Small Sparks of Life – Making Your World Feel Alive

spark of lifeAs a fantasy writer, you’re likely to create new and fascinating worlds for your stories to take place in. You have entirely new races, and their cultures and histories date back thousands of years.

You have gods and religions, dragons and monsters, heroes and villains. You have magic.

In short, you have a world.

Now it’s time to bring it to life.

Sure, the story is the important bit, but having your story take place in a living, breathing world just adds to the magic – and isn’t that part of the allure of reading and writing fantasy?

Here I’ll share some of my ideas and theories for how to add a little extra spark of life to your setting. This is by no means an exact science, and there are sure to be other ways to do it that work better for you and your story. I hope you’ll find some of my ideas useful or inspiring though.

This post is split into three parts. Part one is about what it means for a world in a story to feel alive. Part two is about a few tricks for engaging the imagination of your reader. The last and third part contains a few examples of how I’ve applied this in my current story.

I’ll begin by summing up the essence of my philosophy in just one sentence though:

Even in the most fantastic setting there is room for the familiar and the mundane, and even that can be tweaked to carry a sense of wonder.

What is Life?

The above question is just a tiny bit ever so slightly out of the scope of this article, so I’ll try and refine it a little:

What do I mean by adding life to the world in my story?

That’s better. It’s still a pretty big question, but not as big.

Maybe at first I should explain what I mean by life in this context? To me, a world is alive when it feels real – when it feels like it’s a place in its own right and not just a backdrop to whatever the story is about. It’s somewhere people could live.

So how do we achieve this? How do we make our worlds come alive in our stories? One way to think about it is that a world is alive if it satisfies the following three conditions:

  • Logic: The world makes sense.
  • Depth: There seems to be more to the world than what we see in the story.
  • Culture: People live there.

The first two feel quite obvious to me. If the world doesn’t make sense, then it’s very hard to believe in it. If there’s nothing beyond what’s described in the story, then there’s not much to believe in – even if it makes sense.

The third one is a bit trickier. You can have a world with Logic and Depth and with people in it and it may still not feel alive. It’s not enough that your world has people in it. The people have to have life too. They need culture.

In fact, let’s focus on just the Culture part. Why? Because I feel it’s important and because I feel it’s something that’s easy to lose sight of among everything else that needs to be considered when creating a world.

When you’re making up a history spanning tens of thousands of years, it’s easy to forget to consider how everyday social interactions play out between members of the culture.

Throughout a story, we’ll probably not see all that much of its history. We’ll hear about it from the characters or the people they meet, and it may be of tremendous importance to the story, even the fate of the entire world. We don’t really get to experience the actual history ourselves though

What we do see and experience is how the people we meet in the story interact with each other. This is a good spot to try and insert a little spark of life.

Three Principles of Imagination

For me as a writer it is important to engage the reader’s imagination and get them involved in the reading. If I can achieve that, it creates a stronger bond between the reader and the story, and they’ll have a better reading experience. I have identified three principles for triggering the imagination of the reader that I try to employ:

  • Familiarity
  • Reader-created images
  • Exploration

Familiarity

The principle of familiarity is centered around on how it’s very easy to imagine things you’re familiar with. All it takes is a word, and you have a wealth of images in your mind. For example “car” or “horse” or some other mundane word. You can also combine them for even greater effect. A phrase like “the horse drove the car” doesn’t really make any sense, but it does create some interesting imagery.

Things we are familiar with don’t have to be described in detail as we already know what they’re like. Chances are that by describing something familiar, I’ll just confuse or alienate the reader when my impression of the thing I’m describing doesn’t match theirs. This in turn leads on to the next principle.

Reader-Created Images

For me this is one of the most fundamental principles of writing fiction: Any image the reader creates on their own is more real to them than any image you describe in your text. This will hold true no matter how detailed you are and no matter how well you know the subject.

The way I apply this is that instead of describing in detail how something looks I give the reader hints and cues for them to create their own image with. I previously wrote a guide on writing descriptions and it’s based heavily on this principle. You can find it here: A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Descriptions – Part 2

Exploration

This is about finding out what’s on the other side of the hill, or in the white spots on the map, or around the next corner or behind that closed door. It’s about curiosity and about the desire to explore the unknown.

