Welcome to the second part of our NaNoWriMo series: The Anatomy of A Novel!
Last time, on this blog, I mentioned that the next step would be to create some characters to play around in our idea and make a story go.
But we’re not ready to do that yet. Before we can get to a character and who he or she is, we need to figure out a little about the world they live in. Culture, technology, religion, politics, sports teams (especially sports teams. If you are an LA Kings fan, you may stop reading this blog now.), can dictate a lot about who we are and how we make our decisions. That informs our characters.
This was the one area I used to be deficient in when planning my books. I found out quickly from the results of my first NaNoWriMo attempt that a fun story set in space with nothing world-wise to differentiate it from anything else ends up being garbage.
It’s harsh words, I know, and my first book IS garbage. It’s not worth reading at this stage. And it’s all because I didn’t treat the universe and world as an important character. This is particularly necessary for the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, as those worlds define a lot of what happens in stories, but it matters for anything else you write too. If you’re writing a Western: what year is it? There’s a lot of difference in the way people act in 1866 or 1875, especially between relations from former North and South soldiers and their families. Are you in Colorado, Texas or California? The way people talk, what people wear and how the scenery looks, even though “Western” is a catch all, you’ll find vast differences if you do some research. Write some of that information down, be mindful of it, and you’ll be well on your way to having a better novel than a lot of people.
But I’m working in Space Opera. So I’ll be creating my own world. I’m cheating a little, in that I’m using a world I created for another book I wrote, but I’ll show you what I did for that. Like any of my other advice, take some of this, see if it works for you, if you find ways to change it for the better, that’s great. This is a general brainstorming process for me, nothing is set in stone and I do more or less depending on the situation. You can change some of the details depending on the sub genre, but take this as an example.
Ask Pertinent Questions About The Setting. For Sci-Fi or fantasy you need to start asking yourself questions. For this particular one, we know we want to write a Space Opera. So first I start with is this normal humans from Earth, or a fantasy species from far far away? I went with normal from Earth so I can have some grounding. The next question I asked is how far in the future is this? I approximated 500 years. Do sentient aliens exist? Yes. What kind of technology exists? Faster than light space travel and communications. For fantasy, you can ask yourself what your world looks like and what level of magic/technology they have. It’s a similar process.
Build A Timeline. I built myself a rough timeline. It may change when I actually get to the book or to revisions, but we all are impacted by big historical events. We remember when 9-11 happened, or when Peyton Manning won his second super bowl. Your characters will remember these events and may have actually been a part of them. You don’t have to write the best prose, just information for you. Writing something down helps you remember it more vividly later. Mine looks a little something like this as a sample:
2150 -The first race to meet the humans were the Tralos, or the “Lizard people” as they were dubbed at the time. Humans were naturally offput by the species , with lizard monsters like Godzilla having occupied the collective consciousness for generations. Protests broke out, militias were formed, but the more powerful governments of humanities of the North American Union, China and Brazil were more saavy, understanding there was a race with high technology to deal with. They opened dialogue, only to discover that these Tralos were mostly docile creatures, in spite of their protruding teeth over their jawline. China, Brazil and The NAU all engaged in a space race to gain those technologies to allow colonization of Mars, various saturnal moons and the asteroid belt. This was assisted by artificial gravity technology and crystal drive FTL technology which were traded for something all three superpowers had an abundance of – Sand.
2175 -The Ottoman Islamic Federation and Russia staged a nuclear attack on one of the Tralos capital ships to attempt to stop this outward expansion and reliance on these beings. They thought because of the docile nature of the Tralos that this sort of attack would simply scare them away judging from their docile behavior to this point, likening the Tralos to the earth iguana in behavioral patterns. They were wrong. The loss of a large wave like occurred at Earth trigged a berserk rage response in the population. The Traliosians wiped out Earth’s fledgling colonies on the Moon and Mars and all of the Asian continent before the collective rage cooled into memory, and the NAU diplomats were able to make concessions to the Tralos in order to alleviate their fear of that happening again. The leadership wave procreated and died, and a new generation took over the leadership of Tralos about this time.
My timeline goes on for 8 pages past this, but you see how the structure of it works. You may not need as much as me, sometimes a couple lines of each event works, but I wanted to be thorough as I wrote this with the intention of setting different novels in various stages of this world’s development.
Detail The Political Factions. And From there, I would develop different political factions or alien species or fantasy races. Just a quick paragraph describing each that should play a part in the world, and how they interact with your main characters. Though my current book will only feature one of them, the characters will be aware of the existence of others and how they’ve been interacted with. For fantasy this example can apply to different empires or city states or whatever is necessary. For me, I focused on figuring out how the aliens evolved and what kind of planet produced them, which changed the way they looked, the way they had what we’d consider powers or abilities and all sorts of things about their culture.
A Second Timeline. From here, I build a second timeline from the perspective of an alien, warring or opposite faction so I can delve into their thoughts a little more. This will inform how I write about them in the future. Remember that even villains think they are doing what’s right for a reason.
Break Down The Culture. You’re going to have a culture for your protagonists. It’s going to be different than now. They’ll have music. They’ll have favorite food and drinks. They’ll worship something or not. They’ll have art. They’ll have games that distract them. There will be reasons for that. If you’re visiting multiple places, multiple species, multiple timelines, whatever, you’ll need to do this a few times. The way your characters interact with all of these will change based on their frame of reference, and the way others interact with them will change based on theirs.
Sound like a lot of work? It is. And though the sections of the last couple are shorter on the blog, they end up taking up most of my time. I want all of this detailed out before I put pen to paper, because if I fail to consider something, it could make me have to rewrite the whole book from scratch, depending. Our goal is to have a good book from the onset, and so that’s how I build a world. Stay tuned, as now we’ll talk about characters in earnest.
If you like my thoughts on worlds, you may like the world I created. I’ll be announcing a book soon that has one that I spent a lot of hours thinking about. Check back in for more updates soon!