Once you’ve built a world for your story, it needs to be populated. That means there needs to be something more than characters living there.
Think about our Earth. How many different plant and animal species make up the planet we know as home? Millions. Billions.
Obviously, we can’t create as complex a world as the one we have here—we only have a few hundred pages and have to tell a story in there as well. What we can do when we build our world is to place some broad brush strokes for plants and animals so that our world feels as complex as anything we know.
Things that have worked for me in the past:
Everything you put into your story must have a purpose. This includes everything you create for your world. Don’t just throw in a dozen new plant species with different functions if none of them have any reason to be there other than they look pretty, or are interesting.
In one story I wrote (it was shelved because it was too ambitious for my skill level at the time. I know what I need to do to it now to make it work, so I’ll get back to it one day and edit it properly), I created a species of sentient plants.
The world I created was a sentient world, so it made sense that some of the plants would be sentient as well. The world doesn’t have any notable bird species. This means that birds aren’t important to the story so I haven’t created any, and you never see any. At one point, I was working out what burial rites my people had which raised the question of decomposition of any dead matter. My plants solved both problems.
I needed a plant that was designed to remove all dead material, both plant and animal. I also needed that plant to be sentient because they made decisions on when to take the dead material based on the needs of the planet.
I chose a succulent that’s fairly common in my area as my inspiration. Each ‘leaf’ had three sides. I decided one side could be filled with eye-shaped openings. These openings are eyes, but they also secrete a substance that dissolves carbon-based matter, turning it into usable fertiliser for the planet. The entire face of that side is slick with the juicy substance. Make sure you don’t touch it. The effect is instantaneous; you’ll end up with great holes in your hand or arm before you have time to wash it off.
I’ve added a couple of photos: one taken of the plant next door, and a better view of one from Brisbane’s Botanical Gardens from https://juiced.blog/2012/07/22/mt-coot-tha-botanical-gardens-flowering-succulents/flowering-succulents-in-brisbane-03/. Imagine one stalk as the entire plant. Their flowering is the way they reproduce.
I’ve called them Chymeron. I pronounce the CH as SH, because they shimmer, but left the spelling similar to chimera because the shimmering fools the eye into thinking the plant changes shaped and/or colour.
So what’s the purpose of these plants? The planet is dying. The Chymeron feel a responsibility to stop that happening and in their mind that means they need to provide better fertiliser. To that end, they begin dissolving things that haven’t actually died yet, including the people. And there’s a very strong visual to the major conflict in the story.
Next week I’ll talk about some animals, or perhaps they’re insects? Either way, they’re parasites and pose a deadly threat.
We’re almost there. We almost have a well-rounded world with a society and people in it that fit. There are just a few things I keep reminding myself of when I’m writing.
Be careful to:
When it comes to creating a new world, it can be easy to overpower the reader and bury them in the detail. The question is: how much is too much? How much do you need to change familiar aspects of our world to make the reader absolutely sure they’re witnessing events in a completely alien place?
A long time ago, someone told me to change twenty things, and your world would be completely different. That might be the case, but I’ve never been able to work out which twenty things to change, or even if I highlight twenty different things. I’ve always thought that number would result in a complete burial of the story under the weight of the minutae of the new world. I have a slightly different rule of thumb:
Next week, I'll wrap up my world building with some reminders of what's really important.
E E Montgomery
About writing, life, and random thoughts.
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