Some Thoughts on World Building
Guest Post by JC Andrijeski
What has aided me more than anything, in terms of world building, is my love of history. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) history is so rich already with both inspirational and unusual people, religions, cultures, wars, mass hysterias of whatever kind, social movements, violent uprisings, prophecies, beliefs, languages, customs, mythologies, folk stories and so forth, that it doesn’t take much to look around and pull and stretch and recombine those different elements into new combinations.
Often I find myself doing this with cultures, customs or historical phenomenon that fascinate me for whatever reason anyway. An example of this –– like many people, I’ve always found World War II interesting. Not so much for the battles themselves (although many of those were quite fascinating as well), but more for the peculiarities of the psychological waves that reverberated through Europe during that time, affecting everyone from the children up to the most decorated generals, and everything from racial politics to music, art and architecture. Again, like many others, I find this most sobering, puzzling, tragic and yet illuminating around the collectivity known as Nazi Germany. At this point, it’s not so much the leadership that interests me as the fact that the vast majority of ordinary people were swept along in the tide of that ideology…in most cases, people who otherwise appeared perfectly sane, reasonable and even compassionate to others. The fact that so many could end up not only Nazi sympathizers, but could cry and throw flowers whenever Hitler appeared still strikes me as an almost surreal episode in our collective history.
With the Allie’s War books, I found myself borrowing from all over “real-world” history. There are elements of the Nazis and World War II, of course…but also reflections of the challenges currently faced in Tibet (a people pretty much in the midst of cultural genocide), glimmers of the remnants of the caste system in India, Native America culture and history, Buddhism, more esoteric religious studies I’ve done, odd cultural quirks I’ve come across in India, Poland and other places I’ve spent time. In addition, my educational background appears, probably most notably around American forms of slavery and slave revolts and even slave religions, the Vietnam War, my readings on social movements and the psychology of groups who feel powerless in the face of larger forces, how cults and brainwashing operate, the nascent power struggles and cultural misunderstandings between China and the United States, martial arts training I’ve done, articles I’ve read on bio-engineering and virtual reality…and on and on.
The meat grinder effect, in other words. I actually think part of the key to world building is to know something of the world, or at least to be interested in people around you.
A lot of what ends up in the worlds I build in my books…in fact, the vast majority of this, surprisingly enough…isn’t even really deliberate. Often I don’t even see the real-world parallels until after the words are on the page, and sometimes not even then…sometimes it takes someone else commenting on this or that for me to realize where the germ of an idea originated. I’ve never deliberately put a “message” in any of my books, in terms of my opinion on any of these issues. I just really don’t think that kind of thing belongs in fiction, so I do my best to avoid it.
Of course, it should be fairly obvious to anyone who reads my books that I’m not too keen on slavery or brainwashing by cults…nor am I overly fond of what the Nazis did in Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. But I don’t write with any intent to sell any particular point on these topics, and really, that’s not the point of including a form of history that resonates with some aspect of our own. The point is to make the world feel real. It’s to make it feel as though something I’m describing could really have occurred. To do that, all I really have is what I know of human beings and how I think they might be likely to behave in certain situations. A lot of that ends up being based on historical precedent…either my own, or what I’ve read.
Really, I just want to tell a good story. To that end, I want the worlds I create to breathe and live…meaning, I want them to feel plausible, multi-faceted and dynamic. More than that, I like characters who are caught up in complex cultural contexts that force them to make tough decisions…mainly because most human beings seem to be faced with those same confusing and competing loyalties and decisions in their own lives.
In terms of how to pick and choose from these “real world” incidents, that seems to happen for me pretty organically. There’s that “meat grinder” effect I mentioned…it just seems to occur naturally as I interact with and read about the world. It takes everything I see, experience, or think about, then chews it all up and spits it out in a different combinations, usually in terms of whatever feels right for that particular story or set of characters.
With Allie’s War, since these are much longer and more complex books, and now there are five of them (five and a half, including the prequel novella), often I’ll miss whole aspects of the seer culture or of a character, only to discover later that it’s critical for one or more characters or plot points. Then I need to go back to think about how that element might be incorporated without contradicting what I’ve already written, which can be easy, or really, really tough, depending on what that is.
One thing I do think is important in world building, however, is that you need to think of the whole world, not simply the superficial layers. It’s easy to forget how differently people think when put in a different setting, cultural context…or even physical body. Someone who was raised a slave sees the world very, very differently than someone who grew up in a suburb in California. Someone who grew up in a different religion sees the world differently too…and if you get into longer life spans, different physiology or sexual mores, different marriage rites and breeding cycles…then things really start to get interesting, and often fairly complicated. The other thing to remember is that cultures that come into contact with one another affect one another, and often borrow heavily from one another.
Sometimes it can be just as fun to ask the mundane questions as well…like, what kind of foods a group of people might shun, what little tics or rituals might be peculiar to them, prejudices and misconceptions they might have about other groups, and so on.
All in all, I think the most important thing about world building is to make it fun. Our own world is such an amazing and diverse place…writing fiction is such a grand opportunity to learn more about it, and to ask yourself the tough questions about why people do the things they do. I don’t ever want to be one of those writers who pulls their ideas only off other works of fiction…I want some of what I write to come out of my direct experience with the world and the people in it, too. I think of it as Xerox copies…if you get too far from the original source material, your world can come off as pretty stale or derivative.
But I am only one writer, so of course I wonder…how do other writers create their worlds? What kinds of worlds do the readers who are reading this prefer? Does what I wrote above resonate with you at all, or do you approach this question very differently?
About the author
JC Andrijeski is a bestselling Amazon author who has published novels, novellas, serials and short stories, as well as nonfiction essays and articles. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and webzines, and a children’s story in the illustrated anthology Ogner Stump’s 1,000 Sorrows by Wonderella. She also published a graphic novel set in the world created in her Bridge series. Her nonfiction articles cover subjects from graffiti art, meditation, psychology, journalism and history, and have been published in online literary magazines as well as print venues such as NY Press newspaper and holistic health magazines.
Find JC Andrijeski on:
- Rook by J.C. Andrijeski My rating: 4 of 5 stars J.C. Andrijeski (abshepherdsreinventedreader.blogspot.com)
- Character interview: Revik – “Rook: Allie’s War” (bookbagsandcatnaps.com)
- Guest Post: JC Andrijeski (triciakristufek.com)
- Guest Post by JC Andrijeski (bunnysreview.blogspot.com)