When people talk about their favorite books, they often mention that the author created a great world. When creating a world in your book or series – whether it is an alien planet or a small town in Wyoming – everyone knows the big things you have to include. We think about the history of a place and the mythology or religion that informs the belief system there. We know there is a government of some sort, law enforcement, and certain rules that everyone lives by.
Many authors take that further and create interesting food and modes of travel. Chocolate frogs are one of my personal favorites in the Harry Potter series and everyone knows about the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.
Elements like this are important because it gives us a way to connect with the characters and the world. There are things they must do and those things are made easier or harder when we understand the way their world works.
So how do you take it further? How do you create a world that readers want to come back to over and over again?
First, embrace imperfection. Governments aren’t perfect, they are slow and arbitrary and full of bureaucracy. Something all the religions of the world have in common is inconsistency. Certain verses are embraced, while others are ignored. It is easy to fall into the trap of creating a flawless world, but it is difficult to relate to perfection.
This is not specific to large-scale, epic fantasy. You want to keep this in mind when creating your small towns, too. On the one hand, we love the homey and comfortable fantasy of a happy, little town. The reality is that many of them face serious issues, plus it can be difficult for outsiders to feel accepted.
Think about the things that frustrate you in the real world, and use that frustration to make your world a little more real. This doesn’t mean we need a civics lesson in every chapter. Just slip in little asides or an eye roll at the right time to make sure the reader shares that frustration with the characters.
Second, give it some class. We all love the idea of equality, but the reality is that whenever you get more than two people in a room there is some kind of hierarchy at play. Sometimes it is just lizard-brain-survival-instinct. Sometimes it is a personality flaw. Sometimes, it is the uncomfortable reality of a society that doesn’t want to recognize they have a tiered class system.
If you are writing a regency romance, or one of the other historical romance genres, this hierarchy plays out in well-known ways. We have the upstairs-downstairs world of a manor house or an old-money versus new-money tension. But it is important to remember that this world of the haves and the have-nots is not just historical, it plays out every day when one person looks down on the other.
Third, get real about prejudice. It is not fun, but it is real. Prejudice exists in every city and town, so what does that mean to the world you are creating? How do the characters interact with people of a different race, culture, religion, background, economic status, ability, body shape, sexual orientation, or gender expression?
There has been a lot of discussion this month (see here and here ) about the need for greater diversity in publishing and, specifically, in the romance genre. One of the ways we do that is by including diverse characters in our books. By doing so, characters are going to experience and express these prejudices.
Remember, not all prejudice is big and violent. Small, unconscious microaggressions against those who are different carve away at people quietly. Think about how that plays into the overall plot line or how it impacts the relationship between two characters.
Sometimes avoid speaking about the ugliness that is out there because it doesn’t impact us directly. We also worry that we will get it wrong and end up being accidentally offensive. Don't let that stop you. Yes, you want to get it right and to do so will take some research. I have many author friends that have jumped into the research black hole to find out exactly how an 1830s carriage would have been constructed, taken a class in how to wield a medieval broadsword, and looked deep into the symptoms and treatment of PTSD. It is these details that makes fiction feel real for the reader.
Do the same when you want to include a character that has a different experience than your own.If you don't know if you got it right, I would encourage you to seek out sensitivity readers that have a background or experience similar to your character. Start with the forums available from RWA, or seek out experts from organizations or colleges you can trust. Getting it right will take some work, but I know you can do it.
Proceed with caution, not fear. We live in a diverse world, it is important to see that reflected in our fiction.
Add these layers to your world to create an immersive place for your reader to go. Create a world beyond the edges of your story; that is what draws your readers back time and again.
Tell me about the world that you’ve created. Is it a new planet? An apartment building in downtown Chicago? An apartment building on a new planet? Let’s chat about it!