Give Your Characters Hell- A Crash-course in World Building

Screaming beauty Model with American Indian Makeup

The world of my first book is dystopian, as some of you might know. In Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic literature, world-building must start from page one. The same goes with historical fiction, but I continue with the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”

An excellent example of world-building from page one without going into excess detail and losing the journey of the Main Character. You want the occasional browser of Amazon or the lunch-time walker who strands into the local bookstore to get on with the reading, don’t you? When you read the first chapter of this classic book, you know what you get into.

You must let the reader know what he is buying.

I’m sure you have read your share of writing advice on the beginning aka the Inciting Incident. I know I have.

“The inciting incident is an episode, plot point or event that hooks the reader into the story. This particular moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.”

Source: www.nownovel.com

You’ll start your book in the middle of the action, and you’ll yank the Main Character out of his daily life. Someone or something drags the hero into dangerous territory, and you’ll give the MC hell to raise the stakes. You make his goal crystal clear to the anonymous reader who comes from a variety of backgrounds.

By doing this, you are world-building.

You describe the thunder outside the MC’s window when fate comes knocking on his door dressed as Gandalf The Grey or explosions or… You tell us what kind of bedsheets the heroine casts aside to answer the call of duty. When she gets dressed and fetches her weapons, you give us laser guns or the bow and arrow of Katniss Everdeen.

If you’re writing about basically anything which is alien to the person who buys your book- hunting or lace weaving – you need to immerse him/her into your world. You use the five senses which give us the most cited rule in the history of fiction, from the campfire stories of the hunter-gatherers to the time of widespread Indie-publishing:

Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell

What the MC:

  • Tastes
  • Sees
  • Touches
  • Smells
  • Hears

The five senses immerse the reader into your book’s setting. Scientific studies of human senses go far out. If you’re interested in the over fifty ways of sensing, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense

My personal favorites are the sense of your own body position and pressure.

If you write historical fiction, you do a ton of research to give the accurate details of the world around the one doing the sensing.

World-building and exposition

Google overflows with checklists on world-building. I suggest you use one because it functions as a framework while you expose the imaginary setting.

Remember, an exhibition of the setting mustn’t become an info dump of backstory!

World-building is a tough art. Be stealth and embed the environment into everything the Main Character does. You can use supporting characters to bring forth a piece of history. In my opinion, the only thing that can seriously deal with the problems of effective world-building is REWRITING.

grandma rewriting

I use an Excel sheet for Scene Tracking. World- building has a column of its own which lists the exposition assigned to that particular scene. I keep track of what I’ve already exposed.  And I’ve told all the significant sensory bits when I get to the ending.

Example: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/2013/10/track-your-scenes-on-scene-tracker.html

Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy in world building

Here we dive into character psychology again. When you read the list of needs below, remember to make the fury of hell rain down on your MC. Think of hardship, battle, desperation- you need to build conflict which is the core of each great story.

Without conflict, you have only exposition and no story.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.”

Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

A list of needs according to Maslow:

  • Physical demands: where does your MC acquire food or water? Who manufactures/sells it and what does he want? The hard-core motivation of satisfying one’s bodily needs is a great way to expose your world. Think of the role of gasoline in Mad Max. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max
  • Safety needs: How to find safety from the elements? Who can offer security among numbers and what’s the price?
  • Belongingness needs: family, friends, clan and culture. This need offers you a rich possibility of describing the rules of birth, marriage, and death. How to raise kids during a specific era? Belongingness can tell the reader so much about the society the MC lives in.
  • Esteem needs: What the MC sees when she catches her own reflection while passing a shop window? How far up the ladder of the hierarchy is the pauper or the princess? This need offers the writer a beautiful opportunity for character development.
  • Cognitive needs: Education, knowledge, being right or wrong. This need addresses the goal of the MC.
  • Aesthetic needs: What people consider beautiful or relaxing? No matter how scorched the post-apocalyptic landscape is, people find aesthetically pleasing things. Music, fashion, booze… Does the MC manufacture some objects herself? The things which please her tell a story. A gunsmith or a soldier reveres his weapon, and a princess loves her silk.
  • Self-actualization: character ARC, change in the person between the beginning and end.
  • Transcendence: Religion, beliefs, mysticism. Does your MC find peace in the end? Remember to develop your character ARC.

“Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.” Find out more here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

maslow_pyramid.jpg

This is the framework I use to create dystopian world twenty-five years after the nuclear war. You must weave world-building into everything you put in your book. The setting isn’t a separate entity.

Good luck!

My Website: www.rebeckajager.com

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The Sidekick – The Shadow or The Flame?

Young attractive Witch walking on the bridge in heavy black smoke.

When I hear the word sidekick, the image of Batman’s Robin conjures. Who could forget the guy wearing the green pantyhose? The word is forever linked with the lesser one of the power duo.

The Urban Dictionary defines a sidekick:

“A friend/associate of a more popular, charismatic person. The sidekick gains most of his/her acclaim from merely being connected so closely to the more powerful acquaintance.”

It’s easy to write a sidekick who follows the heroine like a shadow. Sometimes the shadow is long, and sometimes it travels ahead of her, but shadows rarely mean anything except symbolism.

And then an interesting secondary character flows out of your pen like lightning. This person keeps you awake at night and leads the story into unknown depths as a bright flame.

The safest route to prevent the sidekick from stealing the spotlight, is to make her/him inferior to the heroine/hero but where’s the drama in that?

Someone to save the day

If you’re like me, you write a villain who radiates raw power. He keeps kicking the hero’s ass, and you need someone to help defeat him. My recommendation is to make the villain stronger than the MC because this way you build pressure and suspense! You drive the plot forward with bloody desperation.

The sidekick can come to the MC’s aid at the darkest hour: when the villain is about to strike a spear into the hero’s heart.

The sidekick is abler than the hero under unusual circumstances:

  • The hero is wounded and unable to defend himself
  • The hero is under a spell or doesn’t sense the approaching death
  • The secondary character is the only one around and must rise to save the day
  • The villain’s BFF changes sides and become one of the good guys to keep the hero safe. He has the element of surprise on his side.
  • The sidekick betrays the hero and reveals that he has been working for the evil one the whole time. You can feel the salt stinging on that wound for a long time. This twist forces you to prolong the final battle- which is a good thing. Keep postponing the reader’s satisfaction.

And so on. I’m sure you have seen movies which utilize a lesser character to bring the plot into a grand finale via roundabouts.

Just Different

The sidekick can be a person who contrasts the hero, like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson. Watson is a man of medicine with practical wits, and a war hero, who reflects the intellectual superiority of Sherlock Holmes. Where Holmes is in danger, Watson comes to the rescue. Where Holmes is at loss, Watson is confident because he is different.

Sometimes the secondary character, which you intended as a vessel for plot advancement, steals the readers’ attention. That’s what happened to Liva Löwe in my book The unholy Warrior. She’s the one my beta readers found most attractive because they can relate to her.

The key to the reader’s heart is arousing empathy. Keep your sidekicks relatable!

Sometimes the heroine can appear too strong and hardheaded, which is fine for the MC. But the presence of a gentler person who finds her courage when all else crumbles can have an earth-shaking effect on the reader.

In my book The Unholy Warrior, the heroine Rebane Nordstrom thinks she’s invincible, and the young German girl she saved is a mere nuisance to be dragged around:

“Each twig crackled under Liva’s foot and the fir trees slapped her with prickling branches. The willows grabbed the young woman’s shirt and her hair got tangled in the thorny bushes. The forest forbade Liva’s presence. Rebane advanced too fast for her to keep up.

“Rebane, wait!” she shouted when her friend’s leaf green camouflage merged with the shade of the grove.

