Worldbuilding to Visually Reflect Story Theme and Character Values by Jamie Leigh Hansen
Worldbuilding will never have just one way to do it. There are many things to consider and master in creating a world for your novel and series. Recently, I was part of a worldbuilding workshop with 5 other published IECRWA authors. At each of 3 tables, 2 authors gave an important aspect of worldbuilding to consider. My contribution was the link between visual aspects of the world, the story’s theme and the character’s values.
Outside of a movie, or some kind of visual media, how often is that considered. Most likely each time we try to make a book trailer or envision what we’d want our book cover to look like. But those are snippets or one single visual. And a single setting is not the entire world.
“The world of the novel is composed of much more than description of landscape and rooms. It is milieu, period, fashion, ideas, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood and more. It is capturing not only place but people in an environment; not only history but humans changing in their era. Description is the least of it. Bringing people alive in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it. [It’s] capturing a snapshot of place, moment, character or all three with clarity so vivid that it freezes indelibly in the reader’s mind.” — Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
Futuristisc, Fantasy and Paranormal writers have a contract with the reader to fulfill. A promise different from most other genres or subgenres because our stories vow that we will provide a fascinating glimpse of a living, breathing world and not just an intriguing or detailed setting. But how do we provide that beyond the bare bones of here’s the planet, the mountains and lakes, the clothes and the flora and fauna – boom, you’re now in Middle Earth. Love it.
“It is the combination of setting details and the emotions that are attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing.” — Donald Maass, The Fire In Fiction
Examining three popular movies and how they link theme and character values with their milieu in a visually stunning way that actually made me want to pay movie ticket prices to see on a bigger screen than my 50” TV helped me see the link.
The Hunger Games – What would you do to survive? The contrasts of rich/poor, abundance/starvation, volunteering/being forced, realism/fabrication fills each location with danger and challenges both natural – bugs, fire, predators – and man-made – the audiences, clothing, fences. The stage. The train. The forest. Even the mere fact that the hunger games exist shows the sacrifice and toil someone will undertake to survive and what challenges they will face in doing so. The entire movie has these tests set up visually, but they were in the novel first. Visually depicted in a way to grab the reader’s imagination. The story showed a map of society divided by fences, classes and levels of both compassion and desperation.
Lord of the Rings – There are many themes to choose from in this novel and the truth of weakness, strength and power is one. From the tiny, peaceful Shire full of lush greenery, growth and smiles to the large world of man to the ethereal, separate world of elves, we see that the strength of a sword (or axe) arm, the sharpness of a man’s wit, the age-old wisdom of a long lived people are no more important than the child-like innocence, heart and spirit of a joy-filled Hobbit. Each land in Middle Earth represents its people in a stunningly visual way. The hope and greed of humans is portrayed with tall, molding statues and ambitious buildings that are crumbling. The intelligence and knowledge revered by magi in their packed libraries filled with scrolls and artifacts. The aloof beauty of Rivendale nestled within nature, fitting as if created to be there. The dark, evil land of Mordor with volcanoes, lava and the abominations – orcs.
“The world of the story: a complex and detailed web in which each element has story meaning and is in some way a physical expression of the character web and especially of the hero.” — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
“Creating a unique world for the story – and organically connecting it to the characters-is as essential to great storytelling as character, plot, theme, and dialogue.” — John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
The Hunger Games – Kindness, compassion, honesty vs. superficiality, greed and entitlement – Katniss is continually placed in situations where her values must be tested. The world isn’t just locations, but situations. People are starving. Kids risk their lives for “entertainment”. People are restricted from providing for themselves – hunting – and told to be grateful for what is given to them at the whim of others – but Katniss hunts to feed others. Katniss volunteers to be a tribute to save her sister. Katniss has to learn to play the game just to get a healing cream for Peeta by kissing him and promoting their “romance”. Even the food exemplifies the differences in values between sickeningly sweet confections versus the necessary nutrients in bread and meat, the wholesome versus the superficial. A tribute saves Katniss from danger and she remains loyal to that tribute, even to the point of providing the tribute a “burial”, a common courtesy that is against the rules.
Lord of the Rings – Humility, kindness, joy, peace, loyalty and perseverance, forgiveness, friendship. All these qualities a hobbit possesses, and they are tested in every situation, even as those around the hobbits fail. They cannot overcome their human greed and weaknesses, their Dwarven anger and belligerance, their unbending Elven judgment, in order to destroy the ring on their own. It is a few of each who fight, but it is the hobbits who shake up the entire adventure, creating a joyful chaos that strangely keeps everyone focused on what is truly important.
Harry Potter – Courage, loyalty, faith, overcoming impossible odds. All the traits Harry possesses are attributed to the house of Gryffindor. Their “team” is rooted for in Quidditch. Their house wins the house cup. The battle of good vs. evil is a competition and good always wins by being, well, good. Honorable. By doing the right thing and overcoming temptations, fears and anything evil or wrong.