How Improper World Building Can Kill A Story

How Improper World Building Can Kill A Story

World building is an important part of any story that doesn’t take place in the real world. Whether your setting spans an empire or the space of a single town, it’s important to know the rules that govern the space. We instinctively know how the real world works because we grow up in it and interact with it on a regular basis. Thus we know the basics of stoplights and public transportation. We know how police and government work.

If you’re working with a world where the rules are different, it’s important to make those differences clear so the reader understands the world the characters are interacting with. But it’s also important for writers to understand the differences they’ve sewn into their work so they can make sure their character’s interactions and motivations fit with the world they live in.

If a character’s interactions with their world don’t fit a reader’s understanding of how reality works, they’re probably not going to stick with the story long enough to find out what happens.

Start with the Basics of Survival

I’ve read a lot of world building guides. Ironically, the best starting point is the last thing most writers consider: geography. The layout of an area will dictate how people interact with it. Especially in the earliest period of history when people have only their feet and hands to interact with the land.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever read said to start with water. Early civilizations will be drawn to water because it’s one of the base resources we require for survival. It’s also a key component of developing an agricultural society. Thus, a civilization’s earliest urban centers often border water. Take Rome, for example, one of the most famous and long-lasting ancient cities. It’s located on the banks of the Tiber. Several ancient Egyptian cities stood along the Nile (and made use of its regular flooding for irrigation).

My husband, who is a history major, also made another interesting point; ancient civilizations favored easy light sources. So if you’re working on a completely fictional planet with something like rings, ancient civilizations would favor places where they could more easily see in darkness. This would offer them a distinct advantage to night confrontations.

These might seem like silly little details, but they can be absolutely critical to creating a believably functional fictional society. Because it demonstrates that all societies favor one thing above all others: easy access to particular resources.

Some Things Never Change

Consider a post-apocalyptic story that takes place after our world after has been ravaged by some disaster. Should we follow the same world building rules mentioned above?

The process might be slightly different because large chunks of history have already been worked out. But at the end of the day, the questions you need to answer are the same. How did whatever happened affect the average individual? How were their lives transformed? Where do the basic resources required for survival come from?

Even after the zombie apocalypse, people gotta eat!

If there’s too small a population to provide the needs of urban centers, chances are cities will become ghost towns as people return to the country to start growing their own food. If the land is dying and can’t support regular agriculture, much of people’s focus will center around finding food.

I’ve started talking about reasons I abandon books… Lately, this has been a big one. Worlds that make no sense. Story premises that don’t fit the world they take place in.

The biggest one involved a society where fuel was so valuable the average person wasn’t allowed to have any. When a family came upon some, they wanted to sell it to the black market so they could afford enough food to survive.

Sounds reasonable enough.

Except that they lived on a farm. A farm that was failing to produce food at a greater rate every year. The main character talked about how horrible it would be to move to the city and have to work themselves to death in steel mills and other industrial labor.

But… if the land was dying, where was the city getting food? And if there’s no food, how is money going to make a difference?

World Building Can Enhance Your Plot

One of my favorite post apocalyptic dystopian settings is featured in Mad Max. In this world, people constantly fight over fuel. The first movie’s premise was partially based on the reaction of Australians to the 1973 oil crisis.

In the first movie, it’s less obvious that fuel is at the heart of society. The original Mad Max centers on disparate groups of gangs who fight for supremacy over stretches of highway. You get the distinct feeling that the police are just another of these gangs, struggling to maintain their legitimacy as society erodes. Interestingly enough, fuel is at the center of the conflict. Max even uses it in his ultimate resolution.

It isn’t until the second movie that we see people more directly fighting over fuel and their right to control it. This theme is echoed again in Fury Road, when Furiosa uses fuel to barter passage through the territory of rival gang. It’s also made clear that one of the reasons Immortan Joe is so powerful is that he controls an oil refinery, thus giving him a monopoly on easy mobility.

Does it make sense to focus on fuel in a post apocalyptic society where the land is steadily dying and food is hard to come by?

That depends on the writer’s approach. It’s my opinion that the focus works very well in the Mad Max movies, partly because the connection became clear early on.

Plot Can Reinforce Your World Building

In the Mad Max universe, it’s clear that mobility is key. Most people are nomadic. Max, the title character lives out of his car. Other people gather into various gangs. These gangs carve territory out of the wastes and make use of the resources with them. But they also control travel through them. This is made clear in Fury Road when Max and Furiosa pass through a rival gang’s territory, instantly sparking pursuit.

Immorton Joe controls gas town, which gives him dominance over a wide range of territory. But the only reason he’s able to maintain that dominance is because he has access to something most other people don’t: clean, clear water.

One of the movie’s opening scenes involves Joe activating the waterworks of his citadel to give the common folk access. A massive crowd gathers to partake, but Joe doesn’t allow the water to flow for long. He even warns his citizens to be careful of their addiction to water, lest they suffer for its absence.

Later, when the heroes are trying to decide what to do, one of Joe’s runaway wives further explains, “because he controls the water, he also controls all of us.” Indeed, when Max attempts to flee the citadel, he encounters fields of green growing food aplenty.

Joe controls access to this food and water, granting it only to his favored few. And thus he controls a wide radius of land and its population.

Ultimately, Max and Joe’s runaway wives decide to return to Joe’s stronghold because it already possesses everything they need to survive.

This thread of access to resources flows through every good post apocalyptic book. The Hunger Games offers several other fine examples. Katniss sneaks out of her district to supplement her family’s access to food, despite the consequences of getting caught. One of the reasons she does this is survival, but another is to prevent her and her sister from needing to make use of the raffle that ultimately puts them at greater risk of being chosen to participate in the games.

Later, when Kantiss and Peeta are exposed to society in the capital, they’re offered a pill that allows them to vomit the contents of their stomach so they can simply keep eating. They react with horror since the people of their district rarely have access to enough food. This incident reflects how their society uses food – and access to it – to keep the poorer districts under control.

So it turns out that little details can be absolutely crucial to making a plot make sense – especially if your plot takes place in a world where certain resources are scarce.

The scarce resource need not be food either. Dune is a perfect example of this. Throughout the vast galactic empire, food and its supply is never an issue. Yet the spice – which allows space travel to remain accessible (among other precious benefits) can be cultivated on only one planet. Meaning that he who controls the spice, controls the empire.

So don’t skimp on your world building. Make sure your world’s structure enhances your plot instead of hindering it.

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