The takeaway from Part 1 of this series was that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters. So, if we create a story world that reveals our characters, does that mean it should rain every time the hero is upset?
Characters are complex—meaning they are layered, sometimes contrary, and able to hide truth from themselves. Story world personifies the complexity of your characters over the course of the novel. It’s the ground they stand on, and the wind up their kilt. It’s the dark alley of oppression, and warm house of acceptance. The buildings, weather, land mass, and even the technology inside the story world is organically linked to the characters in such a way that it reveals meaning, themes, and plot.
For example, in my completed manuscript A Girl Named Fish, my hero, Joan, lives on a fictional dystopian island. The story structure is fairy tale, so that means the island is Joan’s kingdom. I emphasize this point by giving Joan and her husband, Leif, an apartment above the chandlery shop they own. This serves as Joan’s ‘high tower’, the place in which she eavesdrops on the world without fully engaging. I crafted a scene near the beginning of the novel in which Joan stands in front of her open window and overhears two women on the street below talking about her. Later, when a girl calling herself Fish enters this rarified space, it is altered. Near the end of the novel, there is another scene where Joan overhears two women talking about her, but the high tower has been transformed.
My island in A Girl Named Fish is fictional, but novels often borrow a real location as their setting. The difference is, when you borrow a real place, let’s say Las Vegas, you make it into your Las Vegas. You craft it’s places and give meaning to it’s buildings, attractions, and streets. It’s motels are as corrupt and gritty as your undercover cop hero, or casinos as glamorous and sparkling as your beauty pageant character, or its neighborhoods as cloistered and manicured as your falsely perfect characters who allow themselves to be blinded by the high fences around their houses that keep truth out.
You take the real place and mold it into a familiar, yet utterly unique place that pulses, shifts, and changes with your characters. You create a world that is a revelation. The city itself reveals a moral truth of humanity. And yes, you do this even with historical fiction. Every place in history has a few nooks and crannies you can realistically use, bend, invent to create the exact story world you need to tell the story.
Remember the adage Fiction is conflict? That isn’t just plot advice. It’s important to crafting all aspects of fiction, including story world. Your story world expresses the conflicts between characters in physical ways.
This means that in order to create an organic story world, you need to understand the web of conflict between characters. In simple stories like romance novels, there is a hero (the POV character) and an opponent (the person the POV character falls in love with), with the rest of the cast of characters there to make tea when the POV character cries. More complex stories are ones that have multiple characters in opposition to the hero and to each other. Every character is a reflection a different way of understanding the hero’s moral issue. Your story world will reflect the conflict.
For example, in The Great Gatsby, there is an initial conflict between the open spaces of the Midwest, and the elegant closed-ness of the city, including its mansions. There is the East Egg (established wealth), and the West Egg (new money). Gatsby is newly rich by illegal means, and his home is gaudy and ill appointed compared to the homes of the less recently rich. Later, the mansions add layers of conflict by introducing the gas station where we find Tom’s mistress. And New York City, by the end, has morphed into a beast, a monster, green and vile. All of these aspects of story world combine to support and diagram the deeper conflict found in the novel. The conflict between people, ideas, systems, and ideologies are all manifest in the story world.
Notice how the physical world in The Great Gatsby not only reflects conflict between characters, but also conflict of values. The values held by your hero (more about that in part 3), and how they are in opposition to the values held by other characters and the systems that entrap each one. Your story world supports and manifests the various conflicts of values found in the story.
In Alice Hoffman’s epic novel The Dovekeepers, the story world is Masada, King Herod’s abandoned desert fortress where 960 Jews chose to die by their own hands rather than be taken hostage by Rome. The novel is a study in conflict. Three women come to Masada from different places (open spaces) and work together in the dovecotes (closed spaces). Masada is a fortress against the gathering Roman army on the desert floor below, and inside Masada there are opulent rooms where leaders reside, and cramped, dark stables where poor families live. And there are hidden places deep within the mountain where magic spells are pronounced and women give birth to illegitimate children in secret. Each space inside Masada highlights the conflict between characters (the cave on the side of the mountain where the Essenes hide away from the “unclean” Jews above, the cistern that runs nearly dry, the dovecotes where a woman and a captured slave are thrown together. All these aspects combine to highlight the shifting alliances and increasingly dangerous conflicts.
The spaces in The Dovekeepers reflect the conflict of values found among diverse yet devout people. They highlight the religious, economic, class, and ideological conflicts, and hold them in tension with the terrible deeds that take place in the open (the desert) in the name of survival.
The general rule is the greater the conflict between characters, the smaller the space should be that contains the conflict. Great stories always have their great, final battle take place inside the smallest spaces in the story. This works best when the entire story before the final battle has made structural use of story world to help tell the story. (Don’t be confused by the term “battle” this refers to whatever form major conflict takes, it doesn’t refer exclusively to combat or fighting.)
The take home is that your story world is the physical manifestation of your character’s conflicts.
Thoughts? Also, feel free to ask any questions or for clarification. I’ll do my best to engage with your ideas and ponderings and together, we might come up with something helpful.