Writing – Worldbuilding

I think a lot about writing.

How I write, why I write. How I can explain to others about writing.

I just did an interview (not yet released) and we discussed things that are pertinent to the writing process – character development, that type of thing. I thought I should put together some thoughts on how I approach writing in general. I hope they’ll be of some use to someone!

WORLDBUILDING

I am probably the worst video game player on the planet. I occasionally win because I flail and press allll the buttons and my friends don’t know how to respond to my furious attacks/falling into the action. (Sometimes I manage sneak attacks because, uh, I think they forget I’m there.)

Anyway. Cough. The point is, I may be absolutely awful at video games, but I do notice things about the virtual world as I go along. One of these is the idea of a map that starts out completely obscured (usually just darkness) and clears slowly as you move along the trail.

I think of writing this way. I have several rules here:

  1. The Game Map
  2. POV-focus
  3. Microwave Tech

These all go together. That is, I reveal bits and pieces of the “world” to the audience…from the point of view (POV) of a character.

I also almost never reveal anything on the Map (the plot/fictional world) unless it has been revealed through the POV of a character that the reader has already “met.”

This concept of POV-focus (I don’t love the title, but bear with me) means that the reader sees things from a very tight perspective. You learn about the world from a very restricted viewpoint: that of a specific character, and then those that the character interacts with at length. For example, in Aestus, the reader first is introduced to Jossey Sokol, and from then on is shown the action through her eyes…up until we are introduced to her friend Gavin Tskoulis, a Patrol commander.

There are occasional exceptions to this, but they’re very tightly bound to the characters I’ve already introduced, and I have a specific rationale for doing so. In other words, if it’s not directly from that character’s POV, it’s about that character, by someone close to them. No “Meanwhile, across the land, [new characters blah blah blah].”

Rules 1 and 2: Game Map and POV-focus

To demonstrate, in Aestus, Jossey is our main character. At the age of 10, she loses her brother Tark to the Onlar, the monstrous aboveground creatures (a short opening chapter), and when she is 25 she’s attacked again and has to save her entire solar crew in a pitch-black tunnel deep underground. She is now doubly terrified of the aboveground world (but works aboveground as a solar engineer because she can’t imagine another career). For her bravery, and for her skill, she is offered a change in career – a field Engineer with Patrol, which might involve combat – but for obvious reasons she says no.

Her friend Gavin Tskoulis (who was her brother Tark’s childhood best friend) is a Patrol commander…he, too, doesn’t want her to join. However, one night, he’s aboveground on a mission, and his recruit Wickford stumbles upon a small skeleton…near where Tark disappeared.

I normally would write such a consequential chapter from Gavin’s perspective, but in this case I think it works better from Wickford’s because they’re all in the same Patrol unit, they have roughly the same experiences, Wickford is a subordinate (and terrified of Gavin, as much of Patrol is)…and this way the audience can see Gavin’s reaction, as well as how his men (and, by extension, much of the City) react to him.

The following demonstrates several things:

It was cold.

Cold was a relative term, but Wickford was glad he had on his outer layer as he stepped up top into the canyonland with its endless night sky.

He shivered. His safety gauge read seventy degrees. Positively chilly for this time of year.

The Founders, long ago, had written scientific tracts on how, years after the extreme heat had all but baked much of the world, the extra gas in the atmosphere might eventually dissipate. The Earth might cool.

He shrugged it off. Tomorrow would probably be another scorcher.

Wickford turned and eyed the entrance to the old elevator, reaching to make sure his standard-issue knife was still attached to his leg. If he lost his sword, he could at least fight at very close range.

He’d seen enough to know that didn’t usually go well.

He glanced at the elevator again, impatiently, waiting for the other Patrol to emerge. He didn’t want to get stuck up here with just Pricey. Alistair Price-Ford III, Pricey for short. Obnoxious as they came.

Pricey grinned. “Don’t worry, newbie.”

Wickford shot him a look. He wasn’t worried, he told himself. He’d volunteered for this. Yes, they were as far away from the main City entrances as the service corridors went – Henry had said something about the empty quadrant, unless he’d heard wrong – but the elevator should still be working fine. It was unlikely they’d be trapped, he thought. And if they were, they should have enough water to make it back to the main entrance before sunrise.

He shook his head for even thinking about it. It wasn’t a rust bucket anymore, not since the incident years ago. All of the elevators had been upgraded by order of Intelligence, outfitted with Patrol codes to keep people from sneaking up top.

As he had, as a boy, before the Onlar had started invading the tunnels with greater frequency. He wasn’t a chicken.

As for “newbie,” well, he gritted his teeth. He’d been on tunnel patrols for two years. He was only a “new” recruit when it came to aboveground work. That’s just Pricey, he told himself. Henry wants me here. Advocated for me.

