World Building 101: Writing the familiar …
For works of fiction set in familiar worlds, the ones in which the reader already lives and is accustomed to, world building is a question of keeping things “real” – of keeping the sense of the familiar, perhaps even of courting recognition if setting your piece in a place with which you hope a subset of your readers might be familiar.
There is a measure of achievement in this, if someone whom you have never met contacts you with enthusiasm and delight about your setting, telling you that you’ve accomplished that “familiarity”, that you’ve nailed a hill town in Italy, or the streets of New York, or a souk in Morocco.
A large part of this is getting the details correct, not just the things you might see or visually notice but also a sense of the space around you, the sounds that assault your ears, the smells, the crush of people pushing and surging beside you. There are more subtle things, the stuff that makes up the social fabric, the knowledge of who greets whom first, and how, and who moves in whose social circles, the unwritten classifieds of a human culture and context.
For works of fiction set in familiar worlds, this is sometimes a tall ask, but research will do a lot of the heavy lifting if you cannot immerse yourself in a place where you set your story and with which you may not be as intimately familiar as your own back yard.
… or writing wonder
In a work of fantasy, set in a world which you have partly or wholly invented, things just got an order of magnitude more difficult for you.
You are no longer out to cultivate a sense of familiarity, but rather a sense of wonder.
While you may have some “real” pieces to work with and on which you will rest the foundations of your world, the rest, the thing that you are going to build… that, all of that, you have to invent. You have to make it up. And the thing you make up has to be solid, has to be believable, has to be a place in which your plot or your story or your characters could plausibly exist, and has to, in the end, achieve a quasi-existence in your reader’s head which allows them to dive in and not mind as your world closes above their heads. You have to create a completely alien setting, sometimes from the ground up, and yet your reader has to be left believing that they can easily and safely breathe of that air.
And they said writing fantasy was easy
Perhaps the hardest thing of all to accomplish successfully is a meld of any kind, where part of the world is real and part is your own fantasy invention grafted onto that stock. Not only does your invented part have to ring true against the “real” bits, the meshing has to be accomplished seamlessly, because if your reader can see where you stitched it together it stops being a believable world and becomes Frankenstein’s monster – with every bolt and screw showing, creaking mournfully along without a prayer of ever being permitted to consider itself alive and vibrant.
Building the world of The Were Chronicles
Those were precisely the waters I sailed into when I began to write the story set in the world of my trilogy, The Were Chronicles.
Here’s the reality of it – the cold, hard, and bitter reality, the underlying tough truths which are the bait, if you like, the thing that tastes real and familiar and will pull you inside before you know that it’s happening. The reality that is all too recognizable to all too many out there, in today’s world in constant ferment and upheaval, a world where nothing is given or guaranteed, where many of us are one small step away from a war, whether a shooting war or an economic one, which could leave us as refugees without a home.
Many of us wake up every morning knowing that we are in places where we don’t feel we belong or where we aren’t welcome. Many of us know the daily reality of being looked at askance because we happen to be wearing a human skin which is the wrong color for a particular context, or because somebody doesn’t like the God our family has taught us to pray to, or because we speak a language with an accent or speak a different language altogether, or because we like to eat food differently spiced from what others consider the norm and the scent of the spices clings exotically to our hair and our clothes.
And for those people who are – who perceive themselves to be – inside a closed and charmed circle where everything is JUST SO and has always been done THIS WAY – the different is the threatening. New things drifting in from the peripheries are dangerous to the status quo. They are unknown. The instinct in all humans is to be wary of the unknown – being wary can escalate very quickly into outright fear, and from fear it is one short step to hatred. And from hatred and fear come all the evils that rise to haunt us on a daily basis.
We MARK the thing we hate and fear, so that we can always recognize it and know it and respond to it in ways that we imagine will keep us safe.
The symbols that mark you
There can’t be many people, at least in the cultural milieu that I grew up in, who are not viscerally aware of what it means to wear a yellow star sewn onto the bodice of your dress, or the lapel of your coat. That may be a distant enough memory now, with all the years that have passed, but it remains vivid, and instantly recognizable – you can see it portrayed on the screen, for instance, in a movie or a TV show, and you know what it means, instinctively and with a bone-deep response. You know that it means that something has been MARKED – that a quality over which an individual may not have much personal control has been picked as a defining characteristic of that individual by a more powerful group of people, and that it is likely to spell a doomful future.
