“Anything worth doing, is worth doing right the first time.”
This phrase is as true in writing as it is in life. Anything worth writing and publishing is worth doing right… the first time. That usually translates to one thing in particular: time. Writing and honing a manuscript takes time.
For me, creating a new world from the ground up took about 4 ½ years of inconsistent writing, editing, deleting, and re-writing multiple characters, scenes, and scenarios. I had to find a way for each moment to feel real without skimping on details or doing an “information dump” by over describing something and slowing down the pace of the story.
In order to keep the realism while accurately portraying each theme, scene, or character, I had to answer six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how.
The obvious who are usually your characters, but what about the animals, the plants, the sun/moon? Are there any things that help give a sense to who is inhabiting this world? Who has helped or hurt them to become who they are? Who are the seen entities, unseen entities, companies, groups of people, etc. that make up the background? Who is in “control”? Who are the “others”, the “outsiders”? Who are the living, breathing, people and things that give your world life?
What makes your world tick? What is the problem? What makes it different than anything the reader has ever known, or what makes it seem or feel familiar? What moves the story forward? What holds your characters back? What is their background like? What traditions or societal norms do your characters have to follow or fight? What is the theme or idea your characters have to confront, overcome, or deal with that makes them become something else?
How about the when? Is there a time period your story correlates to? Is it set in the past, happening in the present, or possibly going to happen in the future? What sets this time period apart from the others? When in your characters life does something have to happen to create a conflict or identify a resolution? When do certain things need to happen on a daily basis so your character can just survive? “There is a time and place for everything under the sun”, so when is the time, and when are they in the right place?
Where are these events taking place? Is it a place you can actually visit, or is it familiar enough that the reader can visualize it based on their reality? Is there more than one space these events take place in, if so, where? Directionally, which way are your characters physically moving? Where in their land, village, or house are they leaving and going to? Where is their mindset? Do they know where they are headed? Do they have a clear physical, mental or emotional direction? When they get there, where do they go next?
No matter the who, what, when, or where, it’s the why and how that drive the story. Why are these events taking place at all? Why did your characters chose to do this and not that? Why is that their reaction? Why are their feelings important or not? Why is this where they ended up? Why can they not do this or that? Why can they do this or that? Why is this character made to feel low, while this other character is being raised? The why of each situation or interaction can be one of the hardest to answer. That’s where establishing traditions and societal norms, along with character dynamics, plays a huge role in your story.
Finding how your characters inhabit and interact with the world you’ve created makes the story come to life. The how will give your characters a way to overcome the why of what they are going through, but without determining the who, what, when, where, and why, the how is impossible. This is because the influence of all of these things come together to give each character their individual traits, allowing them to solve the problems you set before them in a unique way. Even how they react to someone else’s solution to their problem can become a vehicle to drive your story forward. Whatever it is, the why and the how are going to go hand in hand and set the pace of life in your world.
You don’t have to answer all of these questions in this order, except the last two, but you do have to answer them all to have a fully realized and successful world for your story to inhabit.
Answering these questions is what takes the most time.
The other side of it is the ability to create whatever world you want, depending on your genre or theme. For a fantasy fiction like Phyrex Rising, I had the ability to do whatever I wanted. If I wanted a castle, I could build a castle, if I wanted it to rain puppies, it would rain puppies. (Thankfully, castles were about a thousand years later than the time period I am shooting for, and I love puppies too much to have them fall from the sky and get hurt!) My point is, if I wanted it to be so in this world I created, that was my characters reality.
To prevent chaos, and bring the story back into focus, I began by brainstorming, writing down every idea I had, then weeding out the ones that didn’t make sense, didn’t fit the story line, or were too hard to incorporate successfully.
This included what pieces and parts of reality I was going to integrate into this fictional storyline. Since this whole venture started from an article about a 2,000+ year old gravesite, I knew I wanted to have as many archeological references as I could find from the daily lives of the villagers to their clothing styles, and even the weapons they had access to. You may be asking, “If you know what time period you’re pulling from, why did you choose to create a whole new world?” That’s a valid question, and one you’ll have to answer too. In truth, I wanted the freedom to do what I wanted to do in the story. I didn’t want to be tied down to having to be historically accurate, especially since archeology can only tell us so much about the past.
What I ended up doing was researching as much as I could and using those pieces of information as the building blocks for creating the foundation of the things I wanted my characters to have. For instance, there is a plant in Ireland called woad. This plant is ground to make blue paint that the ancient Celts would paint their bodies with before they ran half naked into battle. In Phyrex Rising, I have the enemies using this blue body paint, while I created something similar for Valea’s side. My creation is called woda, bitter tasting berries that put out blood red juice when crushed. In my world, they are handy for dyeing, painting and to chewing on to scare their enemies in battle as “blood” drips from their mouth.
It’s these small details, and tiny changes to historical details, that helped the world I was building come alive. More than just traditions or clothes, it was how the characters used those details and interacted with each other that truly “built” the fictious world of Rheng.
The final piece to this puzzle is simply allowing the story to write itself.
As I wrote and edited, rewrote, and reedited, I began to notice that the world I thought I was creating was crafting itself. Once I let the characters and story tell me what it needed, I was able to finally find the real truths I was trying to convey.
When things I wanted to happen in the story came up, I sometimes had to make tough decisions: does this make sense for the story, or do I need to change the story line? Even after my brainstorming sessions, some things just weren’t going to work in this world. Sometimes I could wiggle my way around something that was a bit modern and make it fit, other times, I had to go back to the drawing board. Either way it took time and a TON of editing to make things feel cohesive, like you were catching a moment and watching it happen in real time.
That’s when it really feels like you’ve finally created a world you could truly inhabit. When it flows and feels real to the people reading it. As one of my good friends said after reading it, “It’s like watching a movie in my head.”
If you’ve done your job as a writer, your reader will pick up on those small things subconsciously and make them come to life in their mind, thereby recreating your world. Whether you’re a writer, sculptor, painter, musician, or any other type of artist out there, that is our universal goal: to move people and make our art come to life for them.
Now it’s your turn to be the creator… If you crafted your own world, what would it look like, smell like, feel like? Describe it in the comments below!