World building is just as important to realistic fiction as it is to fantasy and science fiction. Writers must successfully choose what details that will create a plausible world, which the characters will inhabit to effectively suspend the reader’s disbelief in that location. And more importantly, which features will work naturally and harmoniously with the story’s setting, the characters, and time period. By using three easy steps, a fantastical milieu can be built on the page.
1. Choose details that show the rules of this imaginary world.
2. Develop certain language and idioms that are unique to this community.
3. Pick important landscape features that give believable structure to this made-up world.
The laws that govern a society show the nature of the civilization, like rules about social etiquette. It is these very codes that help define a story’s world. In Outside In, Sarah Ellis uses rules to shape family behavior and demonstrate the qualities and traits of the culture. The book’s first rule requires secrecy. Blossom tells Lynne (protagonist), “I’m an Underlander…I’m not allowed to tell you about us. That’s a rule” (51). A next rule is that the family works together. Fossik (Blossom’s adoptive father) says, “…you know it can only work if everybody pulls his weight” (106). Another rule is the complex manner of surviving through the use of “finds’”(60). In order to live, the group spends the day finding food and other necessities of living. “We do not steal. It’s a rule” (87). Furthermore, the finds must be either, “useful or lovely” (88). These rules show this community is honest, co-operative, and pragmatic. In addition, they are reclusive. And crucial to the story-problem, they are illegal. By choosing to make these the founding rules, Ellis successfully creates a secondary, alternative world within the real one. In addition, the rules help the reader understand who the “Underlanders” are, how they live, and what the stakes are in their lives.
Sounds play an important part in building a realistic environment for the story’s characters. Writers can employ a unique way of speaking that is somewhat removed from the mainstream culture. In Outside In, Ellis doesn’t create a new language, inventing words that are hard to say and remember. Instead, she successfully recycles well-know colloquialisms, but adds new meaning to the familiar. The bunker is called the “cottage” (58). Food bought is rephrased to “boughten” (91). And “citizens” refers to people who are part of the mainstream population (51). Ellis chooses to redefine the meaning of existing well-known words to create a world that is recognizable, yet strange to the reader.
The third element a writer can use is their choice of specific objects that give the setting structure and meaning. By using a “bunker” in Outside In, Ellis immediately conveys a concrete, industrial-like structure. A use of a “key code” gives the ambiance of a forbidden place. The pillars and pipes that run overhead add to the overall visual (62). The Underlanders have cardboard furniture (63), which provides the sense that nothing in their life is permanent. The reservoir, a man-made lake, is artificial nature. In addition, to being a structural feature of this world, the reservoir also reflects the essence of the Underlander’s lifestyle. It is a life lived in harmony with nature and man. Yet, their family is not official just as the lake is not truly natural. All of these unique features build a stable foundation for a story location.
World building is more than just describing a setting. It requires recreating a three dimensional world which the reader can believe in regardless of how other-worldly it feels. By creating rules, specific idioms, and adding specific structural details, Ellis gives the setting structure and meaning and also provides clues about the characters who live that world. These same three easy steps to world building are available to every writer.
Happy World Building!