He jumped as the elevator doors opened again and Commander Tskoulis stepped out, armed to the teeth and followed by Henry, second-in-command. Two others followed shortly – the auxiliary medic and the tracker. They were from another unit. Wickford hadn’t bothered to learn their names.

Wickford breathed a nearly-inaudible sigh of relief.

Pricey elbowed him. “Toldja.”

Wickford said nothing. Pricey might be obnoxious, but he was a better guy to have on your side than against you.

The group saluted Tskoulis. He waved them down, did a quick visual inspection of their equipment, their water rations. Sufficient for a night mission. He smiled grimly, his mouth the only thing visible, his mask obscuring the rest of his features.

“Move out,” was all he said.

He brushed past, and Wickford instinctively moved out of the way, getting as usual the unsettling impression of standing next to a wild creature, something barely in control of its power. Tskoulis carried his sword on his back, along with his water rations, and in the moonlight it tilted back and forth as he walked, like a strange antenna. He looked back over his shoulder at them, expression unreadable with the mask, mouth set in a grim line.

The Tiger, the commander was called, after one of the near-mythical giant predators from the distant past.

Tskoulis was certainly built like one. He moved easily for a man of his size. But Wickford had seen how fast he could move, the power he had in his enormous arms, how he could use the sword he carried.

How the commander had pinned another Patrol agent to the tunnel wall with one hand, lifting him nearly off the ground, for insubordination.

This is the kind of information it’s hard to get from Gavin’s own perspective. You don’t normally walk around thinking “I am badass and I scare people.” (I mean, maybe. But uh.)

Note how we see what’s normal for Wickford: 70 is chilly, he’s a bit interested in the world around him (thinks about the Founders, about the science, about the Onlar, about why the rock formations as are they are [a part not included in the excerpt]), and he’s petrified of the Onlar…and of his commander, Gavin Tskoulis. We don’t learn Gavin’s thoughts, we don’t learn what the Patrol agents are doing exactly, we don’t learn much of anything other than Wickford’s own musings on things. It’s dark, and there are rocks, and they’re in terrible danger, and Wickford is regretting his decision.

They lined up along the ridge and crouched, silent shadows, staring down into the valley. They made sure to check that the moon was on the other side of the sky, so they couldn’t easily be seen. The elevator felt very far away.

They can see you in the dark. It was true, knew Wickford. But they could try to keep the advantage. Up here, the wind was blasting harshly, warm even at night, and very dry. The only vegetation around was deep in the canyons, where there was water; the ridge was clean of cover, burned during the day, wind-scoured at night.

“Water,” Tskoulis murmured. They obediently took a swig from their canisters. It had to be timed, to keep them all sufficiently rationed to make the full loop of whatever mission Council had sent them on this time.

Wickford had only been on one of these aboveground missions before, though he’d fought alongside Tskoulis and Henry down in the tunnels for the past year. Commander Tskoulis never told them much, just gave them brief orders before they moved out.

Usually the aboveground Patrol went through the canyons, driving out any Onlar they could find, or so Henry had explained when Wickford had volunteered for duty. And he’d only done it on a dare, from Henry of course, who’d called him a chicken in the mess hall in front of everyone, saying tunnel duty was for “Patrollets.” Newbies, Wickford thought sourly.

But fighting Onlar on their home turf was sounding less and less great with every minute that passed, as it dawned on him that they might actually be going into the canyons.

Some more about what’s going on, mainly through Wickford not really knowing what’s going on, and worrying his way into a state of anxiety.

And then…a perspective of Gavin Tskoulis that none of them has ever seen before:

Behind him, Wickford thought he heard a sound. A trickle of rock. A footstep, maybe.

His fascination with the Milky Way vanished, replaced by gut-wrenching terror. The Onlar could be there, right behind him.

Maybe even a group.

And he was alone.

His hands felt like ice. He broke into a run, scrambling over the rocks as he made a beeline for the others.

As he did, he tripped over something and went flying, making a racket as he went down hard, his gear scattering.

The entire group of Patrol turned around.

“It’s the newbie,” he heard one of them mutter angrily.

He lay there, frozen. He’d lost his canteen, and his knife. He’d heard them both fall somewhere in the darkness. Tskoulis would probably be furious, he thought.

But Wickford didn’t care, because he was staring at a skull.

….

The second-in-command stared for a long moment, then took off his pack and dug hurriedly in it.

“Tools,” he ordered.

The medic alone looked unfazed, and obediently began to look through his pack.

Sometimes they find only bones.

Wickford was still frozen, staring in horror at what he’d found. He hadn’t wanted to believe this about the Onlar, despite what else he’d seen.

But not this. He’d always hoped this was just a legend.

He felt sick.

At the commotion, Tskoulis appeared out of the darkness, a looming figure, rage written in the tension of his enormous arms and his clenched jaw.