You don’t CHOOSE the faith and the culture you are born into, particularly if you are a child or very young or even very old – you can’t just “un-Jew” yourself if you were born under that star, particularly if you aren’t given much of a chance to even state that you wish to. It is doubtful, if you were of this faith in an earlier and bloodier era, that your “conversion” from the faith of your fathers to the accepted Christian doctrine, under threat of the Inquisition, could ever be really taken as a truly voluntary act.
Although faith is one of the great symbols and is often and violently used to mark others as different and hateful just because of where they bend the knee – it is almost easy, compared to something that you have no say in changing at all. It is conceivable (with or without the “influence” of an Inquisition) that people could come to a different opinion about which faith, if any, to follow as they mature and acquire layers of adult experience with which they then engage their world. But there are things about yourself that you cannot change, no matter how much you may wish to.
When skin color changes everything
I grew up in a South Africa where being black was against the law – where you had to have your “pass book” in your possession and had to show it on demand to prove that you had a right to be any place where a law enforcement officer thought you did not belong. There are plenty of other “papers please” laws on the books even today, and often they were common-law things, not even literal law but just custom and the “this is the way it’s always been” kind of thing.
There was a time not so long ago that marriage between white and black in the United States was illegal, unacceptable, unthinkable – no matter that two adult humans might wish to spend a lifetime together, that desire was predicated and influenced and legislated on the basis of nothing else than the amount of melanin in their skins. There was a time not so long ago that people of mixed race were judged so precisely on the amount of “black” they had in them that there were words for individual levels of it and some were better than others – mulatto, quadroon.
Back in that South Africa I spoke of, the layers of race were more finely drawn than people from the outside could tell – it was not just black and white, in any sense. I remember women who were labeled as “Cape Coloured”. It was not a much better thing than being black in the South Africa of the day, but it was still a level up from the bottom rung, and one of the ways those women chose to show that they were not “really” black was to proudly go out in public with their hair in curlers, demonstrating that they had ‘white’ hair, straight hair, the kind that could be put into curlers just like the white women did, and not the thicker, knottier, nappier African hair which by definition could not.
It wasn’t even an official “papers please”, but it was something chosen within the racial divide where an in-between racial group scrambled to secure and keep their own place in the hierarchy, if not at the top then certainly somewhere from where they could look down at somebody else. It was necessary – in a stratified society like that – to have someone else below you. If there wasn’t, then you were it – and you were the thing that everybody else walked on, dirt under everybody’s feet. And it SAID so. In your papers. Which you had to carry and have on you at all times.
Show your papers
This is where my “Paw” cards for the Were came from in The Were Chronicles. The need of the dominant caste to label that thing that was not-them, the thing that could be dangerous and therefore to be feared and therefore hated. From here, it was an easy step into legislating the Were.
In one sense the governing moiety, the majority, could always posit that the laws they were enshrining existed for a mutual protection and safety – things like Turning Houses, into which the Were-kind were required to report for their three-day Turns unless they could satisfy the government that they had a place where they could lock themselves away for the duration. It was all done with the best possible intentions, with the light of the angels shining from everyone’s eyes.
But all power corrupts, as we all well know, and sometimes it isn’t even power – it’s just opportunity. When unscrupulous, or over-zealous, or careless, or stupid, or simply more fearful than most, people are given oversight over the implementation of laws like these, and the ability to influence how they are applied in practice, things can go downhill very fast, with even the best of intentions paving that proverbial road straight into Hell. For some, at least. For those who are powerless to fight back or to influence their own positions on the totem pole, those who are forced to knuckle under to conditions others have decided, in their name, are “for the best”.
When, eventually, the inevitable limits of endurance are reached, and passed… well, this is where revolutions come from.
When Weres meet Normals
The world I created for my Were-folk to share with humanity was one with a built-in duality to it. In my story, the part of the world to which the “old country” belonged was one where the Were had no recourse to the law at all. They lived in hiding, and in fear for their lives, and they were fair game when they were found and caught.
