(Pensacola, Florida; Mar. 15, 2022,) – Worldbuilding is an incredible unique opportunity allowing writers to turn fantasy into reality, bring new characters to life, and draw their readers into a land of adventure, excitement, romance, and danger.
Developing your characters’ backstories is important, but it’s not something done in a vacuum of isolation. Those characters will need companies, government offices, and other organizations to act as the stage upon which the story plays out. Creating these fictional—or fictionalized—organizations is part and parcel of worldbuilding.
Writers operating in ‘our own world’ have the easiest time of it because the world pretty much already exists. Using a bit of care to safely navigate copyright and trademark laws, a writer can have an entire novel take place on the stage of the real world. There are plenty of public spaces and institutions you can stage your scenes in, but that only works if you’re working in the ‘real world.’
The world of my Accidental Detective series is largely our world, but I have ‘tweaked it out’ a bit in order to allow myself the space needed for the drama to ensue. Isaac Shepherd and Abraham Gray are both working for the Navy in various capacities (one is active duty, the other a civilian NCIS special agent). This gives me a vast swath of bases and ships on which to set the action, but it also complicates my life a bit since I’m a retired Navy sailor. I have to be very careful that I don’t tread anywhere that might create even the appearance of impropriety. I have to keep this consideration foremost in my mind for both legal reasons and because, as a retired chief petty officer, it’s still my moral responsibility to set a proper example for active duty sailors and fellow veterans.
This requirement led me to subtly alter some real-life commands and create entirely fictional commands from whole cloth. For example, in the Accidental Detective novels Proud Lion and The Norfolk Murders, my fictitious Norfolk NCIS office is located along Naval Station Norfolk’s waterfront in sight of the ships and piers. This is a nice, dramatic location (more dramatic than the real-life office’s location), and it also allowed me to ‘build’ the NCIS building to my specifications while avoiding any conflicts with the real-life NCIS. This is a case of me using a fictionalized version of Naval Station Norfolk and NCIS, but a version that’s most obviously about 90% reality.
Another rule for worldbuilding in the ‘real world’ is to be careful of established institutions. Yes, you can legally set a scene at your local McDonald’s as long as that specific location is not critical to the story. If the scene you create can only happen at McDonald’s, you’re now at risk of a trademark violation because you’re making money off the McDonald’s brand. Conversely, if you set a scene at McDonald’s that could take place anywhere without altering the story, you’re in safe waters unless that scene brings disrepute on the business (this could open you up to a lawsuit for libel). I am not a legal professional, so talk to a reputable lawyer if you’re unsure about your legal standing on an issue!
I get around this problem by having general scenes set in real-life establishments to ‘ground’ the story, but I create fictitious business for the scenes of murder, mayhem, and general carnage. My characters might meet a local café for a conversation, but I’ll only stage a scene of death or destruction in a place I made up. For instance, for Case File 7: The Norfolk Murderer in The Norfolk Murders, I created an fictitious hotel on the Virginia Beach waterfront for the climax to climax in since the story’s climax climaxed with assault, rape, and attempted murder. I was not about to have any major hotel chain coming after me for libel!
Writers who delve into more fantastical worlds avoid this problem, but they obviously have a lot more work ahead of them. Fantasy, alternative history, and science fiction (to name a few genres) all require significant worldbuilding. What would Star Trek be without the development of the Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and even (gasp!) Tribbles? Where would Star Wars have gone without the Jedi, Sith, Millennium Falcon, and X-wing fighters? Babylon 5 would have been a dud without the creation of the Minbari, Shadows, Vorlons, and even the comedy team of Rebo and Zooty!
I’m developing a science fiction project of my own, so I have to create everything from scratch: worlds, races, cultures, languages, governments, etc. This can seem a daunting and impossible task if you look at it all at once. However, just as with a character’s backstory, breaking it down into small parts based on your immediate needs will allow you to tackle it in an orderly fashion.
Let’s say you’re working on a fantasy novel set in a land of magic, dragons, kings, queens, wizards, and incredible creatures (orcs, goblins, elves, mages, etc.). As you develop your plot line and begin writing, take the time to only flesh out those orcs, queens, kings, wizards, and kingdoms relevant to that particular story. Don’t worry about writing out the whole world; focus on your current story.
I can almost guarantee you’ll be surprised by how much backstory you find bubbling up from the depths of your imagination about everything in your world if you don’t try to make it all happen at once. Focusing simply on what you need for the current story will create a foundation bigger than you can imagine. As you write, you’ll find yourself having ideas that flesh out those elements, bringing in color, drama, history, and conflict. As these pop into your head like inebriated gnats, jot them down in whatever manner you find works best for you to record information, then ignore them unless they’re critical to the immediate story. You want to record new ideas and all, but don’t let that subvert your efforts to finish the novel under your fingers.
It’s tempting to want to splash out a whole world full of grand wars and disasters and incredible legends in one fell swoop, but you can easily overwhelm yourself into paralysis this way. Focus on your immediate needs, and you’ll get that immediate book finished quite satisfactorily. During the editing process, then you can start embellishing your world with some of the ideas that came to you during writing. Trust me; only a bare few such indications of a wider mythos within the dialogue of your current book will communicate a rich lore to your audience, whetting their appetite for more.
Although a talent for writing can be a great advantage, writing a story is a skill set that improves only with practice. You might find you bat out a few short stories that don’t see the light of day because you’re not happy with their execution. That’s fine; don’t be discouraged. Even Tom Brady throws way more passes in practice than any of us see during a Buccaneer’s game. Don’t throw those unpublished stories in the trash; hold onto them as part of your reference material. You never know; one of them might end up coming back to you as the foundation for a whole new novel.
This series will conclude in Part 4 as we talk about incorporating the inevitable retcons to character and world backstory in a smooth, orderly manner. This can be tricky, but it can also be highly rewarding as you deepen your mythos. An orderly, systematic approach to fashioning your fictitious universe will enable you to craft amazing new worlds, taking your readers where no one has gone before!
-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/u3Nhi4z7nFA
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