Last night, my pal Pam Bachorz and I were supposed to participate in a chat on worldbuilding at yalitchat.org. Unfotunately, neither Pam nor I are a member of that particular organization. We were confused and thought we were participating in a Twitter chat using the hashtag #yalitchat. Oops.
Anyway, I felt bad that we missed out on the chat and so I thought I’d give anyone who wanted to chat and wasn’t able to the opportunity to try again. So this week on the blog we’ll be doing a worldbuilding Q&A. Go ahead and ask your questions in the comments, and I’ll answer them in the comments. And maybe Pam will come by, too. I don’t know. I haven’t asked her yet.
And to make it extra fun, I thought we could do a giveaway. Everyone who asks a question is entered into a contest to win either a copy of RAMPANT or ASCENDANT (winner’s choice).
Before we start, I thought I’d give a little overview about my personal take on worldbuilding. Worldbuilding, in my mind, is not something that belongs solely to the realm of speculative and paranormal fiction. It’s something that every writer worth his or her salt engages in. Intricacies of setting, of the relationships between characters, of the world they live in — that’s all worldbuilding. If you set your story in an office building and the office manager decrees that Fridays are casual dress days, that’s worldbuilding — you know why? Because then when you have your main character score an interview for a much better job on a Friday afternoon, you have to find a way for her to sneak her suit in so everyone else in jeans doesn’t get suspicious about what shes up to. Which brings me to:
Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #1: There must be rules.
Vampires are allergic to sunlight. People who know how to use The Force can move things with their minds. You can use magic to do anything but bring people back from the dead (this appears to be one of the few rules in the Harry Potter universe). “There can be only one.” I don’t care what the rules are, and I don’t care if the reader knows them all — or any of them. Maybe figuring out the rules is part of the fun of reading. (Wait, I take that back. Tell the reader at least one or more of the rules. Give the poor guy a toehold!) But the writer had better know the rules. Which leads me to…
Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #2: Break the rules only at great peril — and if you have it under control.
The best known examples of doing this the right way are in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy used to explain the rule of its world in the start of every episode: “Into every generation is born a slayer, one girl who has the power to blah blah blah the vampires.” ONE. One Slayer. If Buffy dies, a new slayer is called. That’s the rule. Except, Buffy brilliantly bends that rule, because prophecies are for losers. People don’t die the way they used to, and what’s technically “dead” isn’t permanent in today’s world. So when Buffy briefly drowns at the end of the first season, another slayer is activated. And then there are two, which makes for a LOT of lovely plot twists in seasons two, three, and four, when you see what happens when two very different slayers are at odds with one another.* And then they break the rule all over again in Season 7 when Buffy decides that the whole idea of a bunch of potentials waiting around for a Slayer to die is ridiculous, and gives them ALL Slayer powers, which leads to a big awesome battle at the end of Season 7, and which I’m sure leads to some good plot twists in the comic books — I haven’t read them — but did lead to one very interesting episode of Angel wherein Angel and Spike are forced to battle a crazy and abused Slayer. So yes — that one broke the rules in a good way.
But, you have to lay the groundwork for breaking that rule. You have to have Buffy go, “Let’s cross the streams and see what happens,” (another excellent rule-breaking moment). It has to be important and it has to be game-changing. Otherwise, you’re going to alienate your reader. You’re going to have midichlorians on your hands, or you’re going ot have that random moment where Neo controls the robots in the real world and then NEVER DEAL WITH IT EVER** and your die-hard fans are going to be saying, WTF, George Lucas? WTF, Wachowskis?
So, to reiterate, if you’re going to break the rules, you better know what the rules are, how you plan to break them, and how you plan for that to complete change the game in the world you’ve created. Which leads me to
Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #3: There must be a reason.