They were simply understood to be not-us, not human, and therefore their destruction was almost a good deed, from the point of view of ordinary human folk who did not change forms when the moon changed, for whom such change was supernatural, an anathema, witchcraft, evil, and therefore there was a tacit acceptance and even encouragement to deal with this bad thing whenever it was encountered. Eradicate it. Remove it from the worldview of good and God-fearing folk, to safeguard their own lives (the one here on earth, and the one hereafter, where such half-creatures could be declared unwelcome on the basis that they were anathema to God). A Were caught in the open was killed, and it wasn’t considered murder. It was pest control.
When the family whose story I delve into most deeply in The Were Chronicles books gets caught by this scourge, they flee – to a new place the New World, which has a different way of dealing with things. The rule of LAW. And for those who fled lawlessness, and society-sanctioned death, the apparent protection that such law provided was something that they welcomed, that they saw as a shelter, a sanctuary, a relief from the real and constant fear of always being on their guard and always waiting for the pointing finger and the mob that came behind it.
But the shelter and sanctuary of such laws – the ones which enshrines one’s differences in this manner – is a mixed blessing, and in a very real sense, in a frying-pan-and-the-fire situation, they exchange overt hostility and possibly violent death for being hammered to death by legal minutiae instead, for the necessity to always precisely toe the line, follow the rules, knuckle under to restrictions, live with the knowledge that the ability to openly live as themselves and fully acknowledging their identity also means accepting the fact that they are considered second-class citizens, that there will always be side-eye looks, or dismissive turning away, or rudeness, or, for that matter, outright discrimination (“we reserve the right to refuse service”).
When you are labelled you carry that label around with you – the pass book, the yellow star – and it becomes the fundamental part of your self-image and your identity. One of the questions that I ask in these books is perhaps a hard one to answer in any kind of a simple straightforward way – is it better to live free but hidden and in constant fear of your life, or is it better to give up some of that freedom for at least a semblance of a normal civilized existence where you know that you and your children can walk down the street – despised, perhaps, and humiliated, but alive and safe and under some protection of law – without someone deciding that your very existence was an affront to their own and taking you out without any consequences to themselves. The answers to these questions can and will determine what kind of a human being YOU are, or are willing to be.
Discrimination and bullying
That is all discrimination on a large scale, on the canvas of society, of a way of life, of how society fits together and how pieces of it can end up rubbing each other raw. But on a more intimate, purely human level, this comes down to a problem that is an all too common one with our young people and our kids. Bullying. Taking someone who is of perceived lower stature than yourself – someone who is sufficiently different from yourself – and making their lives a living hell which the victim sometimes escapes only through suicide.
We’ve all seen the news stories. The boy outed as gay, who then takes his own life because he was not ready for the world to know this about him and judge him. The girl assaulted by high-caste peers, who then gets accused of either asking for what happened to her (drunk? Wearing a skirt that ends above the knee? Fill in your rationalization here) and out to “damage” the perfect lives of those who accosted her, or has her assault somehow recorded and disseminated amongst her peers to the point where a continued existence becomes unthinkable (a teenage rape victim who died by her own hand when the burden of her schoolmates and the entire internet knowing what was done to her became too much to bear). Sometimes it’s just the peer group – but sometimes it is people in positions of authority, people whom you are supposed to trust and to rely on, who either take your tormentors’ side or are themselves instigators of bullying and abuse.
It’s a real problem, and a huge one. And when I wrote the story of Celia, and of her fate, it was a hard thing to write – because it was entirely possible that I was writing down something that some future reader is close enough to for this to be an appalling reflection of their own reality.
But my intention was not to point and laugh, like any bully might do, or to join the victim in the bottomless pit of self-pity and despair and a feeling of no way out. It was to write a story that transcends these things, that, yes, takes you down into the black pit – and then makes you realize that you have just been handed a ladder on which you can climb out. It was my intention to write a story that speaks to those who are on the receiving end, and to tell them “you are not alone”. Also, perhaps, a story that might rub against some rough edge of someone who might been on the other side of this relationship, that might make someone step back and ask themselves how their own actions might have affected someone.
