creating a fiction worldCreating Your Fiction World

by Marg McAlister


As a reader, what do you expect when you start a novel?

If you're like most people who read fiction, you hope for characters that engage you and a plot that intrigues you. These are the core elements of any novel.

However, it is possible to create a good, solid plot AND to have a sound knowledge of the elements of character creation without really understanding how to make all this work on the page.

You need to be able to add colour and life to your story world. If you don't know how to do this, your plot is just a scaffold, and your characters more like ghosts than living people. 

Writers of science fiction and fantasy usually have a good sense of what is needed to build a believable story world, because they have to INVENT those worlds. They MUST know the social networks, the technology, the terrain, and the magic or science that underpins their fictional world. Writers of historical fiction also need to closely examine and research these things.

Writers of contemporary fiction, however, may write a novel - or  series of novels - while barely giving them a thought. That is a great pity, because an understanding of how to shape your story world could make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.

To illustrate the point, we will use YOUR world as an example. You have just become a character in an imaginary book. Let's explore all the facets of your world.

1. Your body and mind

The shape and condition of your body will determine much of what you can and can't do. People with good looks and a likeable personality usually find that more doors will be open to them than someone who is plain and ill-tempered. If you are fit and well, you can do more than someone who is grossly overweight or constantly ill. Are you in good health, or poor health? What lies behind your current level of health? Also, regardless of your looks and health, we all know that money can open many doors that might otherwise be closed people. Which brings us to...

2. Your socio-economic group or class

Where do you fit in the social strata?  Is life a struggle because you don't have enough money? Do others with money find it easier to get what they want? Are you envious of them? Are you constantly thinking of ways to get more money? Does this affect your general well-being? Are you in danger of losing someone or something that is important to you because of lack of money? Or are you 'poor but happy'? (Remember, we are talking about a fictional character here. However, relating it to your own life will help you to understand why these things are important in your novel.)

3. Your personal history, and where you stand in world history

Your own journey in life so far, and the path others in your family have taken, will have influenced your current situation. What choices have you made? What choices do you regret? Can you identify a turning point at which different choices would have made a huge difference to where you are now? What choices have you made that are good? What choices were not so good? What world events have influenced your journey? (For example: wars, terrorism, global financial crisis, plague, etc etc).

4. Technology

These days, in developed parts of the world, technology has a huge impact on people's lives. Many of today's children take it for granted that they can get out of bed and view television, access the Internet, drive to where they want in a car, and so on. What would happen to these children if they were taken back in time 100 years? What would happen to anyone who relies heavily on technology if this is taken away? How will advances in science, medicine, health, and communication affect your characters? How would YOU adapt if these things were taken away? Where does technology fit into your story world?

5. Your surroundings

You live in a certain place on the planet. You are accustomed to a certain climate. You know your neighbouring suburbs, towns, and cities. You know geographic landmarks - rivers, creeks, beaches, deserts, forests. The weather affects your activities on a daily basis, even if it simply means you have to take an umbrella or wear a warmer coat.

What if a change in circumstances meant that you were forced to survive without any of the infrastructure you take for granted (shops, emergency services, medical services, transport, shelter) - could you manage? When you describe the physical setting, how can you bring it to life? Writers of fantasy are adept at helping readers to see their imaginary worlds - but can you do the same, with a contemporary setting?

6.The Social and Political Structure That Supports You

What system of government do you have - at a local level, at state level, at national level? What if the current leaders were overthrown? Who would step in? Who is in charge? What powers do they have? What powers do YOU have? How would this affect your life? How important is freedom to you? What if you did not have this freedom? Do you have it in you to fight for what you believe to be right? What if women were completely subservient? What if men were completely subservient?

A lot of what is mentioned above would be covered if you created a comprehensive character profile for your main character. However, much of the time, writers neglect to think about the wider world of characters - where they are in relation to the rest of the world and to the society in which they live.

Next time you create your characters' world, think beyond their immediate environment to all the 'outside' influences that could change that world in an instant. Consider, too, that every one of your characters carries their own little 'private world/ around with them - think of it as being a bit like an aura. Now give thought to what happens when two worlds intersect - or collide!

copyright (c) Marg McAlister


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