Rebane turned around and her expression didn’t hide her frustration:  “You’re noisy like the running elk. The elk doesn’t care because she’s big. Everything cedes in front of her but you’re not the fucking elk, and nothing here fears you,” Rebane hissed and spat on the moss.

“I’m sorry. Can’t you see that I’m trying?”

“And be sure to step where I step as we cut through the swamp. The sacrificial grove is dangerous. It will swallow you if you stray one inch. I’d be unhappy to lose you, my friend.”

Liva’s eyes filled with tears. The words she tried to form stuck on her lips. Rebane took a firm hold on her smooth white hand and Liva squeezed her arm like she was about to drown.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Liva said but the wind which whispered among the trees scattered her voice.

****

At this stage, Liva is weaker than Rebane who is a trained soldier and a master survivalist. The women have just crossed paths, and I take my time to reveal Liva’s unique qualities. She has survived kidnapping and slave traders, but with a different approach than Rebane who shoots first and asks questions later. Liva is more than meets the eye. She is in touch with the divine healing power. Omens and visions give her understanding of what plagues Rebane. Mother Nature is a dominant bitch and she has a significant role in my book. Liva Löwe is an adapter: she molds her being to fit the surroundings.

Blurring lines

Is Julia a sidekick of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984? Yes and no. A love interest can be a sidekick. Winston and Julia rebel together.

Boy-boy and girl-girl pairs are abundant in literature and movies. If the heroine and the sidekick represent different sexes, you can write a sub-plot of budding love. One-sided affection raises the stakes a notch by introducing another level of conflicting interests. A disgruntled lover is a fertile ground for the enemy to grow resentment towards the hero.

Julia_1984.jpeg
Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in the Film 1984, MGM 1985.

But I see Julia as the last nail on Winston’s coffin. From the introduction of Julia, Orwell predicts the main character’s doom. To make the aide betray the hero is a great idea: the knife twists deep inside the gaping wound. In fact, Winston and Julia betray each other at the face of an invincible enemy: the system.

Any_Amasova
Barbara Bach as Major Anya Amasova in Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 Eon Productions).   

The representatives of the enemy can become sidekicks for the hero. Just one kiss from the deadly 007 and poof! A battle-hardened communist assassin becomes the Playboy bunny because sex makes her see the system of Motherland as evil.

Okay, I over-simplify.

I’m not complaining because Ian Fleming’s James Bond is excellent entertainment. The secondary character can exist as a borderline case through the entire Bond movie.

We know where Major Amasova’s loyalties lie when we see the ending of The Spy Who Loved Me.

A Writer from The Periphery- Fiction as Your Second Language

Winter, snow covered tree landskape at dusk

When you’re a writer and a member of a small nation, you cannot expect the reading world to understand your train of thoughts. I go to great lengths while trying to master English grammar because I hope to gain a wider audience. I use Grammarly to save my writer’s ass, but my literary thoughts have appeared in English since childhood. Don’t ask me why. Maybe I owe it to Hollywood?

The Finns are a northern nation of circa five million people inhabiting a narrow and long stretch of forest between Sweden and The Russian Federation. Our language is tough on grammar, and all of us learn English in school because nobody understands what we are saying- or bothers to learn Finnish. I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t learn it from my mother as an infant. It’s that hard- trust me.

Learning English as a second language poses several challenges on writing fiction.

Even if we Scandinavian writers learn to master perfect English on our keyboards, our patterns of thought and perception remain native Scandinavian.

I tend to write about familiar things which I’ve experienced firsthand. Although my novel The Unholy Warrior takes place in the not-so-distant future, I write about the arctic nature which has enticed me all my life. I take care in explaining things, but sometimes I use sayings which aren’t understood by the English-speaking audience.

If I abided by the writing rules of my favorite author George Orwell, I wouldn’t use a metaphor in the first place. His rule number one is:  “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

So I managed to break the most important rule of my favorite author. He broke his own rules frequently, but he was a master of style and emotional impact. Rules are meant to be bent, right?

