Independence Day got me thinking about my approach to worldbuilding. July 4th is uniquely American – I guarantee they aren’t closing federal institutions elsewhere in the world on this day! We celebrate with parades, fairs, picnics, fireworks.
We watch The Patriot and Independence Day.
I write fantasy romance. Worldbuilding is my life’s blood, because I truly build something from nothing. But I’ve discovered worldbuilding is more than geography & technology, religion & politics. It’s the beliefs & customs & traditions & relationships of both society & individual. The woodcutter in the forest and the blacksmith in town lead very different lives, but they’re interdependent. The blacksmith makes the ax the woodcutter uses to cut the wood that fuels the fires the forge needs to produce the ax.
Worldbuilding is how everyone lives and gets along.
Conflict arises when they don’t, and conflict is story.
I adore the movie Romancing the Stone. Joan Wilder leaves her NYC world of tailored suits & Italian high heels for the jungles of Columbia, but she brings along her suits & heels. They’re all she has. They’re what she is. Jack Colter tosses her suitcase of tailored suits off a cliff and lops the heels off her shoes with a machete. All she sees is he’s wrecking her things. He’s destroying what she believes she is. He’s just trying to be practical, but she makes it personal.
Your world is developed and maintained by the view and experiences of your characters. A character only knows what he knows. What they want and how they view things differ depending on their experience, needs and background. A shepherd traveling cross-country looks for open grasslands for his flocks. A warrior traveling cross-country looks for ambushes & cover. He’ll avoid that shepherd’s paradise like a plague. A healer will test unfamiliar plants for healing properties. An assassin will look for the deadliest poisons. Same methods, different goals.
Take a werewolf from the inland mountains to the coast. (I did in Lycan Tides.) Imagine his awe at entire racks of seawater drying to salt. The locals take for granted one of his greatest luxury items. It takes weeks of hard travel to bring salt back to the mountains – every pound measured in blood, sweat and tears.
Put a character in a different environment than he’s used to, where none of what he knows applies. What does he notice? What does he miss most? What does he use? What does he adapt to suit his own needs? What does he learn to do that he never did before? What old beliefs/truths fly out the window and what new beliefs/truths take their place?
What if a peace-loving miner discovers a new metal to makes tougher tools – but also stronger weapons? Does he reveal his secret and take the bad with the good, or does he hide it? How does his family, his village, his country view him either way? What makes a villain a villain and a hero a hero? When is a villain a hero and vice versa?
Think Robin Hood.
We are shaped by our family, our friends, our jobs, our experiences. So are our characters. Worlds build our characters, but never forget that our characters build their worlds, too.
In my newest book released from Samhain, Dust of Dreams, my heroine Pryseis defies the faerie council to save a goblin child, because she believes it’s the right thing to do. The individual matters as much as the group. She doesn’t see goblin, enemy – she sees child. She’s a dream faerie, she heals nightmares – but what about when a nightmare’s more than a dream, when it becomes reality? What of her powers then? And if she does succeed, what of the council that swore Analahamme – eternal banishment and ostracism – should she return alive? Yes, the caverns and mountaintops are there, councils and sorcerers and spells. A creature of air and light trapped underground, in a dark kingdom of earth and stone. But it’s really personal beliefs vs. traditions, the one vs. the many, that’s at the heart of my worldbuilding here.
Independence Day is here because a few determined that what had always been was no longer good enough. They took on the impossible because they thought it was right. And they changed their world – and ours.
Worldbuilding is so much more than the world.