What Makes a Compelling Story, Pt. 2

(Part One: Character Development || Part Three: Culture & Economy || Part Four: Tension)

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

So how’s that worldbuilding going?

Unlike the character concepts in part one, you may think this doesn’t apply to you. “Oh, I’m writing in the real world,” is an excuse heard often around the halls of writtendom. But this isn’t correct. Even a modern, magicless YA has world-building, and if you do it wrong, your readers can tell.

If you want your story to feel real – no matter what it’s based on – there are several factors to keep in mind.

1. A sense of history.

2. A sense of geography.

3. A sense of culture (coming in the next post.)

4. A sense of economy (coming in the next post.)

A Sense of History

a. What this DOESN’T mean

I grew up reading Tolkien.

I love Tolkien. The fantasy is spectacular, the simplest visuals are mindblowing (the moment I read “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell,” I was hooked). The characters are great, even if slightly dated. But that world-building… oh, my.

World-building does not mean you have to know everything that happened to every person in every place since year one.

His worlds are INCREDIBLE. He has full histories for every people, every freaking little tribe. He has LANGUAGES. Entire religious systems, down to the last sacrificial detail. His world is almost more detailed than the real one.

For a while, my admiration of Tolkien’s world-building kept me from trying to do the same because I was afraid. I can’t invent languages, yo. Happily, that is not the end of my story:

World-building does not mean you have to know everything that happened to every person in every place since year one.

Some people can do this. Most of us can’t. If you can, more power to you – but don’t think you must know everybody’s full lineage back to year one in order to make it work.

a. What this DOES mean

You do need to be aware of the over-arching history of your world.

The history that created your culture and developed your economy determines the restraints and amenities your character has to contend with.

How free your women are to speak their minds? History. What kind of clothes the men wear, and whether or not they walk around armed? Your history. What kind of spices are available via import thanks to communication with and travel to other countries? Again – history.

History is what made your world what it is today.

It’s not enough to assume “it’s modern day, everyone knows it.” Do you know why you walk around wearing what you do? Do you know why you are safe (or aren’t safe) to walk down the street to the 7-11, if you have one?

You don’t need to explain these things in your story, but you need to understand them. “It just is that way” is never a good response to the question of why. If you know why, your characters will reflect that, and feel more well-rounded.

A Sense of Geography

a. What this DOESN’T mean

Maps upon maps upon maps.

Unless your work is really damn abstract, your characters are dealing with a location.

Maps are awesome. I love maps. One of my own books has a huge map, planet-wide, detailing the specific positions of major cities.

Is this necessary to make a good story? No.

Do you, as the author, need to know where things are and how far it takes to get there? Absolutely yes.

b. What this DOES mean

Unless your work is really damn abstract, your characters are dealing with a location.

Here’s an extreme (and very silly) example of how this can go wrong.

Terra hated the spaceship. So confined, so… tubular. It never seemed to end, connected like pipes in a hamster cage, and no matter how fast she ran, she couldn’t get free.

Jogging in low gravity was hard, but satisfying.

Three circuits of the main tube was nearing her limit. The soldiers didn’t even look at her any more, all of them used to her bid for faux freedom. Every breath strained, sticky with sweat, Terra slowed her run and leaped, gazelle-like in low-G, to the thick, oval window.

Security told her not to do this.

Her parents told her not to do this.

They didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand. They’d been born on-planet, with trees, with water, with wind. She’d never been to Earth. Never known anything but the confines of this ship and its bio-sphere gardens. Desperate for fresh air, she undid the locks and threw the window open.

A panorama of stars only made space seem more empty. She gulped in cold air, daring it to freeze her, daring it to turn the sweat to ice on her skin. She wouldn’t get caught. Not this time.

Not this time.

Screw what security said, what her parents said about the dangers of the Uncolonized Nations. She wouldn’t be trapped here forever. Someday, she’d leave. Someday,  this cold, clean air would be hers forever.

Yeah. That was ridiculous.

Why?

Because space has no freaking air.

That weird detail takes the readers out of the scene. Sure, maybe there’s some sci-fi reason for it, but if there isn’t? It’s a Chekhov’s gun, making it difficult to focus on Terra and her thoughts and feelings, because for crying out loud she was breathing SPACE AIR.

Yes, you need to know what spices are going to be readily available.

The same thing happens when I read about a heroine driving from Philadelphia to New York city in an hour.

Or the summer-time sun setting in Los Angeles at five pm (in summer? At least three hours later).

Or talking about heavy snowfall in London (which they almost never get).

Or talking about Florida as if alligators roam the streets, as common as housecats.

Again, some of you will be crying, “I don’t need to know this, everybody knows where Los Angeles is.” Maybe. But do you know Los Angeles to San Diego is at minimum a two hour trip? Don’t have your characters going from one to the other in twenty minutes. It’s absurd.

Your character might not be thinking deciduous trees do not grow in the desert, but if he comes across some, your reader is going to wonder what the hell is going on.

Let’s take it down to spices again. Yes, you need to know what spices are going to be readily available. If your character is a poor Indian girl living in San Francisco in the turn of the 19th century, then she will not have saffron to put in her food. She’ll miss it, I’m quite sure, but unless her family brought an enormous supply when they came from India, she doesn’t have it. Distance + limited travel options made the import of such things incredibly expensive, if it happened at all.

I’ll reference Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind again. One scene, midway through, has his main character going to a town 70 miles away. He rides a horse. The horse gets tired. He does not get there in an hour and a half.

This may seem like a little thing, but it’s not. If you want your world to feel REAL to your readers, you need to be aware of these things, even if your character is not. Your character might not be thinking deciduous trees do not grow in the desert, but if he comes across some, your reader is going to wonder what the hell is going on.

And I did it again.

This post is getting long. Expect a part two on Worldbuilding tomorrow.

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