Tag Archives: world building

Utopia is boring

It’s an interesting aspect of writing that people who likely despise conflict in their own lives create so much conflict in the lives of those we write about. It seems a bit bloodthirsty, really, but think about it. Only one person I’m aware of has ever made a name for himself writing about utopia, and that was Sir Thomas More. Everyone else seems to take an idea that some characters might think is utopia, and then breaks it in some way or shows the reality behind the façade, resulting in what we of late have dubbed “Dystopic Fiction”.

Of course not every story needs an oppressive government enforcing psychotic laws to have conflict. Nor does a story’s protagonist have to have a miserable life they seek to escape. Conflict can come from something as simple as the character wanting their life to change. After all, how many successful children’s movies revolve around “kid’s life is less than perfect, kid meets animal, kid falls in love with animal, kid fights for animal, kid saves and/or gets to keep animal”?

This is pretty basic stuff, right? We create some sort of conflict around which we can build a story.

So why do I have such a hard time with this? How many times have I gone through world-building only to find I’ve created a relatively peaceful world, or one where the conflicts are superficial and are easily worked out? Or even if I do manage to build some conflict into my setting I find my characters are such reasonable, sensible people that the conflict it worked out far too easily.

I guess not all of us are the type to kick over an anthill just to watch the ants get mad, so to speak. Does this mean we’re doomed as writers? I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to train ourselves to introduce conflict.

I’m an avid role-playing gamer. I’ve been playing RPGs for most of my adult life. Oddly enough, I have no difficulty throwing my gaming groups into nasty situations. I enjoy creating narrow escapes and dramatic fights for them. They players enjoy it, too. They want their characters to be heroic, and you can’t be heroic without conflict. The greater the conflict, the more heroic they feel. And the longer they talk fondly about “that one time when we overcame that …”.

This was reinforced for me once again recently. My daughter has discovered RPGs recently, but her gaming group disbanded before she’d had her fill. I agreed to run a campaign for her and her friends, and have been busily creating a world to play in. And I found myself slipping back into my old, bad habits. I’d create one country and make the people there kinda cool. Then I’d create another country and make those people kinda cool. And of course two different people who are so darn cool would never have trouble getting along, right?

But that won’t be fun. I had to rethink my approach and start building in some conflict. And it was precisely those areas where each country was awesome that I found my points of conflict. I have one country that excels at trade. It occurred to me that not everyone is going to like them trying to control all trade, and may fight back. And that in turn is going to lead some of the less scrupulous of those traders to go to extreme measures to discourage competition. Viola! Conflict!

Even in building in adventure hooks for this potential game group I found just a little more effort would make things much more interesting, and by which I mean create conflict. Instead of creating a benevolent patron who sends the group out on quests I twisted him a little to make him secretive and not entirely forthcoming. He’ll send out the group, but he won’t tell them everything he knows–and some of that information could prove fatal. Bang! Conflict! They need this guy, but they can’t entirely trust him.

I’m increasingly convinced from this experience that the lack of conflict in my world building and plot creation could be from a form of laziness. I could create more potential for conflict, but I don’t want to. I need to force myself to look for those reasons why awesome characters might not get along so well. I need to purposely build in opportunities for reasonable people to reach different conclusions from the same information. I need to be willing to “stir the pot’ and make my characters not get along.

Because it’s fun! Utopia is dull!

It’ll take practice. But most good writing habits do.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Bah! Humbug!

Last December I wrote about world-building holidays. This weekend, however, reminded me of an important element to consider in creating holidays and determining your characters’ responses to them: not everyone likes holidays.

Take the Fourth of July in America for example. Most people love the holiday, but not all. It’s hot outside, everywhere you go there are crowds, and then there’s people making enough noise to wake the dead into the wee hours of the morning. People with timid pets spend the night trying to console furry face-huggers. Veterans with PTSD can really struggle.

