Worlds Can Be So Mean
Hi again! I’m glad to be back with another guest post for this month, and I’d love to talk about one of my favorite elements of writing. World Building.
In general, I’m sure you all have read a lot of posts about this topic already, but how about looking at a different aspect of world building? How can you flip a world that’s already familiar—or one that you’ve already started to build—to make it something totally different from anything a reader has ever experienced?
Before I really get started here, I’d like to mention that, oftentimes, world building is perceived as something exclusive to paranormal authors. I, myself, have built worlds for my Vampire Babylon series, my Bloodlands series, and my upcoming Ghost for Hire series. But writers of historical fiction or, yes, even contemporary fiction need to build strong worlds as well! A strong, appealing world is one thing that keeps readers coming back to your books, especially if you’re writing a series. That’s the reason Faith Hunter has so many return readers! But, when you think about it, great world building is a reason popular authors like Courtney Milan and Marie Force have successful careers, too—because their worlds offer something readers don’t get outside of their favorite writers’ books.
Recently I taught a world building class for the Romance Writers of America, and I’d like to share something I talked about with the class. I used an example from the contemporary TV series Friday Night Lights to show an extremely effective world that offered something a little different from the norm. (If you haven’t seen this incredible show, it’s streamable on Netflix, and I highly recommend it for entertainment’s sake as well as to study.)
As I told the RWA-U class, the show centers on Coach Eric Taylor and his family, Tammy Taylor and their daughter. They live in a fictional town called Dillon, Texas, which includes fairly affluent to middle class citizens as well as a “bad side” of town. The thing about Dillon is that everything centers around high school football.
I pointed out that Dillon, Texas, is actually a character in this show. It is a town that sucks the soul out of its people if they don’t feed its appetites. If you don’t contribute to its communal hunger for football glory, you are useless to Dillon. Everyone there either lives in the past (former state championships) or the future (state championships that will be—and had better be). The present only exists for the six days of the week that lead up to the Friday night game.
How is Dillon different from any other contemporary town in Texas? It’s really an antagonist for many of the main characters. It can be a villain, and often presents a barrier to the happiness and success of the characters we come to love and care about.
I mentioned in the class that every detail the writers give to Dillon raises the stakes of the pilot’s plotline; the viewer becomes ridiculously invested in the characters because of everything that Dillon throws at them. The Dillon Panthers just have to win that week’s game and overcome all the obstacles they find in their way! The coach and the players are surrounded by threatening, stressful details; for instance, the restaurants and businesses all have football related messages on their signs out front (“We know you’re gonna win, Panthers!”) and this is a constant reminder that wins are expected and losses are not tolerated. Also, in front of every player’s house, there’s a sign that identifies which player lives there. Their houses are almost like shrines. There is a radio DJ who seems to be offering a running commentary on the Dillon Panthers 24/7. He shows just how obsessed this town is. The town has its hangouts, including an Applebee’s, where everyone gets in Coach’s face to bug him about how to run his team. You get the feeling that Coach and the players can’t go anywhere to escape—not even the Alamo Freeze or Buddy Gerrity’s used car lot. Reporters are shown on the playing field the week before the big game, interviewing these high school players, who are obviously the town gods. (And you know what can happen to idols…They can fall pretty fast. The interviews make this more than clear.)
All of this is shown very quickly while the pilot episode progresses, and as the stakes are established, the townspeople who emerge from the woodwork are marked as antagonists, too, as if Dillon has literally given birth to them. Or you could say they are like heads of the Hydra.
Although Dillon, Texas, could be Anytown, USA, it differs from so many other small towns because the creators twisted some tropes to make it more memorable. They made Dillon into a soul-stealing machine instead of just a comfy picket-fence haven. They made it an active part of the story, and watching the characters struggle against Dillon is a touching, amazing experience.
It’s probably easy to see how I could take away what I learned from Friday Night Lights and apply it to my own world building. When I first started to brainstorm “Boo World” for my Jensen Murphy, Ghost for Hire series, I hadn’t watched FNL yet, but I did know that I wanted to have certain aspects of the books’ world act as an antagonist for my heroine. First of all, she’s a ghost from the 1980s, so she’s a fish-out-of-water most of the time. But this part of her world isn’t that antagonistic—I left that for a different part. You see, Jensen Murphy was murdered back in the day, and she’s doing her best to find out who killed her so she can “cut her tether” and rest in peace. But there are certain forces in “Boo World” that make this challenging…
One such force is Jensen’s “death spot,” the place where she was murdered. Being at her death spot recharges her, but unfortunately it’s located in a very dark place—Elfin Forest. Unlike the rest of Boo World, where Jensen meets up with some friendly, helpful ghosts who help her learn the ropes of being dead, Elfin Forest is full of malignant entities—some of which follow her out of the woods. You wouldn’t expect a ghost to be afraid of other ghosts, but there are beings in Elfin Forest that creep Jen out, like the White Lady and the Witch of the Woods.
Elfin Forest actually exists in San Diego’s North County, so researching the legends and taking a tour of it helped to build my world. But I needed to flesh out Jensen’s worst fears in that place and make it as much of a character—a frequent “frenemy,” if you will—as possible.
So how can you take the world you already have and make it a sort of character? Can you think of other worlds in other books, movies, or TV shows that are so solidly built that they are basically characters in and of themselves? Which ones?
Chris Marie Green/Crystal Green
The She Code
Chris Marie Green is the author of ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG, the first book in the Jensen Murphy, Ghost for Hire series from Roc, which features a fun-loving spirit from the 80s. She also wrote the urban fantasy Vampire Babylon series from Ace Books
She tries her best to avoid international incidents whenever she takes a break from her first love, writing, and cheats on it with her other true love—traveling. She has alter egos named Christine Cody, who wrote the dark fantasy Bloodlands trilogy, and Crystal Green, who likes to write romance.