More on George Orwell’s writing rules: https://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/

The Blue Hour vs. The Golden Hour

In my first draft of The Unholy Warrior, I used the term “the blue hour” which is a way the Finns describe the magic blue shade of the arctic scenery right after sunset- during the winter. Everything wears the most magical shades of deep blue. The sparkling snow enhances the luminous color, and the Aurora Borealis appear. Some readers didn’t understand what I meant because they have never seen this phenomenon with their own eyes. The correct term is The Golden Hour. To paint the mental picture for my readers, I must use the wrong color or explain myself.

As a newbie writer, you cannot afford to lose a single reader!

The same goes with Aurora Borealis- the fox fires. Most people have seen images of the sun’s particles hitting the northern atmosphere and creating the ghostly waves of color and form on the polar skies. Sometimes the Aurora Borealis appears in Southern Finland- if you are looking at the evening sky in the countryside where the city lights don’t block the beauty of the untamed nature.

Knowing what Aurora Borealis is, differs from the experience of witnessing them yourself for the first time. The magic will make you cry. It’s that beautiful. The FoxFire rocks the fundament of your soul!

I needed to broaden my description:

“My breath puffs up in clouds. I remove my Canada Goose Expedition parka hood and gaze up.

Each inch of the black velvet fills with dotted stars until the Aurora Borealis lights up the sky with elusive neon green. I take off my down-stuffed mitten, and my hand becomes numb in seconds. It’s freezing: minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The sky is alive with light, movement, and color. Blue breaks through the darkness. Lilac appears on the edges, where blue dissolves into the ruby red.

And he comes forth from nothingness with stars in his fur. The playful FireFox gallops across the sky. His black paws kick the air in the West where the remnants of the sunset still lick the horizon. The fox arches his back and springs into an agile leap. He lands on his extended front paws in the dark East. He throws his head back while his flames never stop moving. His tail is fluffy and brushes the cold sky with vivid color. Sparkles pop as he touches the hillside and the mute treetops. The tip of his tail whips the dome of heaven until he pauses. When he looks down at me, a sly smile spreads on his canine face. I feel so small compared to the scale of Mother Nature.”

The passage above is an excerpt from my short story Touch of Heaven. You can get it on Amazon Kindle

Or download the story from my web page

The Upside-down Spider

I set up my social media accounts as part of establishing my writing presence on the net. Sometimes I tried to be funny and used the Finnish saying of the upside-down spider. I just realized that no one understood what I meant but I’m not going to elaborate on what the saying means to the Finns (because it’s extremely dirty).

“Upside-down spider” defined by the Urban Dictionary: 

  • An undefinable phase which can pertain to anything in your vast imagination. Correct, I have a boundless imagination.
  • “You’re about as cool as an upside-down spider.” If you said this to a Finnish girl she would seriously maim you.
  • “I’d rather suck my own poop than eat an upside-down spider.” I don’t understand what this means!
  • Charles J. banged a girl resembling an upside-down spider. This example came close enough.

My point being: we the Scandinavians (or Russians, Chinese, Nepalese and so on…) must check out the meaning of the common saying before we write it to an English-speaking audience. I am still pro-slogans despite Mr. Orwell because sometimes the common phrase consolidates the purpose.

“Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous,” is his rule number six and I believe him. After all, his dystopian novel “1984” hangs on the best-seller lists seventy years after he wrote it! https://money.cnn.com/2017/01/25/media/george-orwell-1984-best-seller

The Upside of Being a Writer from the Periphery

Being a member of the distant minority has its sunnier side. You have an excellent opportunity of letting your readers experience your spiritual homeland by writing about the people, the mood, the weather and the animals of your latitude. The northern nature- especially Lapland- is experiencing a boom of tourism after decades of investment in advertising the untouched winter wonderland.

Why not write about it?