Wickford looked up, wincing, suddenly realizing just how tall the commander was, how imposing.

Tskoulis’ men parted before him as he stalked over to Wickford. Even Pricey fell silent.

Wickford looked up at the commander, terrified, ready to apologize for the noise he’d made, ready to beg him not to throw him off Patrol, but Tskoulis just waved the young recruit into silence, staring down at the small skeleton on the ground.

The men gathered around, ready to carefully excavate, waiting for orders. The medic had an emergency blanket ready.

The air seemed to suddenly go out of Tskoulis’ body.

“Stop,” he said suddenly, harshly. There was a note to his voice the young recruit had never heard before.

Tskoulis removed his mask with one enormous hand, let his arm drop to his side. His hair was damp underneath, plastered to his head. His expression was fixed, his face appearing completely drained of blood, as he looked down at the small skeleton.

Wickford and the others immediately set aside their tools and backed away from the bones.

The night wind had picked up, ever so slightly, and was stirring the lock of pale hair above the skull’s empty eye sockets.

Tskoulis’ fists clenched. He was crushing his mask, the men noticed.

They stared.

Pricey, usually brash, opened his mouth, and Henry shot him a death glare.

The wind picked up, blowing grains of sand through the small bones of the pathetic arm. It was flung outward, as if its owner had been dropped and left there, discarded, under the desert sky.

“No no no,” Tskoulis muttered under his breath. His broad shoulders drooped as he continued to stare.

“Commander?” Pricey piped up. “What’s – ”

Henry physically grabbed Pricey, put a gloved hand over his mouth.

Tskoulis didn’t seem to hear Pricey, didn’t seem to notice his Patrol were even there. The men saw he was shaking, face completely white.

Wickford watched in wonder as The Tiger sank to the ground beside the small skeleton and put his face into his hands.

I really appreciate this whole scene for the perspective on Gavin and Patrol. The soldiers’ interactions say a lot about the dynamics and the hierarchy among them – Pricey’s brashness, his apparent closeness to Tskoulis despite the group’s general impression of Gavin Tskoulis as terrifying, etc. I didn’t need to say much about their actions, other than Pricey being obnoxious (to Wickford, at least) – the way Wickford perceives them says it all. The reader can see (and, I hope, feel) the absolute shock when they witness the Tiger showing strong emotion.

Quite a different impression of Gavin Tskoulis than the main character, Jossey, has:

Gavin was asleep in the chair next to her bed, a bedraggled set of hothouse flowers half falling off his lap. His handsome face looked tired, drawn, as if he’d been there for some time.

Jossey half-smiled. How many women in the City would be beyond thrilled to find Commander Tskoulis passed out in their hospital room, flowers in hand, waiting for them to awaken?

She almost laughed at the idea.

It was sweet of him. She just wished he wouldn’t be so…so…

She sighed. She hadn’t seen him in some time, not counting the tunnel. He was sporting a new scar on his arm, she noticed.

Even unconscious, Gavin was physically intimidating, with enormous arms and shoulders, and deeply tanned from his time up aboveground with Patrol. He wasn’t much older than her, but he was more serious by far. Serious, and tall, and reserved, with a knockout smile that he deployed at will.

Mr. Celebrity, she thought, smiling wryly.


Some thoughts on perspective, and writing from various character POVs.

As we understand someone, we often come to care for them, or at least sympathize with them. Understand them through how they think, how they feel, and we may come to identify with them, to an extent. I don’t often give backstory for a character or infodump about their world; I let the audience experience them (and their world) through the here and now.

I hope they feel Wickford’s unease and awkwardness and his horror. I hope they feel Jossey’s affection toward the same man who terrifies Wickford and Patrol. I hope, later, they come to love Gavin as I do when they read his own thoughts.

Rule 3: Microwave Tech

Re: my third rule, Microwave Tech, it’s quite simple: I really find it frustrating when sci-fi infodumps about technology, and really anything worldbuilding-based. Yes, it might be interesting, but it doesn’t help you get immersed in the world (or at least it doesn’t help me). I want to understand/experience the tech/the world as the characters understand/experience it.

Would you, in describing something that happened in your kitchen last week, talk at length about your microwave? Unless it’s relevant to the plot (someone uses it, uh, incorrectly and there’s a fire, for example), it’s…a microwave. Many of us have them. They’re not novel technology for our day and age. Two hundred years from now, flying cars may be completely normal. If it’s something the character wouldn’t notice, don’t describe it.

Summary

Fiction develops empathy, so they say. That’s one big reason I write. I hope it works. For you – put all this together, and you should have (hopefully) a solid introduction to a fictional world and well-developed characters…and give a reader a good time learning about whatever mystery/ies await along with said character(s).

Sabrina

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