There’s nothing better than a book that’s so out of this world that you feel as though you’re in an alternate reality. Coming up for air can be tough–often, those imaginary worlds are ten times more appealing and exciting than our ordinary one. In Grave Mercy, Robin LaFevers’s YA debut (which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment here!), the world she’s created is one populated by killer nuns, set in medieval France. It’s an addictive story. A world in which children are sired by death–like main character Ismae–and are destined to serve an abbey of assassins, killing traitors to the crown without so much as a backward glance? I want to go to there. Below, Robin shares her tips for building a believable world.
As readers, we love to be transported to another place, or time, or reality. But as writers, how do we make that happen?
The secret? It’s in the details.
The hard part: To get to those details, you have to figure out all the big-picture elements of your world first.
If you’re creating an entirely new world or an alternate Earth, then you need to start from scratch. This means thinking about all facets of a society: geography, religion, politics, economics, social values, and technology, to name a few. For example, imagine a culture that springs up in a desert, and how different it would be from one that develops on an island.
If you’re working with a reality that’s only slightly altered from our own, or within a specific historical time period, these elements won’t be as exotic, but they will still be a factor. Renaissance Italy is wildly different from Regency England, which is in turn a very different place from Victorian London. To be able to recreate your chosen world on the pages of your book, you need to do enough research so that you understand all the influences in play during that historical period.
Even in paranormal worlds, where only one or two elements are different from our own, you need to consider how those elements affect all aspects of society. How would the existence of zombies or faeries have altered our history over the centuries? If demons and angels exist in your story world, how has that affected religion? If you’re writing about werewolves, is lycanthropy the result of a virus, disease, or mutation? A curse? Each possibility makes the story unfold in a different way.
It is also important to understand exactly where your fantasy world veers away from our existing, contemporary one. At what point in history did the world take a different turn? With the discovery of vampires? When we learned that the magic of the ancient Egyptians was real? Or when that first fisherman netted himself a real live mermaid?
But! Reading page after page about politics, religious beliefs, or geography can be dry. So whenever possible, show the reader the world through small, unique details and actions that reveal the bigger picture.
Instead of talking about what a huge element religion is in your characters’ daily lives, show the reader by describing how they stop three times a day for prayers. If faeries or werewolves live in your world, perhaps all bullets are made with traces of silver, so people can take down those other species as well as humans. Maybe your heroine sprinkles salt across her threshold every night to be sure ghosts can’t come into her room while she’s sleeping. These little details can bring your world to life in a far more effective way than pages and pages of dry explanation can.
Remember how in third grade we learned that an organism is shaped by its habitat? Building a fictional world basically means creating a habitat for our characters. One of the most important functions of worldbuilding is to create a unique worldview for our characters, which in turn affects how they behave in that world. A character living in a world where angels are known to walk the earth will have very different perceptions, and therefore make different decisions, from one who lives in an angel-less world—just as characters who lived in the Middle Ages will have a completely different worldview from those who lived during the American Revolution. Even the points of reference they use in their speech will be different, such as similes, metaphors, and slang.
Now for the hardest part . . . Only a fraction of all this preparation will actually show up in your story. This can end up feeling like a monumental waste of time, but it’s not. As writers, we need to know all this stuff. Without that depth of knowledge, we will have a hard time convincing the reader that these worlds are real and exist—even if only in our imaginations!