some kind of facilitator? And should it happen through thoughts (meaning, a sympathetic voice like first person)? Or with speech, or just hinted at in the way their actions are described? Spend a couple minutes trying to populate your list. Who would have these thoughts, based on what they need or desire?

Now, look at the results. You should have a nice list of things vital to include in your tale, a sense of the order to introduce them, an idea about the origins of this information (and maybe even some “raw material” to draw from!) and now a vision of which character will be bringing the news forward. Brava!

You’ve got it now. The reader will have no chance to avoid the world you build for them, in fact, they’ll be eager to know more. Not by learning it! No, your tale was far too interesting and well crafted to have taught them anything. They just saw it, experienced and enjoyed it. They feel a part of it now, and will boast to their friends just like the tourist who went to Bangkok for three days and is now an expert on Thailand, and Buddhism, and Asian food…

All World-Building is Really a Whodunit

{Actually a Whoshowsit!}

I can only hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I did crafting it. I probably sounded way too sure of myself, but I wanted to be encouraging and give you hope about a subject that too many authors despair of. Remember: your judgment must govern the process, and all rules can be broken by those who know why. If you don’t find resonance in what I’ve said, feel free to print out the entire series, wad it up and lob it in the trash. But don’t pretend the Patience Horizon doesn’t exist; don’t light that candle with a flame-thrower. Charm the reader into your lands and they won’t just put up with the build, they’ll run to that horizon and hold it up like Atlas to learn more.

Let me know your experiences and any questions you still may have. There are countless worlds out there, and you are the ARW’s leading expert on at least one of them! Let’s hear from you in your next published tale.

Sneaky World-Building Part 4: The How

I’m outlining a process on how to furtively put a whole new world over on your reader. Don’t tell them we’re doing this, or else they’ll only pay more attention…

The next few steps are so similar in tone I’ve gone back and forth about which order to place them. We’re way past the beginning-middle-end here, and what I’m calling the How might seem to you to be more of the When or Who. Don’t get bogged down in that, just take a look at this and see if it rings a bell in your mind. Use it if it helps you to write and keeps you on the story.

That’s the How.

I think this part can be very hard for the author; it certainly was for me. And if I may say so, the drive to write a lot, the NaNoWriMo on Steroids mentality probably contributes to the issue. Think about volleyball.

World-Building is NOT a Set-Up

So you’re ripping along through a terrific new tale and trying to just get the plot out, that first draft done. At that speed, you tend to see the “spike”, you know? (Athletes call it a “kill” but I didn’t want anyone to take that literally) That fantastic twist, the battle breaking out, the moment of betrayal. You’ve probably got a specific description or line in mind for it- often on first draft I find that the prose at these plot-peaks comes fairly easily. Like the favorite moment in a movie.

But back it up.

In volleyball, the serve comes over from the other side and the pattern is generally Dig, Set, Spike. Think about the newspaper or a sports magazine. Do they often show you the moment of the Dig? Maybe, if she’s laying out to keep the ball off the ground. But not that likely. The Spike, baby, THAT’s what they pay to see. But nobody Digs it up to a Spike on a regular basis.

Where’s the Set?

When you’re writing, I think you often see the Dig (impact of a major development in the plot) and of course the Spike

(the outcome or reaction that drives the plot forward). But trying to get from A to C without passing through B seldom works out well. And you’re drafting in a hurry, you’re on deadline.

But hey look, here’s this bit of world-building! And it’s SORT of related, and you know about it already and you love it, so you drop it in right there and keep going.

WHICH IS FINE. For NaNoWriMo, for a first draft. But do you come back to it and truly study what needs to be there, of that bloc of text you dropped in at light speed to reach your target? World building should be a little bit like the three times players touch the volleyball. Readers are interested enough to hear tugh-pep-SPEZH with lots of movement and running in between. But pure world-building is like a volleyball game where one player catches the ball and holds on. Bad form. Viewers change the channel.

The Fabric of Your World

Some of this advice may seem familiar. I told you not all at once, I urged you to think in terms of a couple of sentences at a time. Don’t feel you have to cover everything, certainly not simultaneously. Don’t lecture the readers, entice them. Here I’m focusing on the manner in which you show them what you’re going to show them. Like the Dig, Set and Spike, the reader feels fine with the world-building of your story when you reveal how clearly it relates to the plot, how it informs the heroes’ character, and perhaps just “touches” on the theme of your tale. When you give them background and detail knitted into what the characters are doing at that moment, or with an obvious connection to what they (or anyone) would be thinking during that time… then, an incredible thing happens.

