B&N Week 151: Are You Building Your Worlds Correctly?

| November 12, 2013


We’ve got another Tuesday! Just as water flows, time marches on, my friends!

This week, I want to talk about world building.

In essence, there are two types of worlds that have to be created when you’re making a comic book: one where the rules are based on the world outside your window, and one where you have to make all the rules yourself. These are the extremes, and as creators, the bulk of our worlds are going to fall somewhere within the two poles.

Now, I don’t care what kind of world you’re building, there has to be some point where things are normal for the reader so that they can climb aboard and go on the adventure with you. However, knowing where that point is and getting the reader there isn’t always that simple.

There is a book series that I absolutely love. It’s called The Amber Chronicles, and it is a series of ten books, written by Roger Zelazny. In the first set of books, we follow the hero, Corwin, as he wakes in a hospital with a case of amnesia, makes his way to his family, and is then literally transported out of the world we all know. Zelazny deftly takes us along the ride with Corwin as we travel from New York to Amber, giving us access to the world Corwin must learn to inhabit if he is to survive. As we go along, we get introduced to the Trumps, Shadow, magic, and more. Zelazny introduces us to the world in bits and pieces, getting us from here to there with careful planning. Reading that book series is a masterclass in world building. I suggest you go get it now.

Another masterclass of world building is The Matrix. All you have to do is watch the first movie, seeing how we go from The Matrix to the real world as we follow Neo on his journey.

What you have to pay attention to is really pretty simple, but can be a challenge to execute.

You have to pay attention to the rules. Not only do you have to pay attention to the rules, you have to lay down the rules yourself about how your world works. This can be a challenge.

Very often, as creators, we take shortcuts. We take these shortcuts and use them without hardly ever recognizing it. (Steven, I don’t–) Sure you do. That superhero book you’re wanting to do? That’s a shortcut, building on the knowledge that most people know how superheroes work. Have you sat down to explain how the characters powers work? Thinking the effects through, their ramifications, and then exploring them? Then putting the characters in situations where they’d have to then use their powers differently? No? Then you’ve used a shortcut.

Shortcuts can be good. They get you into the story, but there has to come a time when you explain the world the characters inhabit. That’s when the shortcut you take can actually be a liability, because you haven’t thought it through.

Building a world is hard work, but it can also be exciting. What you have to do while building the world is tell someone else about it, in order to make sure that it works. That someone’s job is to ask the hard questions and make sure you give satisfactory answers. This is the challenge. If the world doesn’t work, then you have to adapt it, making changes so that it does.

I’m going to bash on DC for a bit. For all the DC fans, I’m sorry.

As a world, the New 52 doesn’t work. There are too many inconsistencies within its own framework for the world to sustain itself with reason. The new world, within its own timeline, has only had costumed heroes for a few years, but Batman has been in operation long enough to have had several sidekicks, one of whom has grown up, while he hasn’t aged at all. [That has always been a problem with Batman in particular and sidekicks in general. They can’t grow and age without the hero doing the same.] Contradictions such as those [and more, but I just picked the lowest hanging fruit] means that the center will not be able to hold for long before a new Crisis comes along to wipe the slate yet again.

Here’s what happened: someone high up had the bright idea to wipe the slate clean and start over. Then, one of two things happened—either no one asked the hard questions and got good answers that made sense, or the higher ups abused their power and ramrodded the story down everyone’s throats. I don’t believe there is a third option.

Want to know a secret about world building? One that you already know, but don’t consciously realize? It’s simple, really, when you look at it.

Everyone wants to know how your world works.

Explanations are all over the place. You can’t escape them. They’re in movies: Star Trek, The Matrix, Inception, John Carter, Halloween, The Five Deadly Venoms, As Good As It Gets, Kill Bill They’re in any book worth its salt. They’re in comics, especially Marvel Comics. [I know I’m a Marvel fan, but look at all the scientific explanations given for how their world works. They try to be as thorough as possible. DC is not as thorough.]

Explanations are everywhere. Why? Because the audience really wants to know how you did it. It’s like a magic trick, except you’re not keeping any magicians secrets. You have to show and prove. And if the world you built doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, they’ll let you know.

How do you build a world? (Very carefully.) [Hey! That’s my line!] (Sorry.)

The first thing you want to consider is the end of the story, if there is one. Sticking the landing is very important. Then you have to consider what you want the audience to take away from the story. These two things are paramount. Without them, you don’t have any reason to start writing yet.

Now, you have to consider the characters and their predicament. I highly suggest doing it in this order, because doing it the other way around can lead to muddled storytelling. You’ll zig when you should have zagged, and then you won’t be where you wanted to, leaving the reader with an inferior experience than what you intended.

When you consider the characters and their predicament, what you’re really doing is looking at the world they inhabit. You’ll move them from Point A to Point D, making sure that everything is interesting and makes sense as you do so.

Getting them out of the predicament means you have to explain the predicament at some point, and as you do so, you’re explaining the world you just built. Every explanation you give is another brick in the world. (We don’t need no education!)

Look at those explanations. Do they make sense? Can they be contradicted or easily circumvented? If the answer is yes, you’ve got more work to do. How do you know if they make sense or not? (I tell someone.) Exactly. Someone who not only listens, but does so with a critical ear. I talk to my wife all the time, but she doesn’t have the critical ear I’m looking for. If I have a very new idea that I need feedback for to make sure it works, I turn to my comic friends for help.

This is not easy, folks. You can step into someone else’s world and use the rules they’ve already established—that’s easy. Setting up your own world and making sure it is viable is much more challenging.

Whenever you tell a new story, you have to set up a new world. Here is a challenge: watch any movie that is not a sequel, read any book that is either not part of a larger tapestry or at the beginning of it, and see if there is not an explanation of the world somewhere in there. The same can be said of comics, too: a limited series or beginning story arc of a brand new character. Older, more established characters already have their shortcuts.

There’s one other thing to tell you, and then I’ll let you go.

There’s no shortcut to world building. There’s no trick, no way to shorten the process. There’s nothing that can be done to make the process easier. It takes time, and it is challenging. However, when done right, the rewards are great. If you try to shorten the process, if you don’t ask and answer all the hard questions, your world will not be as sturdy as it should be.

And that’s all I have for this week. Homework: look at various media and see how their world is built. Look for the world building with a critical eye. Do it with your favorite movie, book, and comic [remembering the caveats]. Then, look at your own work and see if you’ve built your world sturdily. Tell it to someone else, and have them ask questions for you to answer. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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