Not only must there be rules, there has to be a reason for those rules. It doesn’t have to be a good reason, or a fair reason. (The rules in my killer unicorn world are misogynistic and dangerous, and that’s kind of the point for me.) But there has to be a reason, if only because you must have a reason to mention every thing you mention. There has to be a reason you made them vampires. If not, why aren’t they just men, or elves, or ageless liver-eating mutants who live in air ducts? If there’s a magic wishing well on the princess’s property, she’d better, at some point, do something more than draw water from it. This is not unlike my favorite advice from Chekov about the gun on the wall. There HAS to be a reason. There has to be a reason that you made the choice you did. Sometime in the future, I will be discussing this in great detail. And there must be a reason that your magical element has the rules it does. It doesn’t have to be a good reason. Maybe the vampires in your book are not allergic to garlic, but you wrote that in because you really like the idea of Dracula working in a pizza parlor and taking a nip of the guests who’ve had too much chianti, which, naturally, wouldn’t be possible if they couldn’t deal with garlic. In the movie The Lost Boys, there’s a rule that says there are “half-vampires” who have all the qualities of vampires but don’t become full-fledged until they kill someone, and can be turned back if you find the head vampire and kill him. This is a weird and unusual vampire rule (though not entirely unlike Mina Harker’s experiences in Dracula, where she is freed from her trance only after the death of Dracula), but is very important to the plot, since the main character is one of these half-vamps, and so is his sexy girlfriend.
And here’s an example of how solid worldbuilding can help you in your writing. In an early, early draft of Rampant, (it wasn’t even going to be called Rampant then) I had magical closets. That’s right: magical closets. The characters could stand in front of the closets and think about certain things and when they opened the closet doors, the things they needed would be inside. This had a lot of backlash for them, in that if they stood in front of the closet and thought about how dangerous unicorn hunting was and about all the hunters who came before them who’d probably died for the cause, then opened the door, they’d drown in a pile of bloodstained clothes belonging to old hunters.
This was a Bad Idea. As the worldbuilding for the story solidified, I realized that to keep it under control, I had to limit the rules of the magic in the world to two things: hunters and unicorns. Everything everything everything had to be about the relationship between a hunter and a unicorn. Not clothes or wood, not things magically appearing or disappearing. If I wanted magic in the actual setting, I needed to relate it back to my primary magical constructs: The body and soul of the hunter, the body and soul of the unicorn, and how those two things intersect. Therefore, if I wanted magic, it had to be magic MADE from that mystical connection between hunter and unicorn. If I wanted magic in my nunnery, it had to be because the walls were made of unicorns, and the hunters (and only the hunters) could feel that. But once I had nailed down that this was my primary, inviolate rule, it became pretty clear that the magical closets and their room-of-requirement style voodoo had to go.
Which leads me to my last big rule:
Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #4: The more fantastical the fantastical elements are in your story, the more you have to ground everything else.
This is where I’m especially glad that I use the term “personal.” Your mileage may vary on this, and lord knows there are many beloved stories where this isn’t the case. But as my friend Carrie Ryan says, you get a certain number of gimmes in a book. Use them wisely. If you try to shove too much magic into a story and you fail to ground it in reality with either setting, characters, background info, laws of physics — what have you, people aren’t going to buy it. And gimme points aren’t even. Someone writing a book about vampires has a lot more gimme points left over than I do, writing a book about unicorns. Because people are familiar with vampires — to say “oh, this is a vampire book” might be only one gimme point out of a hundred. For me to say “oh, this is a book about killer unicorns” — people are already skeptical going in. That’s 40 gimme points. I only have sixty left to play with.
So what do you do? You limit the magic. You make the characters oh so much more human and lifelike. You don’t all of a sudden introduce elves or magical closets on top of whatever else you have going on. You make sure that your reader has something safe to retreat to whenever the supernatural element of the story starts to erode their willing suspension of disbelief.
So those are my first few rules. Question away!
* That a new Slayer isn’t called when Buffy dies again at the end of the fifth season always made Sailor Boy and I wonder if the “Slayer Line” isn’t now flowing through Faith — which would make sense because Faith was called after Kendra died, and the “extra Slayer” is really Buffy. But all that was negated in season 7.
** I really REALLY hate the subsequent Matrix films.