I wrote a passionate and vivid story which was very real for all that its protagonist Turned into a cat when the moon turned full – what it means (for this Were girl, and for the very non-Were reader holding my book in their hand) to truly BE human. And perhaps a first step on the road of learning what it takes to be a better human.
That, however, was a message that could not be didactic or patronizing – and in order for my Were folk to take their rightful place as characters who are just as much flesh-and-blood, just as 3-dimensional, as any “real” human in the story, they had to be rooted in something that gave them as much solidity as any of us possess. Enter the science.
I am in possession of an MSc in Molecular Biology and Microbiology – an advanced graduate degree which got used only for a handful of years before I threw it over and pursued writing as a calling instead. But it’s there, and it’s an accomplishment, and it’s a diploma with my name on it, and I have always had this interesting relationship with DNA and the building blocks of life. When this story came along… I leapt at the opportunity to go back to these roots and dust off that diploma in the service of my fiction.
I looked at this at the level of cells, and genes, and DNA itself. In the worldbuilding sense, there is probably no greater detail that can be gone into than this. Using the normal nominal human as a base, as a palimpsest, I worked out a way in which Were DNA was different, how it fit together, how it triggered the changes of a Were, how the changes could be regulated at the cellular level. And a whole subplot of my story arc – perhaps the most vivid and overarching one – hinged on this, on the details of the genetics and the physiology and the pharmacology, and on how such things worked to create a class of creature which would be forced to live and act in a certain way and whose actions, controlled by this most basic of all laws, then informed the kind of society that they created.
I have not, in point of fact, ever seen anyone else delve into the genetic background of the Were-kind. How and why they might function, might tick, might be remotely possible. I sat down and I WORKED IT ALL OUT. I also addressed other issues, such as what happens to the mass differential when a grown human being changes into something like a 14-pound cat, or a crow, or a grizzly bear – something that is not directly comparable to that original human’s footprint in the world. I took a fantasy trope and I laid it out on the dissection board and I did a meticulous study on its innards – because science, because cool. I had an immense amount of fun doing it.
And it is one of my hopes that someone, somewhere, might be intrigued enough to follow up, to ask their own questions… to create their own worlds, perhaps, using science. The marriage of science and fantasy is a powerful one indeed, and one that blew away the boundaries of my own universe until it left me floating breathless and free amongst the stars.
The other issues I spoke about before – the more social-science aspects of this story – they might be more important reasons as to why these books are amongst the most relevant, the most important, and possibly the best things I’ve ever written; the science was the reason it was so much joy. I got to be all of myself, all of my scattered bits and pieces, and these books are more completely ME than anything else ever. All of the questions I have asked here have important real-world answers – and all of those questions live and are rooted in the world that I have created here for them to be safely asked in and explored. And all of THAT is rooted… in the building blocks of the world, in the world building, in the details with which the world is brought to life.
It is said that the Devil is in the details – and if this is so the world building is neither more nor less than chasing down the Devil, and then hanging on for dear life when you’ve got him by the tail.
I’m thinking I have walked down the road a good long way with the Devil at my side, when it comes to the Were Chronicles. Because this is a world that rests on so many interlocking details – so many glorious interlocking details. If every piece of fiction is a window into a world then this window is made from exquisite pieces of stained glass, and when the light comes shining through it the effect is sometimes breathtaking. I’ve written lots of stories, built lots of worlds – but this feeling, this looking out over a world well made, is what the joy of writing is all about. And for all the dark questions that they ask – for all the light they try to shine into the dusty and sometimes grim corners of our shadowed existence as human beings – The Were Chronicles are books which were written, and created, and shaped with that joy.
I hope you will visit that world. And I hope you find in it the enchantment with which it was made.
The Were Chronicles are effectively out-of-print, but I am republishing the trilogy in an omnibus edition, to be released Dec. 8, 2020, just in time for Christmas. It will be a hefty book and, I daresay, would make a great gift for yourself or others. You can email me at AlmaAlexander@AlmaAlexander.org with comments or questions.