Major storms are crawling across the Central Plains today. There’s a super high possibility that we’ll see a massive outbreak of tornadoes across South Central Kansas late this afternoon or early evening. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a TOR:CON index this high, but, in typical Midwestern fashion, it didn’t stop anyone from going about the day’s business.
All that meant for me is that I got my two-mile walk in earlier than normal so that I could get my shower finished before the lightning hit. Even now as I’m writing this blog post, my dad is outside tilling up our garden plot (in bare feet and shorts … I probably need to go smack him). Severe weather may mean hail and tornadoes, sure, but it also means rain. No need to let precious moisture go to waste!
But as I was walking this morning, with the fierce south wind my only companion, I listened to the whispering of the wheat heads in the fields around me. The rasping sound they make isn’t as defined as it will be in a month or so. The wheat is still soft and green. In a month, when it’s golden and dry, the rasping whisper will rattle in the wind.
I get to walk along loose gravel roads with the whisper of wheat heads in my ears and the lowing of cows on the breeze. That’s the world I live in. So how can I, as a writer, translate what I have experienced to an experience someone can feel or see or taste through the written word?
It’s not an easy task. That’s what makes worldbuilding such a challenge. Because you can sit and theorize on governmental structures and family hierarchies all day long and not create a world your readers can experience. You can master the art of setting description and vivid vocabulary that paints a beautiful scene without creating a world that affects your readers emotionally.
The key to creating a world that your readers can experience is character.
Readers care about your characters (or they should), so if the world you’ve built affects your characters, it will affect your readers too.
It’s important to lay the groundwork of a world when you’re building it (government, economics, the rest of the building blocks we’ve already discussed), but all of that work will be for nothing if you don’t have a character who experiences the world. That is what makes a world feel real.
A character who experiences your built world is what makes it feel real.
Building a world the way I’ve described over the last few months, you have a character already in existence. Using this method, you build the world around your character. But now, the final step to bringing your world to life, is to place your character into the world and let him or her experience it.
For example, let’s use Building Block 6: Agriculture. As Celtica was a wealthy country with many fields and different types of produce, individual farmers would sell their crops at local markets. Celticans believe very strongly in individual liberty and community involvement, and the markets are ingrained in their culture as both a source of income as well as a hub for connection with others.
Have you got a feel for the market?
Can you smell it? See it? Taste it?
Nice isn’t it? It’s a place I’d like to visit. But can be it feel real? Can it become something more than just a nice description?
Can you tell a difference? Which one do you prefer? Which one makes you see the market, and which one makes you feel it and see it?
The building blocks of culture are essential. Setting detail and description are vital. But if you have all of that without a character to experience it, your readers won’t feel it. And one of the greatest joys of storytelling is giving readers an experience they can’t have in everyday life.