With: Alix Adale
Writing is hard. There are thousands of other books competing for the attention of your readers—in your genre alone. So any tip that helps us keep readers immersed is a Good Thing™, right? Today we’ll talk about one of those tips: consistent world-building. Or as I like to say around Alix’s Vampire Factory, “Vampires & Werewolves & World-Builders, Oh My!”
What is worldbuilding? In a nutshell, it’s the same thing as creating a fictional character, but instead of designing a schmexay alpha hero with a robust stock portfolio and smoldering eyes, you’re building out his entire setting: the alpha’s corporation, where he acquired his vampirism, what are the limits of his powers, what other kind of creatures might be around to challenge his underworld strength and impressive 401K plan.
Worldbuilding is not limited by any means to paranormal romance, but can be found in many romance subgenres. It can range in scope from a small town with a baffling amount of cozy murders to an entire interplanetary empire full of Jedi mind-tricks and rocket-powered raccoons. However, paranormal romance is one of the most popular genres to regularly feature supernatural elements that benefit from well-constructed worldbuilding. Tropes like shifters, vampires, ghosts, and witches are all something the author needs to invent and define for her world since there is no scientific textbook that describes exactly how magic and vampirism works. Even real-world examples from various occult traditions contradict each other.
At this point, you might complain, “So what? This isn’t a multimillion dollar Hollywood production! Isn’t my time better spent connecting with readers on Pinterest and crafting deep and involving reader magnets to feed my funnel?” True—true. There’s no need to go cray-cray with this stuff. You want to present just enough of a convincing, consistent, well-rounded world without the readers seeing the paint on the plywood and the stagehands gesticulating wildly off-stage. I spend as little time on world-building as possible, but I do enough (I hope) to strengthen my stories and create a believable world.
One of the fundamental theories of fiction is the idea of narrative as a “single, uninterrupted dream.” In other words, the readers immerses herself so deeply in your story and in your world that they literally forget the world around them and can’t stop reading. It’s a page turner from end to end. A major component of writing such sticky books is suspension of disbelief. That means everything within the story world is logical, consistent, and plausible. It doesn’t matter if that world is a Margaret Atwood dystopian nightmare world or a Jane Austen walking party along the seashore.
But if you jump into stories without a plan, a background, with parameters and limits on the abilities of various orders of supernatural creatures, you can soon end up with a mess. For example, say your vampires have the following abilities: super strength, hypnotism, and teleportation. At this point, almost nothing will present a challenge for this character. No prison can hold them. No person can deny them anything. A group of vampires can steal all the gold in the world, assassinate any world leader, and essentially, if they are smart and work together, they should be ruling the world. Giving characters too many powers is one of the more common mistakes.
Even worse, say you write yourself into a corner and decide to give your characters a new power to get themselves out of the jam. This is probably one of the bigger mistakes, because unless it was foreshadowed ahead of time, it’s going to read like a textbook example of deus ex machina. The reader may not know the technical term, but they will know the author used a brand new magic power to get their characters out of a jam and it tends to shatter suspension of disbelief.
Here are a few core guidelines I’ve settled on for quick-and-dirty worldbuilding:
- Focus on a few tropes and define them well
Nobody should be telling you where vampires came from. It’s your world, you can make up whatever you want. Maybe they’re mutants. Maybe they’re possessed by demons. Maybe it’s some sort of inherited spiritual disease passed down from archetypal characters like the Biblical Cain. The only thing the reader wants is a presentation that’s consistent, reasonably logical, and close enough to the original trope to remain recognizable. If your vampires are in fact shape-changing extraterrestrial robots using time machines to visit us from the future, at some point the reader’s going to feel like she’s reading science fiction, not paranormal romance, and that’s maybe not what she signed up for.
However you define and limit your tropes, make sure you decide before you begin writing, but don’t feel like you need to tell the reader any of this material until it actually comes up as a story point—maybe several books in. But work out the whole process: what happens if they get bitten, where did the first vampire come from. Are there genetic differences in vampire blood that would shop in a CSI investigation? What about mirrors, sunlight, and reproduction?
All these questions have profound implications for the themes and tone of your book. The more scientific explanation you throw in, the less paranormal the book feels. Conversely, if everything is magic and every person in the story is a were-lion Witch shifter, it starts to feel like a comic book. You also want to be consistent across tropes. So if the vampires have a supernatural origin, you may want the lycans to have a similar—maybe even a related origin—so the whole structure is hanging together in a believable way.
- Avoid the ‘kitchen sink’ approach
Less is more in worldbuilding. Take for example shifters, or ‘lycans’ as I call them in my world to highlight their derivation from lycanthrope mythology. Dragon shifters are popular right now, and if that’s what you do and they are your main focus, that’s great. But say you’re using vampires as your primary trope. Do you want to overload your world with something as dramatic and complicated as dragons? How can dragons survive in the modern world? These are mythical creatures. They are huge? What are they eating? Are they ancient? Where did they come from? It’s like introducing a huge dessert during the main course. It’s distracting to the core theme of vampires where something like ghosts or werewolves, being far more common, are much easier to take as a side dish.
