When writing a fantasy story, a writer often likes to think they’re planning every single detail in the vast array of color that they envision their whole saga. If you’re writing about dragons, you can see every scale, every crook in the sharp teeth, every leathery fold in the wings. If you’re writing about werewolves, you smell the musty, canine smell mixing with damp leaves on the forest floor as he pads along, in search of the mate whose call weaves through the rotting tree trunks, pulling him on his journey. You have no shortage of imagination when it centers around your character’s presence; their day-to-day lives and their wants and desires occupy so much of your mental space that you can’t help but focus on your character and your character alone.
In other words, you’re writing with blinders.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to get lost in your character’s essence. It makes a real, lively character that your readers will connect to. But people don’t read to flip a page—people read to get lost in a new world. And while you may have a wonderful, realistic, fleshed-out character, they will be instantly forgettable if they move through a paper-thin setting. Unless that is, your setting is literally made of paper, which may be a cool story, if you can swing it. Still, even a setting made of literal paper is going to need a lot of description, and whether you’re building an entirely new world or augmenting the one you live in, you’ll have to establish everyday existence.
Everybody’s a Hero in Their Own Story
I once read a piece of writing advice that stuck with me; treat every character as though they think the story is about them. A good way to do this is a sort of mindfulness I’ve taken to practicing.
I live in Washington, D.C., and if you live here and don’t work from home, you’re either spending 40 minutes to get three miles in traffic, or you’re on a train or bus into work. Plenty of people prefer to take the train because 40 minutes for three miles is utterly ridiculous and not good for your first-thing-in-the-morning blood pressure. When I sit on the train, I start people watching. The first thing I look at in the car is the macro environment; there are usually people packed in as tight as they can be at about 8:15 a.m. to get to their downtown office by 9. It’s a crowd that exists as one unit, nobody really standing out. Everybody, essentially, is just an extra in the day-to-day commute of my life’s story.
After that, I start concentrating on specific people. The woman trying to hold the bar above her head while simultaneously reading her paper. She keeps slipping and having to regain her balance. Is she annoyed? She refuses to put down that paper, though, so there must be something that affects her enough to keep her attention focused on that as opposed to standing upright. Does it have to do with her job? Is she currently summarizing the article in her head to use during a meeting that she’s attending today? When she gets off the train, will she head straight to her place of employment without second thoughts to what she’s reading, or is she carefully piecing together information from earlier to write a summary of things that are going on in the city? Will there be coffee first? Will she be distracted by something important that happened outside of her work earlier?
Sitting there on my train seat (or struggling to keep my own balance if I can’t find one), I begin to make a story for her in my head, just revolving around what reading that article means to her. I’ll probably never really have contact with her, but she’s become a micro-object, instead of an unremarkable piece of the macro object.
When your characters interact with “extras”, as I call them, come up with a quick story for that extra. I do this with everybody. Here’s an example from my book, Hubris, in which the main character, Telese, and her older sister, Roxy, seek refuge in a café in Dupont Circle here in D.C. after a bad rainstorm that Telese accidentally summoned.
Telese ordered one mocha cappuccino and two espressos, handed the barista her cash and slipped a five-dollar bill into the tip jar as she waited for her change.
“You’re extra generous,” Roxy said.
Telese looked over her shoulder at her sister. “She lives on tips,” she argued, seeing the young woman cast Roxy a hurt glance as she made their drinks. “It’s not generosity, it’s basic decency.“
The young girl smiled at Telese. “You two get caught in that bad storm a second ago?” she asked, looking between the two of them as she handed Telese the drinks.
“Yes,” Telese said, with a small smile, passing the cappuccino to Roxy, “story of our lives. Have a good day.”
I can tell you that barista will never make an appearance in this story. I can also tell you that her name is Marissa, she’s a pre-med student at George Washington University, and she helps at her uncle’s coffee shop whenever she can because she really needs the extra cash for groceries. She’s usually tired and hates being talked down to or dismissed. She’s really appreciative when a customer speaks up for her because she’s not allowed to speak up for herself at work. (You can tell the author has spent many years in customer service.)
