Peter John McLean

World Building (Writing)

I have been working on a novel for about a year and a half, about a character in a slow decline dystopia called Rat Town. It’s tough work. The first draft of the book—as all first drafts should be—was mostly about getting as many of the ideas out of my head and into a manuscript. This meant everything from character motives to overarching economic activity in the book changed, often at random and for no reason, between the beginning and the end. I’m great at ignoring my internal editor and just writing loads of bullshit because I know that it’s the only way to start getting something that I can feasibly manipulate into decent writing, but a lot of people I know have trouble with this so I mention it because it’s an essential element of world building writing and development. If an idea is stupid and it stays in your head, there is far less opportunity for that idea to be developed into something feasible and interesting; alternatively, if every half-ass idiotic idea you have somehow gets shoehorned into a draft, you can look back at the draft, eliminate anything mind numbingly awful, and revise and restructure other ideas. I don’t see any difference between world building and character creation, as both involve creating realistic simulations (or perhaps simulacra) of ideas from the real world.

All characters want to survive and do so based on their experiences; similarly, all slow decline dystopias (I’m not actually aware of a single slow decline dystopia other than my own, but would love to hear about any, so let me know in the comments) require the development of a world that somehow survives, based on how that dystopia knows how to survive. This is of course a really simplified way of describing characters and world building, but the similarities between the two are pretty awesome when discussing how to create worlds.

A world cannot simply be awesome because a writer wants it to be awesome. Creating sprawling empires decorated with majestic statues and blue haired goddesses with six breasts is only reasonable if the empire has some kind of strong economic infrastructure that allowed them to harness natural resources, enslave hard working native people, or magic, or whatever. This is obviously similar to character development, where a gun slinging hard ass loose canon cop who always gets the girl is only realistic if 1. he has a phenomenally hard backstory that somehow explains his skill set and drive and 2. he has some wonderfully debilitating flaw that balances him out. Without character balancing (same as world building) there can’t be any conflict, except external conflict, which means your book is by definition shallow.

So, similarly to the necessary internal conflict of characters, a world needs internal conflict. Any decent dystopian story whether it’s 1Q84 or The Hunger Games or 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale (I am told; full disclosure, I haven’t read this yet) relies upon a conflict within the setting, usually in the form of political upheaval, sometimes in the form of individual protest (1Q84) thus lending itself to a more subtle and internal story (something Murakami has always aimed for).

Back to Rat Town, the slow decline dystopia that I’m developing for my novel. The characters in my story live on the south side of the city, where the violence, poverty, and drug dealing have all culminated to push out whatever police service originally bothered to try and control the area. This is a slow decline, not a fast one, so there is no wall separating the one side from the other, there is no law stating that people born south of a specific street are not allowed the same rights as others. Instead, they simply suffer the constant bias inherent with their locale, ambulances don’t bother to show up when they are shot, calling the police never results in them showing up, and if your address shows you live on the south side of town, it’s unlikely a job will call you back.

This stems from a real internal struggle of the city, as the line between poverty and affluence slowly becomes more visible over time. The city of Rat Town could be compared to a dirty cop who takes money from criminals while tacitly allowing their behavior—was the cop always dirty? Unlikely. It’s more likely that over time he let his ethical lines blur a little at a time and slowly, over decades perhaps, he lost any real moral fibre he once had and figured it was too late, he may as well profit off of his own lack of scruples. This is what I mean by internal conflict being necessary to realistic world building. Awesome civilizations that seem like the perfect setting for your novel are no more realistic than awesome characters who seem like the perfect protagonist. Hell, they may be the perfect protagonist, but perfection doesn’t introduce conflict, and conflict is generally a good thing to include in a book.

I’m not done developing my slow decline city. I’m only on a revised draft of my novel; it will probably be another rewrite and a few more revised drafts before I finally decide it’s officially complete. Based on my own experiences writing I’m sure I’ll never actually feel like the book is done, but I’m disciplined enough (barely) to let it go when I can’t really take it any further.

Still, as I have worked on revising the book, the world revising or world building revising, as I guess you could call it, is a continuous process implicit in the story’s revisions. Characters actually live here. They go to school here and buy drugs here and get shot here and have career aspirations here and get girls pregnant and introduce babies to the world here. They have thoughts and feelings and maybe even ideas for ways they could create futures in this place.

I am new to this world building business and, since my “world” is a slowly declining city, most of my inspiration draws from declining cities in America. I read a lot of books (Code of the Street by Elijah Anderson is one of my favorites) that help me understand aspects that I haven’t lived. Obviously, the old “write what you know” adage can only take you so far, what if you want to write about a society ten bazillions eons in the future? There aren’t many sociology books that deal with those societies, so you’ll have to improvise a lot more.

Personally, the most useful activity for me has been keeping Rat Town with me everywhere I go. When I was riding the El in Chicago recently, I was asking myself about whether or not people would trust public transit in a city area that has declined to extremely overt violence. I determined that people almost never need to leave the direct surroundings in which they exist, and I was later able to confirm this suspicion by reading Off the Books by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, which showed that when public services and jobs crumble, underground opportunities will naturally fill the needs in that locale. Put simply, there aren’t a whole lot of commuters in extreme poverty.

If you have experience world building in novels or short stories or screenplays or anything else, let me know your thoughts in the comments. I never did any serious world building before my current project (my first novel) and I always love to hear from writers with more experience than me.