Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Mary Sutton, whose YA fantasy debut chapter book I edited for Delabarre Publishing. As a software technical writer, Mary has been making her living with words for over almost 20 years. Power Play is her first published fiction work. She is a member of Pennwriters and is the incoming secretary for her local chapter of Sisters in Crime. Find her online at marysuttonauthor.com. Here are her thoughts on world-building:
The Importance of World-building
by Mary Sutton
One of the most important things in fiction is that activity known as “world-building.” Most people associate this with fantasy fiction, but you have to do it no matter what kind of fiction you write. “World-building” is where you draw the world in which your characters live. This world can be completely fictional or set in the “real world.”
World-building is a tricky exercise. If you use the real world, as in your story is set in New York, you have to get the details right. This is anything from the names of any famous streets or buildings, to basic geography and history of the locale, to the “feel” of the world. For example, New York is a busy place. People talk fast, walk fast, and drive fast (well, when they aren’t stuck in traffic). It would not be believable if you wrote a story where the “city that never sleeps,” slept.
Fantasy worlds have their own challenges. A lot of people think fantasy and science fiction give the author free rein to make up whatever she wants. Well, that’s sort of true. Your world still has to make “sense,” it has to have a certain degree of believability. You may decide to create a science fiction world that is devoid of gravity, but you better spend some time thinking through things as simple as “how do objects stay in one place” or “how do people go to the bathroom” or your readers, who do have certain expectations of basic physics, aren’t going to find your story “believable make-believe.”
For Hero’s Sword, I had to create two worlds. First, I had to create the “real-life” world of middle school. Fortunately, a lot of things haven’t changed since I was in eighth grade, some thirty-odd years ago. There are still cliques; still the kids on the “outside,” and kids still have those seemingly impossible crushes. I was also fortunate in that I have a first-hand view into today’s middle school through my kids. So it wasn’t hard to build Jaycee’s school world. Between memories and observation I got a very good feel for what I was trying to do.
Slightly more challenging was making sure my characters felt like they belonged to this world. The vocabulary and speech of the characters that inhabited that middle-school world had to be right. It’s been a long time since I thought or spoke like a thirteen-year old, but again I was fortunate enough to be able to observe my kids and their friends.
For the fictional world of Hero’s Sword and Mallory, I had a bit more freedom. After all, this was the world of a video game, so I had lots of options. I could have gone all out with magic, dragons, elves, and wizards – all the trappings of high fantasy. But that’s not really where I wanted to go.
Instead, I wanted more of a medieval “real world” feel. Sure, there’s a certain amount of fantasy. After all, Jaycee is transported into a video game and that’s pretty fantastic.
But I didn’t want to get involved with inventing a new set of rules – or explaining them. It would be far easier to simply base the world of the game on some basic tenets of history, including feudalism, over lords (the “Empire”), petty wars between feudal lords (barons, or in my case, estate owners).
This freed me of the need to develop my own complex set of “standard operating procedures” for my world. Anybody who has ever played a game based on feudal principles would understand the rules of the road. But since my game world is fictional, I was able to build the relationships between Empire, estates, lords, and commoners pretty much how I wanted to – such as simultaneously allowing a woman to rule and having her people not completely approve of that because of a long history of male rulers.
Once I got into the groove, I really enjoyed my fictional world. Since so much of what I write is crime fiction that is very much based on fact (face it, there are certain things a police officer just cannot do), this was an extremely fun and liberating exercise.
I really enjoyed the world of Mallory and I hope I get to spend a lot more time there. And I hope you did to.
So tell me – what is the one thing you need in a fictional world to make it believable?
by Mary Sutton
All Jaycee Hiller wants to do is survive eighth grade. Mostly that means hanging with her friend, Stu, avoiding the cheerleading squad, secretly crushing on Nate Fletcher, and playing her favorite video game, Hero’s Sword. When she receives a new video game controller, Jaycee finds herself magically transported into the Hero’s Sword video game world. Survival takes on a whole new meaning. No longer battling with a plastic joystick, Jaycee picks up a real sword and bow & arrow and readies herself for battle. Can she save Lady Starla’s rule in Mallory, keep herself in one piece, and maybe even learn something about surviving middle school?
Recently I’ve been copyediting The Very Best Book Of Baby Names by Barbara Kay Turner, and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about naming characters. Character naming is an important consideration for many reasons. One, you want memorable names which stick with readers for a long time. Two, you want names that are decipherable by readers’ minds i.e. names they can sound out mentally somehow. Three, you want names that make sense in the culture and world and follow some sort of decipherable pattern or at least seem to fit together as classes based on people groups, etc. Four, names can have symbolic meanings which play a role in defining characters. Sometimes the formality or informality of it is important. A character who calls another by a nickname is assume to have a closer relationship with that character than another person who uses the formal name. I’m sure I could list other considerations.
I’ve posted on naming considerations before in Write Tips here, but what a great resources this naming book has turned out to be. I highly recommend the purchase of it or one like it by all authors. Delabarre Publishing is coming out with an ebook version of Turner’s book very soon, for example.
The beauty of books like this is that they examine names based on a number of helpful factors: genetic appropriateness, tradition, popularity, cultural origins, spellings, usages, etc. They dig into how names are created and used and all sorts of considerations which many authors might not even consider in choosing names. Names can be a way to say a whole lot with very few letters: about your character, your world, etc. There’s so much to think about when writing a book. Some authors spend years considering every little detail, others make decisions quickly and move on to the work of prose. There’s no wrong or right if it works in the end, but internalizing some of this information can add depth to your choices and weapons to your arsenal which will improve your writing and the reading experience for readers of your work.
Here are some examples of charts which could be useful from Turner’s book:
Traditional Boys’ Names (Western world)
Alan, Allen, Albert
Brian, Bryan <—- For some reason, I’m really attached to this one
Craig, Greg, Gregory
Edgar, Edward, Edwin
Traditional Girls’ Names (Western world)
Alice, Alison, Allison
Andrea, Ann, Anna, Anne
Lara, Lora, Laura, Lauren
Marie, Maria, Mary
Teresa, Therese, Theresa
Okay, those are pretty standard for those of us in the Western World, but they are recognizable and probably frequently jump to mind. What if you want something more exotic or a better mix? How about international names with variant spellings? Some were included on the above list and some were not:
I hope this is helpful. Love to hear suggestions in the comments below. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.