There are more reasons for a person to dislike certain (or even all) holidays than there are holidays. A traumatic event in their life may have happened on that day. They could be severe introverts or have crowd anxiety. People could behave like jerks on that particular day. They may be against whatever it is being celebrated. They may be impacted in some way that most people are not (take, for example, our retail workers who increasingly have to give up more and more of their Thanksgiving Day, or our emergency response workers who have to deal with the downside of our lighting off enough legal explosives to conquer a medium-sized country).

On the other hand, a character’s reaction to a particular holiday could say more about that character than the holiday itself. Take the most famous of all holiday-haters, Ebenezer Scrooge. It can be another interesting way of showing-instead-of-telling. They may have some added insights or perspective that shows the darker side of the supposedly-beloved celebration (ie. people giving chicks and bunnies for Easter, which then grow up and aren’t cute any more, and get sent to the shelter).  Or perhaps the character’s reaction appears to be irrational (and perhaps is vindicated later), causing everyone else to dislike that character.

In every day life not all holidays are created equal. People love some holidays, tolerate others, and perhaps even despise one or two. People react differently to different holidays. Exploring the “other side” of holidays can help add more reality to your world or expose different aspects of your characters. Taking time to devise not just the holidays but how people respond to them can be a useful tool in a writer’s toolbox.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Happy(?) Holiday!


“It’s the Holiday Season, so whoop-de-doo, and dickory-dock, and don’t forget to hang you your sock!” – Happy Holidays, Andy Williams

Pretty much anyone who has tried their hand at speculative fiction and worked to create a new culture has had to tackle the idea of creating holy days, festivals, or other important observances. Some are more successful than others, as witnessed by the image above of “Life Day” from the Star Wars Christmas Special. It’s not as easy as it sounds to make realistic holidays that aren’t just re-workings of holidays known to our own cultures.

So where do we begin? Well, just because we don’t want to borrow our own culture’s holidays, it doesn’t mean we can’t look at our own holidays for ideas. In most cultures holidays and festivals center around a few standard concepts:

  • Important events: Independence Day, Bastille Day, Cinco De Mayo
  • Important people: Martin Luther King, Jr, The Queen’s Birthday, Presidents Day
  • Important concepts: Thanksgiving, Diwali, April Fools
  • Seasonal events: Midsummer, New Year, harvest festivals
  • Important groups: Mothers Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, ANZAC Day
  • Important rituals: Rite of Spring, Coming of Age Day
  • Important symbols: Mountain Day, Arbor Day

You get the idea. Holidays either grow out of specific religious mythos or from things that are important to that culture.  Agrarian-based cultures will be more closely aligned to the seasonal calendar when creating holidays than a group of people living on space station. People who live in a volcanically active region will likely have festivals or holidays based on appeasing the mountain, or their deliverance therefrom at one point. They may celebrate the various “fire gods” who manifest themselves in geysers, lava flows, steam vents, or mud pots.

The key is to look at the people you are writing about. What is likely to be important to them? What is going to fit into the rhythm of their lives? (Having a one-month festival that falls during spring planting, unless its purpose is planting, is going to kill off your culture)? What fits with their “cultural personality?” (Is their yearly fertility rite a somber or a wild affair?) Who is most central to this celebration? (Is it celebrated among families? Presided over by a priest? Is a festival leader chosen in some way?)

If the holiday is religious-based, how is that religion expressed through this holiday? How does it differ from other holy days? What common elements does it have? What symbolism is involved?

Is there some sort of story related to this holiday? Is that story represented in physical elements of the festival? (ie. firecrackers to celebrate wars, food shaped in a specific shape) Does anyone re-enact the story in any way? Do only specific people get involved, or does the entire community interact somehow?

Though cultural appropriation may be an issue these days, there may be much learned from a general study of holidays and festivals. Look at the purpose of the celebration, the timing of it, any standardized or ritualized elements, what elements are established and set and what are left up to the individual.

As usual, my advice seems to come down to: Dig deeper! Don’t just run with the first idea that comes to mind. Take time to really think about how and why this festival exists. “Because my story calls for it” is a valid reason, certainly, but don’t just grab the nearest real-world analog and repackage it. Readers will quickly get bored or even disgusted with “Space Christmas”, but if you take the time to think it through, flesh it out, and consider how it fits in with the culture you’re building, even some “copied” elements will fit because they clearly fit the  holiday in other ways (just how many holidays include gift-giving of some kind?).

