When you hear ‘a whole new world’, do you burst into the Aladdin song as I do? Should I apologize now for getting that song in your head?
Okay, I am sorry and we will move on…
One of the best things about reading fantasy is banishing real world problems with a whole new world. Whether that world has dragons, potions, heroic journeys, romance, or aliens is entirely up to what you like. All of these worlds have something in common – WORLD BUILDING! And that’s what our guest post is about today. Keep reading below to meet author John Coon!
Building a Whole New World
By: John Coon
Authors are world builders.
This is especially true in a fantasy or science fiction tale. Think of the last book you read within these genres. How alive and real did the world within those pages feel to you? Authors get to experience the joy of weaving together history, geography, religion, politics, culture, and other elements to create settings as real as the room you are sitting in right now and characters as dynamic and interactive as your friends and neighbors.
The idea of building my own fictional world is the one thing that sparked my interest, as a child, in becoming an author. I wanted to create stories populated with characters and settings I created.
Creating a new world
My upcoming science fiction novel, Alien People, is a labor of love. I wrote the first draft during the summer following my high school graduation more than two decades ago. Over the years, I tinkered with the story and detailed all sorts of fascinating aspects related to the fictional world I created. Now I have dozens of pages filled with backstory related to that novel.
I created an entire fictional history for the home planet of my alien protagonists. My backstory details the geography, politics, culture, mythology, religion, animals, and other things related to the planet. I also produced numerous individual character biographies detailing their personal histories, interests, personalities, relationships, and other pertinent information.
Immersing myself so deeply into the world surrounding Alien People has been a fun journey. Along the way, I discovered the story behind the story. I learned who these characters were and what made them tick. It influenced the direction the novel took as I refined it through subsequent drafts.
I have never had interest in doing fan fiction, putting a new spin on an old fairy tale, or writing an unnecessary sequel to a piece of classic literature. Building new fictional worlds and characters from scratch is so much fun, I wouldn’t do it any other way.
Weaving threads together
World building can be fun for a reader as well. When authors skillfully weave backstory elements into the narrative without creating an information overload, it can make a story feel more vibrant and real.
Creating an immersive fictional world lets you give deeper texture and meaning to the main plot and key subplots within a story. These elements leap off the page with the right allusion or hint to a broader world behind what a reader is directly shown. It unlocks their imagination and lets them journey down a rabbit hole as they imagine those other elements.
Skillfully weaving backstory threads into the main story makes the whole narrative feel more organic. Fully realized characters drive the plot through their thoughts, words, and actions. It infuses life into both character and setting.
One example of a backstory thread I use in Alien People is Lance accidentally crashing a spaceship on an asteroid. We never see the actual crash occur within the story itself. But the aftermath of this off-screen incident is felt throughout the narrative. Lance is stripped of his rank within the Stellar Guard and Xttra brings him onto his crew to save his friend’s career and reputation. Lance is haunted by what happened and his efforts to redeem himself drive his decisions and have an impact on the direction that the main plot takes.
I’ve done similar things in my other novels. Pandora Reborn is set in Deer Falls, a Colorado small town steeped in stories and legends rooted in supernatural phenomena. I give a feel for the setting through bits of dialogue from various characters. In an early scene, Casey makes an impassioned speech referencing hikers mysteriously disappearing in a local forest and a subterranean monster killing a dozen people as evidence of the town’s spooky nature. You don’t see those events play out in the story, but those allusions set the stage for the reader to embrace the supernatural nature of Deer Falls.
Striking a Balance
Inserting backstory threads into a novel or short story requires a surgical touch. The last thing any author wants to do is bore their audience and draw them out of the story. Letting world building turn into narrative sprawl can open the door for that scenario to unfold.
We’ve all seen science fiction and fantasy novels where an author grows too enamored with the fictional world they’ve constructed and lose sight of what information is relevant to the story at hand. They don’t know where to draw the line when including the backstory. Soon, large sections of their novel are crammed with so much tangential information that it feels like you, as a reader, are combing through an unending series of Wikipedia-style articles devoted to their fictional world.
Including excessive amounts of backstory bogs down the overall pace of the narrative. Readers aren’t dying to read treatises on politics, history, culture, religion, and other topics tangentially related your fictional world. Cram that information down their throats and you run the risk of inviting them to toss your book aside.
I always keep two key considerations in mind whenever I weave a backstory thread into the narrative during my world-building efforts:
- Does it move the plot forward in a meaningful way?
- Will it create a better understanding of a character’s actions or behavior?
Backstory material can enhance your main story in a meaningful way if you do not let it overwhelm the main story. You want backstory to stay in the background and not disrupt the pace or flow of your narrative. Only a small percentage of the backstory I jot down makes it into each novel and short story I create. The rest of it exists as hints and allusions left to the imagination of my audience.
Ultimately, a backstory is supposed to function in that manner. It offers a snapshot of a larger world beyond what you see written down on each page. Those backstory details should never send readers plunging down inescapable rabbit holes.
Authors are often advised that if we write characters with their backstories in mind, there will be an impact on readers. I like to think of this as someone hearing a smile in your voice over the phone. As such, I typically write short first person pieces for my characters so I immerse myself in that character before I introduce them to readers.
[As an off-the-paper note, I think every real world ‘character’ we meet has their own backstory that we may or may not understand. If we keep that in mind, it’s often easier to be kind.]
If you have writer tips or questions on world building, please comment on this post. I’ll make sure John sees them.
Want more from John? Check out his bio and links below!
Keep writing and reading, my friends!
John Coon has possessed a love for writing since age 12 when he typed out his first stories on an old typewriter belonging to his parents. For more than 15 years, John has worked as a sports journalist. His byline has appeared in multiple publications and on multiple websites worldwide. John currently writes for the Associated Press and Athlon Sports, covering the NBA and college sports. He is a graduate of the University of Utah and resides in the Salt Lake City metro area. John has published two novels, Pandora Reborn and Under a Fallen Sun. His third novel, Alien People will be released in mid-August on Amazon and other major booksellers worldwide.