New Writers Ask: What goes into building a world?
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One of the hardest things for some writers to learn is what goes into building a world in enough  detail to engage the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. This is especially important when writing about places that no one alive has actually visited either because they’re obscured by the mists of time or invented. What we tell the reader about locations, settings, and characters contributes to or detracts from the their ability to immerse themselves in our created worlds.

I had a ghostwriting client for an epic historical fantasy who insisted that the opening chapter of his novel be dedicated to the arrival of a main character at a seaport and his subsequent trek to the regional capital by caravan. This, in itself, was problematic as it took pages for the story to actually get started (See, On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Enter Stage Right). But even a leisurely intro can be interesting to read if the details on the page paint a vivid picture and illuminate the world. 

The scene the writer had constructed was written with so little detail that the hero might as well have arrived at his port of call in a pea soup fog. I was tasked with rewriting the scene to make it do more to engage the reader. After consuming some delicious research on the era and the trade routes involved, I rewrote the scene and sent it to my client. 

He objected that this was not the way he envisioned the place at all. In his mind, the port—we’ll call it Wedebi—was basically a bunch of tents on a sandy beach inhabited by anonymous characters needed to unload the ship. There were no docks or wharves; the goods had to be taken from the vessels by small boats and carried perilously to shore.

He wasn’t happy when I suggested this didn’t make sense logistically, logically, or economically. 

First, this was a real place. It was an ancient place and there were no paintings or descriptions of it, but it was like places from the same era we did have descriptions or likenesses of. We had enough information about the place to know that merchants had been using it as a port of call for at least twenty years at the point the story began. This meant there had to be more than a few tents on a sandy beach. In a word Infrastructure.

Why? Because people and infrastructure follow trade. 

There would be a settlement here, a clutter of buildings, storage tents and warehouses of wood or stone for more perishable goods. There would be people to tend those businesses, provision them, and make money from them. There would be camel drivers and camels waiting for commissions to take the goods away inland settlements. There would be workers mobbing the docks for every incoming ship, clamoring to hire on as stevedores or crew. Some of these people would have families. Because people can’t live on fish alone, there would be some crop fields further offshore and possibly flocks of sheep or goats or other food and milk animals … and farmers and shepherds and workers for those, as well.

All these people would need places to live. That means there would be housing, both permanent and temporary. There would be caravansaries or stables, and some sort of inns for the merchants and seamen. There would be a marketplace and public houses that offered food and drink. There might even be a stockade in case of attack. 

Seaports (and river ports) like the one in my client’s story are usually the first places that get developed in this way. A twenty or thirty-year-old seaport must be big enough to support the trade coming through it. At the very least, there would be a tent city with some permanent structures of stone dug into the earth for cold storage of foodstuffs. 

My client, still in love with the idea of a sparse tent city, asked why could we not make that so.

We could, I told him, but the situation would have to be much different. If the seaport, Wedebi, is only a beach full of tents, then it needs to be the head of a new trade route that is not yet well-established or regularly used. But, if that’s the case, how is the territorial capital getting provisioned? Come to think of it, how are the people who live in those tents getting provisioned? Meaning, what do they eat between the arrivals of trading vessels? 

The capital city—let’s call it Ketema—has been that for some time and has a royal palace and temples and marketplaces and businesses. It could not exist in that form without robust trade coming through its most advantageous seaport. This means that trade must have been pouring into the country for several decades to feed the royal coffers and enable people to thrive there. If he wanted Wedebi to be a tent city with a handful of residents, then we’d need to change the capital city significantly or invent an inland trade route to provision it—something that the very real landscape made highly unlikely.

None of those ideas thrilled my client. His vision for Ketema was more important to him than the romance of a tent city. What sealed the deal was the matter of the caravan masters that traders hired to carry their goods inland. Unless those caravan masters had crystal balls or scrying bowls to see when ships were arriving, they would have to be based in Wedebi, waiting for ships to arrive. This is how they make their living, right?

My client was forced to accept the fact that, while there might be a tent suburb, that increased and decreased seasonally, Wedebi itself had to have some permanent infrastructure and a large enough permanent or semi-permanent population to run it.

This is the sort of consistency of detail that distinguishes a light-weight fairy tale from a serious epic fantasy that draws the reader into the world and makes that world seem real.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s mother-of-all-fantasies, he put farmlands and pasturage all around Gondor’s capital city, Minas Tirith. The city had infrastructure, natural resources, etc. My husband’s biggest beef with Peter Jackson’s rendering of the Return of the King was his depiction of Pelenor Fields, where the climactic battle takes place below Minas Tirith. 

In the movie, Jackson made the plain wild and barren (obviously for logistical and budgetary reasons). The minute my husband saw the vista he said, “What do these people eat?” 

This is exactly the sort of question you do not want the reader to ask if you can’t provide an answer. Which is why I propose that world-building starts with questions the writer should ask and answer before they pick up a hammer/pen. For example,

  • How old is this location?
  • Why does it exist and how did it get here? (Bonus points if you describe how it was founded and by whom.)
  • How populous is it?
  • Who lives here and where do they live?
  • What do they eat and where to they get what they eat?
  • Is it a sea or river port? 
  • Is it supported by a farming community that it supports in return? 
  • Is it a regional capital, financial capital, trade center, religious locus?
  • How does trade work here? Is there money or only barter or both? 

The answers to questions like these will help you construct the place and determine what sort of infrastructure it needs, so you can describe it in a way that will make your reader feel like she’s been there.

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New Writers Ask: What goes into building a world? — 4 Comments

    • A character will notice what is appropriate to their needs. A resident notice only what is necessary–a pickpocket will notice more because they are on the run and need hideyholes, a merchant progressing from camel back to deck will notice only the robust trade along the route, and perhaps the need for street sweepers to clear away the muck. A new comer will notice everything.

      The writer needs to know everything so they can embue the landscape with just enough important details to paint the picture for the reader.

      • I’ve just been through this with a client. he sent a girl (in his original draft, 13 or 14) from a very rural forest village into Victorian London. (1) there was no reason for her to go there (other than that the writer wanted to play there) (2) the milieu of Victorian London was less than adequately realised and set largely with almost cliche set scenes that i suspect were taken from illustrations that took thewriter’s fancy and (3) the practicalities of HOW THIS INEXPERIENCED CHILD OF THE COUNTRYSIDE WOULD EVEN SURVIVE IN THIS ZOO for longer than a handful of days without being scooped up to be exploited (in thebest possible scenatio) or simply DEAD…were never spelled out. We don’t know where she stayed, how she got (and replaced) the clothes she wore, what she ate (other than the occasional apple she picturesquely stole from the market). Also, she was SUSPICIOUSLY clean.

        I get the “I love this vision of a world and I want to set a story in it” vibe. But if you do that, you have to do some BASIC homework on it.

        Client and I noodled the work in question. I am not saying it is now perfect. But it is at the very least a LOT more believable.

    • I’m not writing for the character, though. I’m writing for the reader and letting him see the world through the character’s eyes. So, in this case, the character would certainly notice any changes to the port since his last trip. Are there more tents? Fewer? Is he already considering where he’ll have his men pitch his tent? Is there a dock where there wasn’t one? A new building under construction?

      This gives the writer a chance to describe the entire scene in ways that arise out of what the character notices. Maybe he reflects that he hopes the new building isn’t yet another tavern because the town already has three. Or maybe he realizes its a temple and wonders what god or gods it’s home to.

      The point here, is that you want to give your reader a strong sense of place so their efforts to fill in the blanks don’t result in them being blindsided when you do describe something, and force them to backtrack and lose touch with your story and your characters.

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