Chris Marie Green –on worlds

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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
www.chrismariegreen.com  
bio:       VB book photo

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.

You can find her at www.chrismariegreen.com or hang out with her online at https://twitter.com/ChrisMarieGreen and http://www.facebook.com/chrismariegreen

Upcoming book:

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18 comments to Chris Marie Green –on worlds

  • My immediate thought when you mention cities that are characters in the story, is Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork of his Discworld series. It is basically Victorian London with Trolls, Dwarfs, Vampires, etc…. I think the city comes to life by showing the city from a resident’s point of view. He really gets down to street level in his descriptions and references. When he speaks of how the River Ankh is so polluted that you could probably walk across it (but that would be a very bad idea for your health), he makes the reader feel like a resident. Even his narrators talk like life-long city dwellers that talk about the city’s bad points with affection and esteem its very few good points with pride. In this colloquial way, Pratchett makes his readers love his city like they love their own real life towns.

  • sagablessed

    Welcome to MW!!
    Excellent post. Takes ‘world-building’ to whole new level for me. I say thank you. New ways to view the worlds I build. So, thank you for the insight!!
    Don’t have much time, but I hope you return for another blog.

  • The Thieves’ World novels.

  • Ken

    HI there Chris! Great post. I’m right in the beginnings of world building while my recently finished WIP is cooling off. In this world, the Earth has been ruined and has started recovering. Your post made me wonder about how Mother Nature currently feels about what’s happened. She’s probably pretty pissed and I should probably work that displeasure in there somewhere.

    And as for other worlds that have become characters? The first the came to mind was Gotham City.

  • CMGreen

    Mark, those books sound really cool! (More for my TBR file now!) You bring up a good point–another effective world building tool is to make the setting different for each character. One person might see Dillon as a soul-eating machine, another might see it as a savior because football takes them out of a miserable life. Using details and symbolism goes a long way in painting a world picture for each character. Good work!

    Thank you, Sagablessed! Great to be back. I’ll be here next week and the week after, too. Next week’s post will be about “the writing life.” ; )

    Good examples, Daniel and Ken. Ken, thank you, and what a *great* idea for your WIP!

  • Nathan Elberg

    How do we apply the concept of setting as character? I guess the first thing would be that it can’t be cardboard; one dimensional. Characters are supposed to grow, to change during the course of a novel. Does that apply to setting? Can the setting be heroic, or evil?

  • The first thing that came to mind when you mentioned setting as a character is the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. There the small southern town really comes to life, and as the novel progresses we see more and more of the town, both the good and the bad.

    This is an interesting new twist for me to think about in world building. Thanks.

  • CMGreen

    Hey, Nathan–you’re right about making a setting more than one-dimensional. If you’re able to watch the pilot (or more) of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS in particular, you’ll see that the culture of Dillon can at times act as the villain. As my friend Jillian Stone says, you can also use physical aspects of the setting. Consider RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK during the basket chase sequence. Indiana Jones is trying to find the heroine, and he knows she’s been stuffed into a basket, which the locals use to transport laundry. He thinks he knows where he is, and just as he’s about to catch up to her basket, he comes upon a square *full* of those baskets. That’s a way for the setting to play an active and antagonistic part in the story, too…

    SiSi, great example. Thank *you*!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hello again and thank you again for another thought-provoking post!

    I think you’ve hit on something that I’ve poorly understood for way too long. The setting/world has always been one of the really big draws for me in terms of which books I find most beloved and one of the reasons I so adore Fantasy and Science fiction. I long to create as awesome a setting as Dune for example, but the settings in my own stories have so far been distressingly flat.

    But setting as a character is great! It’s going to take a lot of mulling, but I’m thinking this idea is not only going to help me bring my worlds to life in my stories, but is also going to help me in creating new worlds that *I* really love. Hmmm. I’m not much one for tacking bits of writing advice to my work-space, but I think this will need to be an exception, as least for a bit so I can get my brain to hang onto it.

  • Nice post, Chris Marie. The other thing I like to keep in mind with my worldbuilding, is that establishing a world is an ongoing process. Even after the “construction” is complete, we still have to reinforce the work we do through imagery, dialog, internal monologue, etc. We worldbuild throughout our writing; that’s part of what makes it so much fun. Great to have you here at MW.

  • Razziecat

    Okay, now you’ve got me looking at the worlds of my favorite books, as well as the settings for my own work, in a way I never have before. One thing I notice right off is that it’s not so much the place itself as the history of it, the people who live (and died) in that place, and all the ways they interact with their home, be it city, country, planet, etc. The energies that flow back and forth create something bigger, something with a life of its own. I can also see that I actually have done this with some of my own writing, but I can surely go back and improve on it. Fascinating! Thank you!

  • quillet

    Light-bulb moment! Thank you for this post, it’s sparking lots of ideas and inspiration for my own world, which is also helping the story. World as character. Love it love it love it!

    I second Ankh-Morpork as a setting/character, and would add Middle-earth. After all, what are fans of Tolkien most likely to hang on their walls? (No, not pictures of Orlando Bloom.) The MAP. And yes (building on what Nathan suggested), Middle-earth grows and changes over time and is profoundly affected by the events that happen within it — especially if you read the histories of the Elder Days.

  • CMGreen

    Hepseba, how cool! I’m so excited that this inspired you. Go for it!

    David, thanks! Glad you brought that up. I hope everyone also keeps a world bible because everything that you’ve already established can be hard to keep track of. : )

    Razziecat, you’re welcome! World building is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s fun to “interview” your world like a character!

    Yay, quillet! More good examples. I have to say that, while I’m writing my books, I keep paper and pen next to me, especially while watching TV. My mind tends to wander when I’m relaxing like that, but it wanders in a productive way, LOL. I’ve closed so many world holes by *not* concentrating on my writing!

  • One of my WIP worlds is set in something similar to the Central Valley and surrounding areas of California, except that I’m basing it on the valley during the late Holocene. Active volcanos, receding ice caps, an unstable weather pattern, extreme tidal activity, etc. The world my people must live in and love is very definitely a major secondary character.

  • CMGreen

    Lyn, I love your world building inspiration!

  • Every story has a world it is placed in. Fantasy and Sci-Fi have it a little tougher in that they create a lot of their world from scratch, but every story gives you a glimpse into something different. Thriller – the spy-world building. Romance – the relationships connecting people. A person has a dog, there are dog bowls in the house, considerations of when to walk the dog, etc.

    World-building is my favorite part of every story and what annoys me most with fails. Recent example is Man of Steel. You are using the real world, at least get day and night correct – if something is happening on the opposite side of the world, and one thing is happening in broad daylight, then the other one should be happening at night. Threw me out of the story and I couldn’t go back. Getting the world right is important; even when using, especially when using, the real world.

    Taking the world-building to the next level – my favorite author is Janet Kagan. Her two books (other than the Star Trek books) were very unique and wondrous worlds integral to the story: Hellspark and Mirable.

  • CMGreen

    Hey, Erin,
    I haven’t seen Man of Steel. I’ve been putting it off because I’ve heard such negative things about it, LOL. Thanks for the rec!

  • Chris, thanks for being here at MW. I really like your take on writing.