I came up with her backstory in about five seconds. It helped to gauge her reactions to the conversation in front of her, and it helped to make her more than a faceless entity floating around in the story. I didn’t spend any time on physical descriptions, obviously; the reader is able to do that for themselves. But her reactions give her a more realistic tone, which, in turn, gives the scene a more realistic feel.
Then There’s Trash Day
When building or augmenting worlds, it’s not just the people that your characters interact. You’ll want to build an environment that follows rules, just like your own. Admittedly, it’s a much easier feat when you’re using the world that your readers are familiar with; you’ll just describe the parts of life that differ for your character. For example, Telese can use a spell to start her coffee pot on her way to unlock her door for her sister. She can speak through what’s called “Old Energy” to her sisters. She can move through “Vanishing Points”, pockets of energy currents all over the world that she and her fellow Sirens use as their own personal subway system. Coming up with these things takes some time to smooth out. What are the limitations? What are the dangers? But once you establish those rules (and remember to stick to them!), it’s smooth sailing from that point, and describing them becomes easier.
The thing that’s different is the day-to-day things that we barely notice. Telese doesn’t have to worry about how to get rid of her trash. She does what most of us do—bags it up and takes it to a dedicated spot for collection by workers that grab and transport and dispose of trash for a living. What about when you’re building a whole different world? Who takes the trash away? Do people live in their own trash? Do they incinerate it? Is it a punishment for litterbugs? What about hazardous materials? Is it collected by specialists in special suits with special carriers? Or is it collected by prisoners with flimsy gloves for a society that has no regard for their safety?
This may sound absurd; if your character is trekking across unfriendly lands of dragons, pirates and ghosts to confront the cruel monarch that crushes his own people under his thumb, then the hero is probably not too concerned about whether your land invests in recycling facilities. But keeping these things in mind, having a plan for them in your head even if you never mention them in your story, may help to build the environment, the morale and the daily plights of your extras, your important secondary characters and even your main character. Ultimately, you aren’t just making the story real for your readers—the practice of thinking about the things you’ll never write about make the story real for you as an author.
Let’s try another practice: Pretend you’ve just been elected as ruler of your own country. On the same day, you find out that there are absolutely no trash collection plans (you’re new here, it’s your first day, cut yourself some slack). What does your country look like? What are you going to do for cleanup? Clearly, you aren’t going to just grab some rubber gloves and a mop and get to it on your own. New jobs will be created? What kind of jobs will those be? Who will be chosen for those jobs? Go at the problem in two ways: as a compassionate ruler and as a ruthless ruler. Consider the same sort of thing for road paving. Public services. Community buildings like libraries. What do those look like? What has your society developed in way of entertainment? What do people do for fun amidst the type of environment that you’ve created? Who suffers? Who thrives? Whose garbage is taken the quickest? Is it dumped on the lawn of those you have less regard for? Do kids create toys out of refuse?
Answering these questions, really considering what your characters and your extras lives look like during day-to-day survival creates a world where it’s easier to remember its rules, its challenges, its struggles and its victories. All of those details may not make your story officially, but people will see it and feel it.
Your hero has come on a new town. People are moving along the streets, with some reading their papers, oblivious to the world around them while others watch around them carefully, as though constantly on their guard. As your hero takes a seat on a bench they see a particularly full trashcan.
Write a paragraph or two about how that trash is cleared away. Make it different from how your real-life society handles it. Have your character interact with somebody about the trashcan. What has that person’s day been like? How is it shaping up to be? Consider these things, but don’t write them; use them as the trash collector’s motivation and basis for how they speak to the hero. Make the readers see that extra person as a real person, even if they are there for just a moment and are never spoken of again.
Post your paragraphs in the comment section. Look at others’ examples. It’s really a great practice to get into. I’ve yet to meet a fantasy or sci-fi author that has wanted their readers to stay detached and uninvested in the story. To convince your readers that your story is real, you have to convince yourself, first. Once you get in the habit of doing these exercises, they become second nature, and your world will seem just as real as that dragon’s breath or that werewolf’s matted fur. And your readers will thank you for that while holding their noses and trying not to breathe.