Giving Depth to a Fictional World

I’m at that point in my writing where the initial thrill of an escalating word count has begun to taper off and I’m starting to think more seriously about what it takes to give depth to the world I’m creating: how to make something fictional seem real.

Map 003

The Map provided in the Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy

  • Making a Map

I haven’t actually done this for my latest story yet, but I’ve done it with others in the past and I find that it gives me more options, as an author, when I’m trying to describe a journey more believably. It also seems to have worked for Tolkien, LeGuin, and McKillip, among others.

Sometimes we may never even encounter a location we put on our map during the course of our story. But we’ll never be at a loss as to where we can go next! Have you ever tried describing where you live to someone?

“I live in North Bend.”

“Oh? Where’s that?”

“Uhm. It’s north. And there’s an ocean to the west. And there’s some plains way to the east but I don’t really know what’s beyond that. And there’s probably something even more north of here but. I’m not sure yet.”

Not only is it unbelievable, it’s boring. You’d be more likely to say:

“It’s east of Puget Sound, parallel with Mercer Island. You can take I-90 East from Seattle past the 405 interchange, but if you reach the Cascade Mountains you’ve gone too far.”

And it doesn’t even matter if you never mention the 405 interchange or Mercer Island ever again. But now it sounds believable.

One of my characters recently started journeying and I’m finding it really difficult to explain where she’s going in a believable way, mostly because I haven’t named anything or given it much thought. I just want to get her from A to B quickly, for now, but I’ll have to go back and edit her travels to make sense later. A map will definitely help, even if it’s only for personal reference.

  • Learning your Jargon

I’ve been told I’m supposed to “write what I know,” and there’s definitely wisdom behind that. If I want to talk about horses, I have a large vocabulary at my disposal, since I rode for years: Saddles, stirrups, bridles, bits, reins, girths and cinches, shoes, farriers, hooves, foundering, and frogs. But right now I’m writing about birds; in fact, a culture that centers around bird interaction. And I don’t know anything about birds.

So I’ve been doing research. Because I can say beak and wing and feather, but having a few more specialty words will lend realism to the characters. If they make their living interacting with birds, they’ll likely know words like tiercel, or remiges, and not have to resort to saying “a male hawk” or “long wing feathers.”

Basically, if we want readers to think our characters sound like they know what they’re talking about, we have to know what we’re talking about. We want to use the same principle when writing about our surroundings. If we put a crowd of busy traders in the background, what are they bartering? Their goods should reflect what would be available given the landscape and time period. Wikipedia is not only informative, it can be inspirational!

  • Constructing a Different Norm

If we come up with a great idea for the new culture, the pitfall I think we, as authors, have to avoid is explaining it. If it’s really normal, if this is the way things are and we expect the reader to believe it, then why distract them by pulling them away from the world they’re in to explain the details?

This is a big challenge for me. Leaving the reader hanging. Dropping a hint and walking away. Making an obscure reference and saying no more. But I’m trying to make it work. For example, a large ceremony took place early in my first chapter, but I hadn’t introduced or developed enough characters to make sitting through a lot of hubbub interesting, so I only mentioned it briefly so I could move along. I’ll get to the importance of it and the order of the proceedings later, when the reader is engaged enough to possibly care.

So those are the three points I’ve been working with. Of course, believable character and plot construction are another animal entirely. Any tips as I struggle through the first couple chapters? I’d love to hear other ideas!

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4 thoughts on “Giving Depth to a Fictional World

  1. I like this! You make some strong points. I’m currently working on a project where the main character is a navigator, so understanding the maps themselves – sea charts vs land maps for example – and how they’re made becomes critical. If the journey is what matters (not the destination), a writer should give a cursory investigation into the “how.” Anne Lammott tells a brief but great story about specificity in Bird by Bird.

    Also it always takes longer than we think it will to travel via certain means. I can fly in a plane across the US in a matter of hours, drive it in a matter of days, or take a wagon train and hopefully get there in a matter of months (before we all die of broken legs, starvation, and rivers that are far deeper than we were led to believe). The farther back in time we go, and the less magic we use, the more distances really impact timelines.

    Good luck!

    • Time is a really tough one for me too! And how much time to spend on their journey… should I follow my characters around, or will it move things along better to just say, “Three days later…”?

      Anyway, sounds like a fun project! Keep up the good work. 🙂

  2. This is a really cool post! I like how you brought out how to create a more believable location. I never really thought of that! A friend and I created a fictional universe together a while back. We made it a little too detailed, I think. There are a lot of things that would make it really confusing if we ever wrote it into a story. We sort of have a map, but it’s not really as precise and interesting as the kind that you brought out. I might suggest to her that we come up with something more specific!

  3. this is so awesome… i have been writing stories since a long time, bt it has always been like i start them and get lost… becoming totally listless about what i write. i believe ur posts can help me out… u give me answers 🙂

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