Hey everyone, welcome back to the Writers Block series. Last time we started to get into the idea of world building and the sort of streamlined way I approached it, by breaking things down into tangible and intangible fields. So for example, the tangible field had things like architecture, fashion, and technology. Now we’re going to talk about the other part, the things you can’t see or touch that give your world just as much weight as the physical parts.
In keeping with the Tolkien idea of world building, this is the part where people usually start creating an entire mythology and complex history of the world. Whether it’s how the world got to be this dystopian wasteland or the many battles that have been waged through the centuries leading to the coming war. But just as we did with the physical world, the number one rule to keep in mind is, does this matter to the story? It’s good to know certain things as a writer even if they might never come up in the actual story. The history of certain characters or of the world in general can be key in regards to motivations and how the story as a whole plays out, but try to find the limit of how much you need. Once you know how Globocorp took over the western world, you can put in a pin in it, and if you think of something else you can always come back to it later. When starting out, you just want to nail down the basics, which you can always build on as needed.
So for example, one of the main things you’ll need to come up with is what kind of society your story takes place in. There’s no reason you can’t save yourself some work and just model it off of the society you already live in. It’s easy for the reader to pick up on, and easy for you to write. But if your story requires you to come up with something new, here are some things to keep in mind. What do the people who live in your world value? In The Hobbit, the people of The Shire really cherished their homes and possessions. Hobbits where all about keeping up appearances, being good hosts and guests, and living comfortably. Maybe your society will be one that no longer has need of possessions or currency. Maybe it will be one based on war and physical prowess.
As we go further into the idea of society, and begin to build on politics, start to think of the power structure of your world. Although it may not always play into your story, most societies have some sort of hierarchy. 1984 is broken down by the upper party members (the wealthy), outer party members (somewhat middle class members), and the “proles” (the poor). Although your world might not have a similarly sinister upper class, it will still likely have a group of people who are in control, whether they be politicians, royalty, or just a group of people who end up making most of the decisions that affect the world at large.
Speaking of politics, do your characters live in a democracy? Monarchy? Dictatorship? Even stories that don’t really feature politics heavily can benefit by knowing the general political landscape of the world. Superman doesn’t dabble that heavily in politics, but stories like Red Son where Superman is born in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas, or the storyline where Lex Luthor became president of the United States added a number of layers to those worlds. What would Superman be like if he grew up a communist? How will Superman stop Lex Luthor when he is the most powerful man in the country? Doctor Doom is a ruler of a foreign country and therefore enjoys diplomatic immunity in America and can run off to the Latverian embassy when he’s in trouble.
Futhermore, what are the laws of your world? Again, there’s nothing wrong with making them the same as the world we live in, I certainly do that, but sometimes those laws can make for interesting conflicts in your story. Fahrenheit 451 was a world where books are outlawed and burned. Some worlds ban their citizens from going beyond a certain point, or mandate people be killed when they reach a certain age. So think about what kind of regulations and laws, if any, would add some more depth to your world.
Finally there are two more major points I always like to establish. The first are the rules of powers/magic. What are the limits of the powers certain characters have? In Avatar: The Last Airbender we see all kinds of nations that have control over various elements (fire, water, etc.), but only the Avatar is able to master them all. The rays of a yellow sun grant Superman his powers, while a red sun makes him weak. Because of his increased metabolism, The Flash needs to eat constantly. Nightcrawler can only teleport about 2 miles. By establishing these rules, you give the reader a greater sense of what is, and what isn’t possible. It also helps prevent you from creating Deus Ex-Machina-like characters, who can do whatever the story calls for, which generally creates more confusion.
Magic is much the same way. By creating limits, you can give your characters a lot more weight, which can be important in a fantasy world. A general rule people use, is giving magic a cost, that way making the choice to use it that much more impactful. If people could just do whatever they wanted without any backlash, it wouldn’t be as interesting, but having to weigh the use of magic against, say your sanity, or your soul makes things more intriguing. In the Hellblazer series, names have power, and knowing the name of your opponent gives you an advantage over them. Other series, put the power in magical objects, which too come at a cost, like the ring in The Hobbit, or Doctor Fate’s helmet. So take some time to think about what characters can and can’t do, and what those abilities might cost them.
The final intangible thing I think can really make a difference in your world is probably the most abstract of all, but if used in the right way can really pay off. And that thing is color. You don’t really ever think about the color of your world when writing it, but it’s something that can really have an impact on the mood and tone of your story. For example, the world of Captain Marvel and Fawcett City is bright and flashy. It really gives the story an upbeat and lighthearted feel, and without it, the world would feel slightly off. Same goes with the dark and gloomy world of Gotham, or the neon-noir world of Blade Runner. The color of comics really impact the reader on a subliminal level, and used in the right way can give your world a truly iconic feel. Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye run benefited greatly from the subtle purple color scheme of Matt Hollignsworth. Jeph Leob and Tim Sale have done entire series based on color (Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue), and Vertigo recently did an entire anthology series based on the four primary colors of comics (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black).
That’s a lot of things to consider, along with the physical aspect of your world, so take some real time to sit down and consider each aspect. Again, you might not have a lot to think about in some cases, but there might be others you haven’t even considered, and it might benefit you to really examine them before you move on to the next step. What is that next step you ask? Well after a lot of buildup, it’s finally time to do some writing! The next few posts will be much shorter, and talk about everything from setting up a writing space, schedule, and going over different kinds of story and plot structures. Until then, work on your worlds and keep making comics!