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Cunning Linguist: Let’s Talk World Building

Everyone, I think, who’s ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard in pursuit of sharing a story they’ve created has encountered a problem I call “Gelida Mundi.”

No, it’s not a new frozen treat from Häagen-Dazs (although I would totally buy something with this name. GET ON IT, FAKE DANES!).

The thorny issue of Gelida Mundi (“Frozen World,” for those of you who declined* to take Latin and instead spent all your time making friends and being cool) centers on the fact that while so many fiction writers have entire worlds, if not universes, inside their well-shaped noggins, translating said world onto the page or screen and making it real for readers can be kind of an ordeal. That’s where world building comes in. By adding all sorts of interesting, relevant, and intriguing tidbits to the framework of your story, you can create a world in which your readers can’t wait to lose themselves.

Whether you’re aiming to be the next Tolkien**, or are a hard-boiled scribbler in the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler vein, it’s important to find a way to defrost your world and liquefy it so it can flow smoothly from your brain-grapes to the glasses of your readership.

Mmm-MMM! That’s good world.

Say Hello to My Little Universe

World building can, and should, involve the main narrative in your story, or film, or movie script, but I’ve found that the stuff that really gets your readers fired up and asking questions involves the “lore” or (as my Warhammer 40K-loving friend Nick calls it, “fluff“) of the world you’ve created. I’m talking about the little details that breathe life into the universe where your alien avengers or doughty knights or sneaky assassins are doing their collective thang.

Tad Williams does an excellent job with world building. Do we NEED to know the names for the days of the week, or the precise difficulties of the Sithi language encountered by those who aren’t members of that storied race? Do we need a glossary of terms, people, and places, packed with tantalizing allusions to a more complex narrative in which the book we’re reading is but a handful of threads?

You bet your sweet bippy we do.

Call it lore, fluff, apocrypha, whatever—your story needs a world to inhabit, to give it room to breathe and allow your readers greater leeway when filling in spaces and connecting dots as they navigate the course you’ve plotted for them. Your readers are experiencing your story through the senses of your characters, and in order to truly lose themselves within your narrative, they need not only sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations, but a well-developed understanding of the world and its rules.

This understanding comes from the intersection of character knowledge and reader knowledge. If your space bandit discovers that the ancient Venusians are planning an invasion on a certain date, you want your readers to be just as concerned as she is about the invasion AND the importance of the date (e.g., the high holiday of T’hra al Mani, when the entire city will be distracted by ceremonies and, under an age-old blood oath, unarmed as a gesture of peace).

If your story is the jewel, then your lore is the setting. The former is valuable and beautiful on its own, but really shines with solid, gorgeous support from the latter.

World building can also take on a life of its own. I recently stumbled across a collective creative endeavor known as the SCP Foundation, and found myself utterly captivated. What happens when writers from all over the globe decide to create a shared narrative space documenting an alternate universe full of strange anomalies and the monolithic foundation seeking to Secure, Protect, and Contain them?

In a nutshell, you get a site chockablock with stories, sidebars, forums, and scientific studies and reports documenting some of the most terrifying, confusing, and hilarious bits of weirdness ever created by humans. Why does this coffee machine dispense whatever it’s asked for (within reason)? Why IS SCP-682 so damned indestructible? And does Joan Osborne have a personal relationship with SCP-343?

It’s not a book or a movie or a show, but the SCP Foundation is a sterling example of how effective world building can create an irresistible and addictive experience through narrative.

Warning: SCPs are like Pringles. Once you pop, you may not be able to stop. I’m still working my way through Series I, savoring each bit of weirdness and its associated lore.

It should be mentioned that not everyone is a fan of world building. There are also people in this world who are not fans of, say, delicious enchiladas, or Marie-Claude Bourbonnais.

These people are to be pitied. At length. Perhaps in a fable or song that adds a shade of color and mythological import to your story.

Because we’re creating worlds, not writing technical manuals. Unless technical manuals are your thing—in which case, go nuts, grouchy.

World Building 101

I do a lot of world building, both for work I publish under my own name, and the spicier stuff I write under a nom de plume. Having published multiple books under the latter, I’ve discovered that, for fans of erotica as much as any other genre, people want to know the nitty-gritty details about the worlds they love.

A few tricks of my personal trade include:

  • Creating Lore and Stories via Social Media. My erotica fans know me best through my Twitter and Tumblr pages, where I share short stories, captions, photomanipulations, and in-world documentation (such as newspaper stories, press releases, scientific reports, etc.) created specifically for the universe where my stories take place. I post often, and I post a variety of content that’s designed to both give a peek into the world of the books and encourage people to check out the books themselves for more, more, more.
  • Inviting Readers to Collaborate. In addition to my own posts, I welcome submissions and collaborations from fans. I answer questions of all kinds, from specific details about a character’s history to more mundane topics like the role of government oversight in my world. I also welcome readers to send in their suggestions and requests; while I can’t answer or honor every one, these messages help me understand what my readers want to see, as well as areas I might not be developing well enough in my books.

    You’d be surprised at just how many people want exhaustive specifics on immigration law, international relations, and gender roles in a series of books ostensibly written to titillate.
  • Harnessing the Power of Multimedia Lore. As I noted above, I create all sorts of content for my little universe—and so do my readers. Images, stories, captions, animations; I even had one reader submit a short, amateur film based in my universe, asking for critique. I’ve received logos for fictional companies, promotional fliers for government programs, and countless requests and suggestions for celebrities who might best provide “inspiration” for my next book. I do my best to respond to all of them and share the works offered for public consumption by their creators. Taken together, my efforts, and the efforts of my fans and followers, create a living, breathing universe next door that is so real I’ve had people write to me for reassurance that certain events are not actually happening here in our own.

    (I don’t know whether to be flattered or frightened by that, to be honest.)

YMMV, of course, but I do believe that connecting with my fan base and making them part of the story (as it were) has helped build my audience and keep demand growing for my work. So don’t be afraid to get fluffy and add some flair to your sash of scribbling.

As writers, we spend so much time crafting our stories that we can forget our special little trees exist within a vast forest. Taking the time to flesh out the worlds in which our characters live, breathe, struggle, and succeed can make sharing their journey a truly rewarding one for readers.

Do you have a go-to tip for world building? Got a favorite author whose world is your second home? Let me know in the comments!

*See, it’s a linguistics pun, because you DECLINED. Look, this joke kills with the three people who allow me to make such terrible jokes, okay?
**Please stop if you are. I beg you. We can’t take any more trilogies with titles like “THE DARK PONTIFEX CYCLE” or “EL’A’H’A’aa-aan’s Rubles of Secret Fire.” We can’t.

Published inCunning Linguist

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