Patience returns.

Not only will well-structured, relatable world-building not burn the candle or push the sun down as fast, it can even make more wax, and a longer day appear. The reader sees the Dig, Set, Spike and becomes MORE excited about what you’re showing them. It all makes sense, the threads of your story-tapestry begin to emerge as an image like the ones Penelope and Arachne wove into their looms. The reader gets hooked, not just interested but even proud of what they know– a co-owner of the world experience. They can begin to see what it all means now, how it works.

Learn from the ancients. Ulysses’ wife had to delay the ardent suitors by weaving her dower-tapestry by day, then unraveling it each night. The moral of the story is that men who see a hot woman become really stupid. But the suitors are also impatient and ungrateful, like somebody else we know. Weave your draft too fast, keep everything you did the first time, finish too soon, and you could wind up unhappily married to it.

In Exemplum Gratia: A Simple Thing

Kathleen McCleary’s literary fiction novel is an excellent example of the Where as well as the How of world-building. Full disclosure, she is a college classmate of mine and there’s probably no other reason I would ever have read something with no swords, few men, not so much as a punch thrown in anger and worse yet, not a true villain in sight. You won’t see me back in this aisle of the virtual bookstore very often– but I know great world-building when it clubs me over the head.

Remember I said that fiction set in the Alleged Real World actually has a tougher job in some ways. The default setting is not a big problem; so how is the reader going to be shown this escape destination? As the tale opens, the main character is on a ferry boat in Puget Sound with her two children. You gradually and smoothly come to understand:

  • The daughter, about 16, is seething with fury (and Mom is in anguish because she loves the girl so much)
  • The son, around 12 and on the spectrum, is nervous but excited (and Mom needs to manage him through this new adventure, often not a fun time either)
  • Dad, you realize with dawning concern, is not here, but back on the east coast– no divorce, not infidelity or anything like that. But a guy’s gotta’ keep working when his wife decides…
  • That because of her daughter’s one mistake, a party she wasn’t supposed to attend and things could have gone horribly wrong (but didn’t); because of that, their Mom has decided they’re going to spend the foreseeable future on a remote island as far from home as she can flee, away from all potential influences that could ruin her precious children.

And so in the first chapter, as they sail on the ferry and people chat about who is waiting for them, the house they’re renting, and the daughter doesn’t chat about anything because she’s fuming– through all that completely ARW plot development, you see the clear outlines of the world McCleary is building.

In the mother’s mind.

We are so going to have to go in there, and learn about the past through not only her life but those of several people she meets. And it is a laundry-list of all the perils I’ve been warning about: it’s flashback, and info-dumping, and absolutely reams of stuff you have to know about what’s already happened in the distant past (for a ARW plot, I mean- a few decades, but still!). Yet the red flags don’t matter, McCleary sails past them like that ferry boat, because she weaves it into the plot, she reveals it in the words and deeds of her characters, each bit in its proper time, each paragraph focused clearly on what someone is doing and feeling appropriate to the moment.

Kathleen McCleary doesn’t need my recommendation, she’s nationally published and you can see her articles in Parade Magazine and elsewhere. I think it’s important to pull at least one example from the current day and the ranks of our colleagues: as encouragement but also to illustrate the idea of “no option to world-building” I mentioned for fiction authors of any genre. I’m actually not sure if even memoir or autobiography gets a pass from this. The reader will of course find out more about themselves from experiencing your tale: but it must be through the vehicle of escape. Maybe we all find the familiar only through the strange, or something deep like that.

What I want to emphasize here though is how difficult, in many ways, it must be to bring that voyage from strangeness to intimacy without leaving our world behind.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
  — Nathaniel Hawthorne

Easy to say. But remember, Hawthorne lived two hundred years ago. And it’s only “historical romance” to us, now. In his day, Nat was writing essentially literary fiction!

Find the Dig and Set in the way the plot unrolls, and divvy up the world-building to use those threads where they make sense, adding to the tapestry of your tale. You may find the reader forgets all about losing their patience like they originally intended. Do it well and you could even draw readers from outside your tribe.

Of course we still need to clarify this important theme and I’ve got two kissing-cousins of the How to talk about. Check back next time for the Where and Who. And let us know how your world-building journey is going, whether these ideas are helping you build sneaky.