Guest Post: World Building

Today it is my great pleasure to introduce you to Lorin Oberweger. Lorin is going to be hosting a YA & MG Workshop soon, and wanted to give you all a sample of some of her knowledge. You can find out more about the workshop in her bio below. Now, without further ado...


You’ve seen them before:

The pseudo-medieval world complete with rustic taverns and sword-wielding thugs; the desolate post-apocalyptic world where rugged survivors fight among the ruins of fallen civilizations; the white and sterile world of the generation spaceship, sailing through blackest space.

You’ve seen them; I’ve seen them; and gate-keeping editors and agents have seen A LOT of them.

As writers, it’s not always the case that we write what we KNOW but that we write what we’ve READ. And seen on television and in movies.

Most lovers of fantasy have spent happy hours in the kind of world originated by Tolkien and others of his ilk: a world of ox-carts and flagons of mead, of battle-axes, horses, and torches to light the hero or heroine’s way. Name the genre, and any of us could rattle off its common world-building tropes. And many of us don’t push ourselves to stray past those familiar—and comfortable—conventions.

My question: why not? Instead of a typical medieval, dystopian, or even a typical contemporary world, why can’t your novel’s physical landscape be something else entirely?

Often, I’ll challenge people to play with the most ridiculous ideas they can imagine: a world made of toast, an upside down world, a world made of ice or one that exists in the spot on a butterfly’s wing. A world where people live underwater or up in trees?

How about a world that exists as a flat disc, balanced on the backs of four elephants, which stand atop a giant turtle? Or a world that exists within the threads of an heirloom rug?

Crazy, right? But two authors--Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Clive Barker (Weaveworld)--might argue otherwise. They pushed themselves to dream deeper, to create something singular and idiosyncratic and then to create plausible worlds and social orders within these fantastic realms.

The best writers challenge their assumptions—about genre, about setting, about “typical” human behavior or stereotypes. They challenge themselves to create rich and powerful language that is at least a little different from the language employed by other writers. They unleash their specific and powerful perspectives upon the page. So why not do this for the world of your stories?

It’s easier, of course, to do what’s been done. A pseudo-medieval fantasy world works for so many reasons. It makes it more plausible that journeys can take a very long time, that people need to wield knives and swords rather than just blasting each other with guns. A spaceship is probably going to look a certain way to maximize its efficiency. A contemporary high school in California is probably going to reflect what we know of contemporary high schools.

Creating something truly different on the page requires a much deeper plan for the novel as a whole. The physics of an ice world are different from the physics of a typical medieval earth. Traveling, eating, social relationships—all will be very different in a world that takes place in the trees than in a slightly futuristic version of our own. The conflicts that will emerge from these settings are different from the conflicts that will emerge from worlds more like our own.

Of course, to quote Tom Hanks in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, “It’s the hard that makes it great!” Pushing yourself to dig in deeper, to let your imagination really soar, to examine the expectations of a world—fantasy or realistic—and find ways to subvert those expectations, is difficult and time-consuming, but it can also pay off by setting your story and your world apart from the thousands of submissions plopping into an agent’s inbox on a daily basis.

And more importantly, it can give readers something absolutely new and fresh, if only an unexpected twist on the overly familiar.  It can light them up inside, give them a fresh way of looking at their own lives and their own hearts, and isn’t that what the best novels do?

So, I’ll leave you with these questions (and would love to see your answers in comments if you’d like to chime in!):

What authors’ worlds really live in your imagination, and why?

What’s different about the world YOU’RE creating?

How does your world impact your protagonist’s journey in the story?

How does it contribute to your story’s conflicts?

What three things can you do to take your world from the expected to the unexpected, to surprise or delight the reader in some small—or large way?

Are you willing to do it?

 LORIN OBERWEGER is a highly sought-after independent book editor and ghostwriter with almost twenty-five years experience in publishing. Her company, Free Expressions, offers writing seminars nationwide with literary agent Donald Maass and others, including the upcoming Your Best Book workshop for YA and MG writers.

Her students and clients have millions of books in print and have been published by imprints of HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Scholastic, and other mainstream and independent presses. They have also gained representation with some of the industry’s leading literary agents.

Lorin is represented by Tracey Adams at Adams Literary.


Andrea Mack said...

This is a great post that makes me thinking deeper about the story worlds I'm creating. Thank you!

Andrea Mack said...

Think, not thinking. [This is what comes of getting up too early to read blog posts!]

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great things to consider in world building. The questions at the end are really helpful. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Lorin. As an avid reader of sci-fi/fantasy, I'm almost instantly turned off when I see the standard sword-wielding character on the cover of a book. I like swords, but I think my subconscious kicks in and convinces me that if the cover is typical, and the world is typical, then the story will be typical.

I also realize that creating a new world is easier said than done.

So, my answers to your questions:

The world of THE NIGHT CIRCUS still lives in my head, and I'm not even a fan of circuses. That place sounds so freaking cool.

The two biggest differences about the world I'm creating (contemporary America) are that magick still has the ability to exist and, eventually, God dies. The aftermath of those two things are what really shape my world.

My protagonist's journey isn't so much impacted by her world as much as it's the other way around. She causes all the hullabaloo and so has to deal with the consequences of her actions. What was uncorked cannot be re-corked.

I'm willing to do whatever it takes--help me, baby Jesus--to make my world so interesting that readers just have to live there for 400 pages or so.

Wish me luck.

Lolo said...

Thanks so much for the responses, Julia, Natalie, and Andrea! And yes, best of luck to everyone in bringing their fictive worlds to life. It's a tall order, I know!

I also wanted to make the point that there's absolutely NOTHING intrinsically wrong with the more commonplace worlds we see in different genres. I have several clients who'd had amazing successes with dystopian worlds, contemporary domestic worlds, etc.

But I will say that all of them pushed those typical conventions to new places--either by introducing a new element into the typical social structure, into the environment, or into the ways people interact with those worlds. So, those conventions can still be really successfully mined if writers are ambitious in how they approach them!

Rick Bylina said...

Some excellent questions that I've lifted for my "writing stuff" file for when I write THAT story. Unfortunately, I'm still trapped on Earth and real life.

Kimberly Frost said...

I love this post! Eloquent and wonderful as always, LoLo!

I think the most world-building I've done to date has been in my Etherlin series. Imagining an alternate history and what form that might take really challenged me to consider how the stressors such as disease and war (and supernatural events) change our cultural personality.

Brin said...

I think this is a wonderful and thought-provoking post. So easy to play it safe and default to the known. Very timely for me. Thank you!

TerryLynnJohnson said...

such great advice. Lorin is awesome! I love that quote - the hard makes it great.