The same thing can happen once you start adding hybrids and half-breeds willy-nilly without stopping to think that maybe some tropes should be a rare and precious things, the focus of entire plots or a way to make certain characters. So if your world is set up so that every single vampire can mate with every single were-dragon and other supernatural creature, it’s not long before you end up with characters like this:
“I’m a quarter-dragon, quarter-vampire, half-kitsune ghost Vampire Slayer and champion quidditch player.”
It starts to sound like fan fiction. And that’s bad. In my world, I limit lycans to only authentic, predatory, carnivorous wild mammals that are not extinct in the real world: wolves, foxes, bears (omnivores, but hey), lions and so on. So there are no were-eagles, were-hamsters, or were-dragons. By limiting the scope, it’s easier for the reader to intuit the boundaries of the world. Think how much more confusing A Game of Thrones would be if in addition to the undead snow guys staggering out of the north, the show also had undead water guys stumbling out onto land and undead sand guys shuffling out of the desert. Less is more works in everything from cooking to undead staggering guy invasions.
It’s fine to take inspiration from mythology and the work of other authors, in fact it’s almost inevitable, but try not to make your vampires and werewolves exactly like Series X or Movie Y. You want there to be something unique about your creatures, something new you bring to the table. Something that’s working to help define the themes in your series and relates to your author brand.
For example, in my current series, I often have vampires walking around in broad daylight. They have no issues with the sun. This helps them blend into society better, but it requires an explanation for the reader. To be honest, at first I didn’t provide one, but one of my betas complained of this and I realized, you know, I do need to account for this variations from common myths.
One source I draw original inspiration from is “genuine” occult writing. Within the lore of demonology are things called “nanorians” which are described as the gemstone hearts of demons. It’s a legitimate occult concept, regardless of whether demons are real or not. So I took this idea and applied it to my vampires. In my world, nanorians taken from dead sun demons can be implanted in the hearts of vampires, giving them protection from the sun. Not a bad idea right?
Not only is it an original theme with my work—to the best of my knowledge, not done before—it also generates conflict and plot ideas. Because not every vampire has a nanorian. Some may want one. Some might even kill for one. Where do they come from? Who makes them? Who controls their distribution? Many plots can spin off of that idea right there.
- Hide your worldbuilding from the reader.
After you’ve come up with a plausible and consistent setting, it’s tempting to show off all this hard work to the reader, to put it front and center to justify all that hard work. Nothing can be worse. Readers are passionate about characters and conflicts. The worldbuilding, like good grammar and readable prose, should blend into the background, silently doing its job of sustaining disbelief.
For the most part, paranormal authors are good at this. They don’t do a lot of infodump, whereas fantasy authors, particularly first-time fantasy authors, tend to open their epics with massive amounts of sprawling backstory.
Still, it might be helpful to end on an example of showing some worldbuilding worked into the narrative as part of conflict and dialogue
In this exchange from my book Fire is Magic, a vampire named Dreck is talking to a lycan named Moog. This is about halfway through the novel. The two characters don’t like each other—Moog is holding back details about who killed Dreck’s sire. But their argument gets off track and wanders into the some of the key differences between vampire and lycan life cycles, how they divide up the ‘territory’ of the mortal world, and hints at their long-standing rivalry with some of the insults they use for reach other:
“What about the info you promised?” Dreck asked. “Who killed my sire?”
“After the show, I’ll tell you what I know. It’s not much.”
“What if I don’t make it?”
“Then it won’t matter, will it?”
Wrong answer! Dreck slammed his fist on the counter. “Why’s it such a secret? What do you care?”
“I got my reasons.”
The two were alone in the betting booth. His fists tensed. “I could beat it out of you.”
Moog gestured at the milling crowds beyond the barred window. Queues of lycans lined up for the restroom, more beer, and hot cooked meat. “Go for it.”
“Too many of you. I get it.”
“There are always more lycans than bats. The vampire kingdoms are doomed.”
This shit again. Dreck scowled. “We rule the cities, have since Babylon. Our elders are stronger than yours. You guys never win.”
“We got the numbers. We’re born and we’re bitten. We take mates, have pups.”
“You’d give it all up to live forever.”
Moog’s cocky grin evaporated and he looked away. “I would.”
TLDR Version: The secret to good world-building is to create a consistent, believable background before you start writing—especially for the origins and parameters of different magical powers—and never tell any of it to the reader except through osmosis and chance remarks, or the occasional plot device. Because nobody likes info-dump!