So let’s start simple: the Multiverse Theory.
I am a scientist so you’ll have to just bear with me okay.
If you’ve played Bioshock Infinite or read The Subtle Knife you know the Multiverse Theory as well as anyone. If not, a summary: there are a million billion other universes interconnected with ours, with their energy and matter folded up into teeny tiny dimensions that we cannot perceive or measure. (“But then how do we even know they exist?” Shut up if you can believe in Santa for ten years you can believe in this for five minutes). You cannot reach these universes by any means we currently have; you could travel billions of lightyears into space and you’d still be in our universe and no nearer to the parallel ones.
These universes follow Shrodinger’s laws (yes, the guy with the cat), and to put it simply, they are created whenever someone makes a choice like flipping a coin. If you flip heads, another world is created where you flipped tails. And that’s how you end up with so goddamn many. You see?
The COMPLICATED version is that Shrodinger’s laws involve electrons, which, like most things involving electricity, can be either “on” or “off”, one or the other. Electrons rotate into one of the two positions, and according to Shrodinger, they are in a quantum state of being BOTH on and off until you observe which it is, collapse the wave function, and force it to be one or the other. He got frustrated with idiots who don’t understand physics and described it thusly: “Imagine you have a cat in a box, and you have a vial of cyanide with a detonator. It has a 50% chance of going off. Before you open the box, you don’t know if you have an alive cat or a dead cat; it is only when you open the box that you know which it is.” From then on he has been known as a cat killer which is unfortunate.
ANYWAY. What does this have to do with writing?
Well, when you write, you build a world. And that world has at least one element of suspension of disbelief. For example, if you had to describe your world, you’d say “everything’s the same, BUT___”
And USUALLY that “but” is “everything isn’t the same at all it’s a completely different world”. But sometimes it’s as simple as “demons are real” (City of Bones) or “the Catholic Church never lost its influence” (Golden Compass) or “This very specific God is the right one” (The Bible, the Torah, the Qaran, etc) “this thing that could have happened but probably didn’t actually happened” (any book about anything that maybe could have happened but was still fictionalized, like Maniac Magee or Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or any of thousands of other books.
In worldbuilding, it is EXTREMELY important to know your elements of suspension of disbelief. The reader is very good at absorbing these elements without even noticing and will hold you to them. But it is up to you to understand the full ramifications of these elements and keep things consistent.
Let’s use a classic example: Narnia. In those books, the element is “there is another world hidden in a closet and some children climbed in and got lost”. Okay, cool. But could anyone enter, or just them? (Anyone). Could they get in through any closet, or just that one? (Just that one). What makes the closet so special? (It was made from wood from that universe instead of ours).
This can be a lot harder than it looks. I’m working on a series right now where the main turning point from our world is that when people started switching over to monotheism, they believed that God was a woman instead of a man. So what would that effect? They can’t say “oh my God” anymore, they have to say “oh my Goddess”, right? And what about the men/women power balance? Would women be considered more powerful? Would there be male priests anymore? Whether the answer is “yes” or “no”, I have to justify it. I have to build lore. I have to understand how everything works. I may not have to explain it to my readers, but I do have to explain it to myself in order to make sure that everything is consistent.
Everyone says the nice thing about fantasy is that you can do whatever you want. Well, spoiler alert: you can’t. If people want “magic and coolness and shit just for the sake of being cool”, they will play Pokemon or something, I don’t know. People read fantasy for the world and the characters. And the characters ARE the world, and the world is what MAKES the characters. So building a solid, believable world is very important!
If you ever need examples of how to do this right, check out the following books:
Lord of the Rings series
Wheel of Time Series
His Dark Materials Series (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass)
Harry mothafuckin’ Potter
Pick up any Neil Gaiman book and see how he does it because his worlds are all different but he’s a fantastic architect.
Game of Thrones I guess
Seriously, if you want to see how to do this in the extreme–with EVERY DETAIL of EVERY SENTENCE conforming to that world, and with so many unique details that suck you deeper in–read Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. They don’t believe in any gods in the traditional sense, but have a complicated belief system involving Light versus Dark in a very literal sense, as well as Time as a spinning wheel that blends all the threads of human life together to make a pattern beyond mortal understanding. It’s REALLY COOL, REALLY COMPLICATED, and it would be super weird and boring for him to just sit there and explain it all to you, so he doesn’t. He just tells the story and has the characters live and breathe and speak their belief systems in the same way we do ours. Instead of curse words based on our own belief of hell, for example, they curse based on the Darkness and the Wheel. They use absolutely NO idioms or similes from our world (not even “we’re in over our heads” or “like a fox in the hen house”); instead they have their own, and it varies wildly depending on what region they live in. They have a completely different view of history than we do; they believe that they’ll be reincarnated in a new Age, and then a new one after that, and they’ll remember a tiny bit each time, but the world in general will slowly completely forget each Age as each new one comes to be. Does this sound like the sort of thing you study in a class about another culture that you’ll forget immediately? WELL TOO BAD because he doesn’t LET you forget it. You’re in their world and you follow their rules and it’s fucking fantastic.
Don’t even get me started on his magic system. It’s beautiful and complex and absolutely flawless. God I love that man so much.
As a writer it’s your job to make sure you don’t take life for granted. Be aware of every device you use – every bit of slang, every idiom, every simile, the origin of every word. Know which words are Latin or Greek (or look it up). For example, what is the proper plural of “octopus”? It’s a Greek word in origin, so should it be “octopodes”? Or since it was adopted into English at a time when people were still deciding the rules and it was decided that “octopus” would follow Latin rules, should it be “octopi”? Or since it was adopted into English at all, should it be “octopuses”? It can be either one! They’re all correct! But if you build a world where Ancient Greece took over Ancient Rome, and nobody ever really spoke Latin, then you can’t use “octopi” anymore, you see?
So pay attention to what you do and say. Make it your job to find out why. And then fold all that knowledge into your writing. And that is Lesson 1 of Building a Whole Motherfuckin’ World.