If your culture really holds swords to be important, for example, why wouldn’t there be a Sword Day, in which the lineage of people’s swords are reviewed, displayed, or enacted in some way? Perhaps the sword-makers themselves are the central figures, tracing their lineage from the great original sword-craftsmen. Do the people re-enact famous battles or duels? Do children wage mock battles with practice swords? Does the day end with a live duel or demonstration? Do the owners of the swords form a parade of some kind?

Have fun with it! Let your imagination go wild! Let’s face it, some of our current slate of holidays could come across pretty far-fetched if we weren’t already used to them. I mean, how did we arrive at a religious holiday involving a rabbit that delivers eggs and candy? Or one where kids go from house to house legally extorting goodies from people? And just what the heck is Boxing Day, and why is it not similar to Australia Cup Day?

Just remember, if your holiday is going to be a little weird or outlandish or hard to explain, be sure to “hang a lantern on it” and have characters also ponder the illogic of the occasion. That one tip alone can cover a lot of weirdness!

In the end, your made-up festivals or holidays just have to fit in the larger context and have a sufficient amount of detail around it. Declaring it the Festival of Milk for no apparent reason and having your characters do absolutely nothing to observe it makes little sense, but establishing this region’s economy revolves around dairy production and writing a scene where the characters wander past the town square where a milking competition is taking place may be all you need. There’s certainly no need to kill your pacing by making your characters experience every single detail of holiday observance. Often your knowing (and hinting at) that there’s more you’re not showing will be enough to add weight to your holiday.

So have fun with your holidays! Put some thought into them and both you and your readers will thank you! On the other hand, who’s going to dare tell the Wookies we want our Christmas back?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Backstory to the future

I haven’t been a big fan of world-building and backstory beyond a certain point. But my last novel convinced me I’m not doing enough of it. Even though I thought I’d done enough, I kept hitting places where the world just seemed flat somehow.

So when I started preparation for my latest novel I vowed to spend more time on backstory and world-building. It’s been a struggle, let me tell you. I’m impatient to get on to writing the story already! Besides, I’ve been hearing cautionary tales for years about people who spend so much time creating their world they never actually get around to writing the novel.

But something clicked for me today. I was filling out a little section of the world by writing some quick notes on what weaponry these particular people used. It got to thinking it might be cool to have swords be scarce in this country, but what swords they have tend to be highly valued and with strong lineage. And if, for any reason, a family loses a sword they will go to extreme lengths to get it back, leaving a trail of bodies if necessary.

I was pleased with that. Not a bad little piece of set-dressing, I thought. It certainly adds some color. Then new ideas began to enter my mind. Would people from neighboring lands have an expression based on that, indicating that someone is getting into a lot of trouble? Would they use “like claiming a Sandovar blade” in the same way we talk about “stirring up a hornets nest”? Why not?

Before long a few other ideas also grew out of this one little paragraph, all of which have me increasingly excited about my new world. More importantly, I suspect that these ideas will get my readers more excited about my world, and give the novel a greater air of realism.

Whether it’s world-building or backstory, if you feel your stories might be a little sparse, a little two-dimensional, it might be worth spending more time fleshing out aspects of your setting or characters than you usually do. Add some color in a way that puts your unique fingerprint on things.

If coming up with original backstory is difficult, try the “three rejection” method. Whatever your initial idea or explanation is, don’t just accept it, but toss it and try something new. Then toss that and try something new still. For example, say I have a character who is nervous around strangers. The easiest explanation is that they were bullied as a youth.

Okay, good, but too easy. I would then reject that and try to think of something else, like his mother had a lot of boyfriends that treated him poorly. Better, and certainly gives me more loose ends to develop further from, but can I do better still?

Maybe there’s something about him that he doesn’t like other people to notice. Depending on the genre, this could be anything from bruises left by one of those latest boyfriends to his pupils glowing green at random times, to the fact that he wears makeup to hide a problematic birthmark or camouflage certain facial features.