Once we find a new path we want to follow it and see where it goes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a real world path through a park, or an imaginary path through our minds. Once we’ve started down it, we want to see where it leads (unless it’s boring, or we’re really short on time, or…).

Combining the three

I believe that a good way to add some life and depth to your setting is to start out with something familiar. This gives your reader something solid to build your world on. It makes it easier for them to create their own images and impressions.

…and that’s when you start to change things.

Be careful though. If you change things up too much, you’ll risk contradicting the reader’s image of the world and you’ll break their immersion. Make small changes – ideally to things the reader hasn’t had reason to consider, or that tie in with other changes you’ve made earlier.

These changes will tell the reader that not everything is as they expected. It’ll tickle their curiosity, and they’ll want to know more. They want to explore.

There may not be more information for them to explore though. You may have just mentioned something in passing without elaborating further. That’s when having a solid foundation of familiarity to build on comes in handy again. If the world works according to familiar rules, the reader can figure out on their own what the implications of the change you made are. They’ll build out their image of your world on their own, and it’ll be all the stronger for it. It’ll have more life.

Examples

Finally, here are some examples of how I’ve used the above theories in my own writing. All three examples are from the story I’m currently working on.

Homes

[Emma] closed the garden gate behind her, making sure the latch fell in place and locked it shut. The gate wouldn’t stop anyone getting in or out, but it was bad form to leave it ajar. It was unhousely – you didn’t do that to your home. She sighed and started up the path to the door of the burrow.

Closing the gate behind you is a rather mundane and familiar action, but often we don’t really consider why we do it. It was closed when we arrived, so we make sure it’s closed behind us after we’ve passed through. It’s the polite thing to do.

The explanation for why Emma closes the gate behind her here carries a lot of implications regarding how members of this culture view their homes. Closing the garden gate isn’t something that you do to stop people getting in or out, but to show respect to your home. This in turn implies that this culture has a special kind of relation to their homes. The paragraph doesn’t really explain anything about it, but it implies a whole lot of things.

Guests and Hospitality

[Emma] will see to her [horses] soon. She just needs to declare her presence in the village to someone. This village does not know her, and it must be given a chance to offer its hospitality.

Emma has just arrived in the village and she needs to announce her arrival and presence. That’s something that’s familiar and that can be related to. The idea of giving the host a chance to offer hospitality is a little bit unusual though. What does that imply? Does it relate to the idea of closing the garden gate in the previous example in some way?

Politeness

[…] “I need to see to the horses first.” Sleep would be good too.

“Oh, ehm… Just you?” Trula looked down and scraped her feet against the ground.

Clearing her throat Emma glanced over towards the inn. “Err, well, yes…” Torkel was probably inside already, having a drink and a laugh with whoever he’d brought. She’d have to get up here again either way. “I guess…”

Emma felt her face grow warm, and her lips twitched. “Uhm…” She cleared her throat and looked over at her friend again. “Would you like to help out?”

Trula’s face lit up and her eyes grew wide.“Yes!” A big grin on her face she practically bounced towards the sled.

This is a familiar situation that plays out a bit backwards. In this example Emma asks Trula if she wants to help out with the horses. It is not Trula who offers to help.

In the real world when I see someone needing help, the polite thing for me to do is offer to assist. Here, it’s different. Here, Emma offers Trula the opportunity to help out, and it makes Trula really happy to be asked.

Again, there is very little explained, but a lot implied. There’s some kind of moral code for offering help. Is it somehow related to the conventions for offering hospitality mentioned in the previous example?

Examples Combined

It’s possible that an attentive reader will put all of these examples together, and that would be great. In reality though, most people would probably just get on with the story. That’s fine. I believe most of the process of breathing life into the world you read is subconscious. It’s not something you actively do, but rather a feeling that slowly grows on you while reading.

Creating this feeling requires a bit more attention and active consideration though. It doesn’t happen automatically, but I think that by understanding how it happens, or at least thinking about it, we’ll be able to make it happen more easily.

