Contemporary World Building

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor, Amanda Hill!

World Building is a term most often associated with writing sci-fi and fantasy. But have you ever thought about the concept when it comes to writing a contemporary story?

People inhabit different cultural spheres within our world. Different communities. And each of these communities have different rules of engagement. Take for example a family.

Seems pretty simple. Everyone understands what a family is. But how different can each family be?
I think we all know the answer to that. Very. And not just because of how many people are in a family and what their ages or genders are or where they live. That’s not world building. But thinking about these questions is.

  • Who is in charge?
  • What are the rules?
  • Which traits are prized most?
  • Which weaknesses are most despised?
  • Is there a common goal? What is it?
  • Is there some kind of chain of authority or pecking order?
  • What are the consequences for “stepping out of line?”

The answers to these questions will change from family to family, and in order for your main character’s family to seem realistic, you need to know the answers to create a unique dynamic just for his/her family.

All these same questions need to be asked of other microcosms in your character’s life and each of those little “worlds” built from there. The communities that come to mind first are school/classes, extracurricular teams/groups, religious communities, jobs, a tight-knit group of friends, and a neighborhood/town.

Look at your own life and these different groups you have been a part of. Can you answer the questions posed earlier for each group? Can you answer them for the groups your MC is a part of?

The answers to these questions will make your character’s world far more relatable and layered.

But how does this world-building look in an actual story? I went to some of my favorite stories to answer that question!

Some of the best world-building within a school happens in the movie, Mean Girls.

Think of when Janis explains the cafeteria.

Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial because you got everybody there. You got your Freshmen, ROTC Guys, Preps, JV Jocks, Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Girls Who Eat Their Feelings, Girls Who Don’t Eat Anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet, and The Worst. Beware of The Plastics.” 

And then this about Regina George.

Regina George… How do I begin to explain Regina George?Emma Gerber: Regina George is flawless.Lea Edwards: She has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus.Mathlete Tim Pak: I hear her hair’s insured for $10,000.Amber D’Alessio: I hear she does car commercials… In Japan.Kristen Hadley: Her favorite movie is Varsity Blues.Short Girl: One time she met John Stamos on a plane…Jessica Lopez: – And he told her she was pretty.Bethany Byrd: One time she punched me in the face… It was awesome.

This montage is great world building, because not only do we come out of it with a better sense of who the queen bee is, (Who is in charge?) but we can infer what is important in this school community based on what different people know and admire in Regina George.

Now how about a family dynamic. I went to Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme for a good example of this in the very opening paragraph.

When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes. 

That’s how I ended up in New York City. 

We came for my brother, Val, and the drug trial that might save his life. I didn’t know if the treatment would work or when we would go home again. All I knew was that Val needed to be in New York and we had to go with him. So I came.

Three paragraphs in and we already have a sense of who is in charge/most important. What the rules are. What the common goal of the family is, and what traits are most prized.

World-building in a religious community? Look no further than Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

“Well, Winn-Dixie saw that mouse, and he was up and after him. One minute, everything was quiet and serious and the preacher was going on and on and on; and the next minute, Winn-Dixie looked like a furry bullet, shooting across the building, chasing that mouse. He was barking and his feet were skidding all over the polished Pick-It-Quick floor, and people were clapping and hollering and pointing. They really went wild when Winn-Dixie actually caught the mouse. 

“I have never in my life seen a dog catch a mouse,” said Mr. Nordley. 

“He’s a special dog,” I told her. 

“I imagine so,” she said back. 

“I believe that mutt has got some retriever in him,” said somebody behind me. “That’s a hunting dog.” 

Winn-Dixie took the mouse over to the preacher and dropped it at his feet…The preacher looked down at the mouse. He looked at Winn-Dixie. He looked at me. He rubbed his nose. It got real quiet in the Pick-It-Quick. 

“Let use pray,” the preacher finally said, “for this mouse.” 

And everybody started laughing and clapping.

Don’t you get a real sense of this community? What do they value? How do they treat each other? Who is in charge?

I particularly enjoyed the world building within a small social group found in the first chapter of Brooks Benjamin’s My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. 

“All right, we’re rolling,” Austin said, then glanced at the lights flickering above us. “Hold on.”  

Carson let out a loud groan. “Perfect. Last practice before school starts and we’re going to look like we’re dancing in a lightning storm.” His entire body perked up. “Ooh, that might actually be cool. Let’s start before it turns normal again.” 

“Trust me, it looks terrible,” Austin said. “We need to invest in some lights. This place is a cave. And don’t get me started on the smell. It’s like someone farted in an old shoe.” 

“The lighting’s fine,” Kassie said. 

Austin poked his head out from behind his camera. “Oh, sorry. I thought I was the director.” Carson opened his mouth, but Austin cut him off before he could speak. “Come on, guys. I already feel stupid recording these. It’s not like y’all can’t just do it yourselves. Let me at least make it look good.”

Are you getting a feeling for the pecking order? For who’s in charge? Who’s low man on the totem pole? For the group’s common goal?

As you can see, there are several different ways to accomplish this sort of community world-building in a contemporary story. You can come right out and say it like in Mean Girls or Counting Thyme. You can show it in scene, like in Because of Winn-Dixie and My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. You can also show it through story (think of the story the teacher tells in A Snicker of Magic, even though that’s not contemporary. Same principle.)

Remember not to get bogged down in clichés. Not every band is going to be full of weird kids. The band I was in in high school was full of many high achieving, pretty popular kids. The class above me had all-state football players who were in every drama production and it wasn’t a big deal. Some religious communities are much more foot-loose and fancy free. They aren’t all full of gossipy church ladies. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your world building in your contemporary story!

Happy writing!

Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

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