Any one of those would be more interesting than just being bullied as a youth, and any one of those presents a launching point for even more backstory, should you I choose to go there.

Of course one danger of this is getting stuck down a rabbit hole, ever diverging from the initial idea that got you started and never making it back. Know when enough is enough.

This doesn’t have to only apply to initial novel preparation, either. You can also do this in mid-write if you find a scene or a section or a character getting a little dull. Take a few minutes to step outside the story for a moment and determine where some backstory might help move things forward better.

I’m still not sure I like writing a lot of backstory, but I’m certainly starting to accept that I can and should be doing more than I usually do. Maybe a little more might help you, too!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

World Building: A Slice of Cake

As writer of fantasy I get to do a lot of really cool things. My favorite is coming up with new worlds for my characters to explore.  I can create these worlds to be like our own, or I can do something as fantastical as Dr. Seuss. I believe world building is one of the hardest topics to discuss because there is so much information that goes into creating a new world. Of course I won’t be fitting everything into this guest post, but I’d like to touch on a few key things.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I heard a great analogy for world building from a terrific fantasy writer, Cas Peace, author of the Artesansof Albia Trilogy. She compared world building to making cakes. Because I once worked as a professional cake decorator, I naturally thought this was the greatest idea I had ever heard. Cas shared that like cakes, world building has many layers. They have the inner layers (the stuff we don’t see until we cut into it) and the pretty frosted outside (the things that are seen right away).  Not every cake is made the same way, and neither should our worlds.

I can think of all the different times I made a German chocolate cake. The recipe was always the same. I layered it with the filling and then frosted the outside as I always did. But no matter how I tried, one cake was never identical to the next. There was always a slight variation of chocolate drizzle, or something—always one small change. Our world building should be like this. Take what is familiar, our world for example, and change something small—something so basic you wouldn’t think it would matter, and then see what happens.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the world J.K. Rowling created, she’d change just one thing—in her world, magic existed. That added a whole new layer to the world of Harry Potter. Would the story even have existed without that change? In the Dream Keeper Chronicles, I did something similar as Rowling—I changed one thing—I made Dreams a real place. This changed nothing on the surface of my cake, but it added a whole new layer to my world. What would happen if we changed an event in history, say the extinction of the dinosaurs? How different would our world look then? What about the fall of the Nazis? Or the disbelief in the Greek gods? Changing something small can create endless possibilities.

However you decide to make your world is up to you. All cakes are different, but all use frosting, flour, eggs, and sugar. The fun is what you do with the ingredients. They can be covered in buttercream, which is soft and creamy, or whipped cream which is fluffy.  They could have fondant icing which is smooth like satin, or royal icing which can be hard and textured. There really is no limit to your world. Have fun creating! For another great post on Authentic World Building check out the post Cas Peace share on the Authors’ Think Tank Blog last year: http://wp.me/p2AmV1-bF. Happy Writing!

Mikey Brooks

About Mikey Brooks

Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is an award-winning author of the middle-grade fantasy adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. His other middle-grade books include: The Gates of Atlantis: Battle for Acropolis and The Stone of Valhalla. His picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures, Trouble with Bernie, and Bean’s Dragons. Mikey has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works fulltime as a freelance illustrator, cover designer, and author. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his three daughters and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. As a member of the Emblazoners, he is one of many authors devoted to ‘writing stories on the hearts of children’ (emblazoners.com). You can find more about him and his books at: www.insidemikeysworld.com.

Authentic World Building

world buildingThe topic of World Building is vast and varied, far too complex to cover in a single blog post. Not unless you want to be reading it the entire day, and I’m assuming you don’t! So in this post, I want to pick out two related aspects of the topic and concentrate on them.

How to create an authentic fictional world is a question that exercises every writer of fantasy, as well as writers of other genres, at some point or another. Hardly surprising, you might say, and you would be right. After all, you can create the most wonderfully complex characters and involve them in the most fascinating and compelling plot, but if the world they inhabit doesn’t feel real, it all falls apart.