Further Discussion

In this article I have tried to explain how I try to bring life to the worlds of my stories. It may or may not work for you, but I hope you’ve at least found it interesting.

What tips and tricks do you have for bringing your worlds to life?

Do you feel, like I do, that having a living breathing world for your story to take place in is important for a fantasy story?

Thanks for reading.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
7 Comments
newest
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kelly Knight
Kelly Knight
5 years ago

Very interesting points that I am going to have to remember. I haven’t dabbled in creating unknown worlds yet, but I hope to try it. This article has sparked my imagination and I have a few ideas running around in my mind that I might test this out with. Thanks again!

Nils Odlund
Reply to  Kelly Knight
5 years ago

Thanks for the comment Kelly. I’m glad you liked the article. Best of luck with your creations. 🙂

Ann
Ann
5 years ago

Nils, thank you so much for this post! It’s going to help me help my daughter (who’s an aspiring writer). She gets soo frustrated with her stuff, I’ve told her to not get agitated…that all new writers go through a rough start. And coming upon this site, with all these informative posts, may help me to keep her encouraged. Now, I myself am NOT a writer, and her father does screenwriting, but I am an avid reader….but I want to be able to learn the ins and outs of how a writer thinks so I can help her along the way. (She’s a bit of a perfectionist, our 11 yr old). And with school and other activities, I figured she won’t have too much free time to research, so being the good mom I am, I’m doing it for her. I’ve absolutely loved everything I’ve seen on here so far. 🙂

Adventures in YA Publishing
5 years ago

Love the concept of combining familiarity, reader-created images, and exploration to bring a new world to life. Familiarity seems a great foundation to start with, as well as description shorthand. Without starting with what readers know and recognize description would quickly become overwhelming, not to mention that readers would feel distanced from the scene and be unable to relate at all. At the same time, writers must leave room for the readers–give them just enough to get their minds rolling, and they will run with the imagery. Readers are capable of more scene-building in their heads than sometimes they’re given credit before. Even when it comes to exploration, or providing the fantastical elements of the setting and story, it’s important to give readers just enough for them to to start building the scene in their own mind. Readers are most engaged when there is still room for them in the writing.

–Sam Taylor, AYAP Intern

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  Adventures in YA Publishing
5 years ago

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like the article.
I think you’re very right in how it’s important to have a solid foundation for your readers to bring their images on. If you don’t, there’s a chance anything you place on top of it will feel hollow or unstable.

Woelf Dietrich
5 years ago

Another great article, thanks.

My current fantasy project is called The Dead God and I delve into Slavic lore for this one. I don’t like going too exotic when it comes to worldbuilding, although setting and architecture should be fantastical. People, however, remain people. We may create different cultural belief systems for them, have them follow weird and wonderful traditions, but the essence of being human remains the same and because of that your characterizations remain familiar.

I think readers identify with that and that is one of the reasons why I love fantasy so much. You put characters you can identify with in mindboggling settings and situations and see them deal with it the best they can. Of course, I also like heroic fantasy which means I like heroes who are stronger and faster than me but who are still very much human.

Unless they are not human and you’re dealing with gods and monsters and demons and you have to inject them with mannerisms alien to you. That’s when the fun really starts.

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  Woelf Dietrich
5 years ago

Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you liked the article.

I think we’re pretty much in agreement. At least on the basic concept of familiarity. Having something familiar for readers to connect with is really helpful when establishing a setting.
Whether or not to tweak the moral code of the people or not is a tricky question. In going over the story I took the examples from I found that the characters aren’t consistently following the morals established in the examples.
I’m now debating how to tackle this. Do I change it up so the characters behave consistently, or do I remove the scenes that don’t follow the established code entirely. Another option is to just leave them in and see if anyone notices (no one who has read the first draft commented on inconsistencies).
After all: even in the real world there are very few people who consistently stick with a moral code at all times. Sometimes we forget, sometimes it’s too much of a hassle, sometimes we just don’t feel like it – and other times we do.
It’s rarely clear-cut.

This site uses XenWord.