The thing about world building is that it is part cerebral and part visual. For the cerebral part, the writer has to decide what form this brave new world should take. Will it be completely different, unrecognizable from our own world, with new systems of government and fantastical life forms, or will it be based upon the familiar – some ancient civilization of Earth, say, or a well known region or society?

Whichever a writer chooses, it is vital that he or she can clearly visualize every aspect of this new creation, down to the tiniest detail. This will be trickier if the world is to be something entirely new, but in my opinion having a clear mental image is even more important for such worlds. A world based on the familiar will immediately connect with the images readers already have in their minds, and this will allow them to enter that world and inhabit it through the eyes of the characters without disorientation. Creators of a completely unfamiliar world, however, risk leaving their readers floundering for a few scenes, or maybe even chapters, until they find or learn new reference points. This is where clear visualization really counts.

The good news is that the majority of writers are good at visualization. After all, we create these stories in our heads and put ourselves in the shoes of our characters all the time. For many, writing is a visceral and vicarious process. The problems only start if the writer is not as good at transferring these visions to the page. My own style of writing has often been described as ‘cinematic’. I didn’t design it that way – it’s the natural way I write – but I did my best to bring it out once I realized it was there. The scenes in my head are like images on a TV or cinema screen, and I write what I see. However, I also happen to have a good eye for detail and I like to include some of these smaller details in my writing, even down to the ordinary, everyday aspects of life.

I believe that these smaller details are what help make your fictional world feel real to your readers. It doesn’t matter what type of world you have decided to create, there will still be those humdrum activities common to life forms everywhere. If you can immerse yourself in the society you have created, and can clearly imagine yourself living your daily life there, you should be able to communicate this to your readers.

Some writers meticulously plot out every nuance of their world or society down to the smallest law, tiniest insect, or microscopic plant form, writing pages of reference notes so they don’t forget. There’s nothing wrong with that if it works for you. However, it is not always necessary to be that thorough. If none of your characters has religious beliefs, why worry about creating a religion? If your action takes place within a small part of your world, why worry about whether there are mountain ranges further away? Provided you have a clear visualization of where the action is taking place, you can add further details as or if they become necessary.

So – clear visualization on the part of the creator of the world is vital, but don’t get so caught up in your plot and characters that you lose sight of the everyday aspects of life. To give examples, I often find myself irritated or frustrated by writers (mainly of fantasy, but not always) who forget or ignore things like feeding and caring for the animals their characters ride or use. Many times I have read of characters making unrealistically long journeys on horseback at speed, with no thought on the author’s part as to how far or how long a horse can actually go before it founders or dies. Rarely do you read even the smallest reference to supplies of feed for such beasts. In fact, sometimes there is no mention of the characters themselves carrying their own food, yet the author has them sitting by a roaring campfire each night tucking into rabbit stew that has somehow, magically, appeared.

These, of course, are not tiny details at all, but they are ordinary. I’m not suggesting that writers should devote entire passages to such things, but mentioning them adds depth and authenticity. If you want your readers to identify quickly with your created world and its characters then include, early on, some of the small and ordinary aspects of their lives. Even if your opening scene is full of tension and danger, such details can earth your reader and draw them into your writing. A bit like the saying ‘take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’, you could say, ‘make mention of the small details and your world will take care of itself.’

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn wrote her first book, about a talking grandfather clock, when she was six – and hasn’t stopped writing since. In fact, she can’t “not write,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She hasn’t missed a day of writing in her journal for the past four years!

As a winner in this year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge, Bonnie produced her latest dystopian novel, "Escaping Safety," and is now working on its sequel. She is also close to completing a fantasy romance series, "The Legends of Elldamorae," whose characters have captured her heart and can’t wait to have their stories revealed.

Bonnie’s mantra is, “I write because I believe every story deserves to be told.”

You can learn more about Bonnie, and read her inspirational blog posts, on Where Legends Begin at http://www.bonniegwyn.blogspot.com/

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.