Or: A Beginner’s Guide to my Builder’s Theory
Number 1: Pantsing vs. Plotting is not a useful way to determine how to write your book.
Think of it this way: a book cannot be written in a single draft. As you write and go through several different drafts, your novel will go through various changes, some big and some small, but all of which are necessary in order to put out a book you can be proud of. The idea of pantsing is that you just write your novel on the fly, without any idea of what it might become. There’s also this idea of a “draft zero,” in which an author can just write down ideas in a sort of loose narrative form, without getting stuck on naming or fearing plot holes. It’s just supposed to get the idea on paper so you have something to work with. My argument is this: pantsing your first draft is just a draft zero way to plot your novel. If that’s the best way to write your book, then do so, but do it with the knowledge that heavy revisions are going to be needed, and it may be more time consuming. For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that, but you can see more about this argument in my post “Destroy the Concept of Pantsers”
Number 2: A novel is comprised of three main elements, any one of which might be the best starting point for planning your novel, depending on personal preference.
Here’s where the builder’s theory comes in. A novel has three main elements that must work in tandem if it is to succeed: the plot (what happens), the world (where it happens), and the characters (who the plot follows). Often, when a writer gets a spark of an idea, it comes as one (or two, or, if you’re really lucky, three) of the main elements. You might think, “what kind of story can I tell about a character with electric blue hair and a fear of growing up?” or “what if there was a world where there were no humans, only cats,” or something. The former is obviously a character idea, the latter, a world idea. You take it, and use it to develop the idea further, until it looks something a little more like a novel.
Number 3: It is very difficult to write a good book with a bad plot, even with good characters and world-building.
You’ve heard of movies with plot-driven stories and movies with character-driven stories. You think to yourself: this means I can neglect the plot if I do well with the characters, or vice versa, and either way, leave the world-building out of it. Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Plot-driven stories have external conflict and character-driven stories have internal conflict, but both have conflict, and conflict equals plot. Readers enjoy connecting to the characters. Some readers also love being awed by the clarity a world might have, simply based on the amount of details there are. But, ultimately, they’re there for the narrative. When you read the back of a book, it introduces you to the character, but focuses primarily on what the character is going to have to face. And those obstacles are generally what your readers will judge the potential of the book by.
Number 4: It is very difficult to write a great book if any one of the three main elements is missing.
Greatness of book tends to coincide with how well the three main elements work in tandem. Because I’m a fantasy geek, my favorite go-to example is J. R. R. Tolkien. The depth with which he developed his world was astounding. It felt real. That was part of the appeal of his books. Of course, he also had an epic plot, his fellowship going on an adventure that has them splintering to pieces and then reconvening at the end. It was the tale of a lifetime. And, while Tolkien’s characters may not be 3D in the way that we conventionally like to define them, they’re obviously well-developed, because every character was easy to keep straight (perhaps with the sole exception of Merry and Pippin, but even they became their own separate person as the series progressed.) As a result, Lord of the Rings has become a bit of a classic.
Number 5: Luckily, you do not need to spend many years developing your world to make a “well-developed” setting.
In fact, even though I love the world-building part of writing fantasy, I’d discourage getting too swept away by the possibilities. Figure out your plot and character basics first, and build up from there. A “well-developed world” usually means a general knowledge of the geography of your novel; not just what is happening in the town in which your book is set, but also nearby towns and cities, who rules what, and so forth. Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore is one of my favorite novels, but one of its few failings is that, despite its main character being the queen of an entire country, the novel feels very localized, so that conflict that seems like it ought to be happening all over the place is instead only really happening in Bitterblue City. Does this fact destroy the book? No. But it could have felt more complete otherwise. And completeness in that sense is what you strive for, if possible.
Ideally, you also have a sense of the culture. What metaphors they might use, what deities they follow, what occupations a person might have, maybe even what constitutes as humor. It will help you build the intricacies of your character, and also help you stand out from other settings.
Number 6: Characters are like onions. Or… legos, I suppose. You gotta do it in layers.
The internet has half a dozen ways of making up a character. You’ve got mock-interviews and all sorts of questionnaires to choose from. Now, these are all well and good if you can get three-dimensional characters from them, but if characters are not your strong suit, then there are other ways to develop them. It borrows from the snowflake method, in a way, where the information you have contributes to the new information you layer on, but I like my metaphor better, so we’re sticking with it. You start with their role in the story, and then use that information to determine what kind of person they are and what they look like and whether or not they have family (note: the protagonist can have a mother and father and siblings and still get the job done). And so on and so forth.
Number 7: It is possible to use any one element as a starting point to develop the other two.
Again, it’s like layers. If your preferred element is plot, then you can start developing the plot of your story, and use that information to determine what kind of characters you’re going to need for your narrative, and what kinds of settings and cultures might be required to make the conflict understandable and also add to the feeling of high stakes. Similarly, if you’ve got a character idea or two, knowing what kind of person they are and what kind of trouble they’re liable to get into can help you determine what conflict might be at the base of their story, and you can use the world-building as a chance to explain why your character has X trait rather than Y. If your idea comes in the form of a possible setting, then you can use that to determine what kind of people populate the world, and thus what kind of conflicts they’re likely to find themselves in.
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As a writer, in what form(s) does your idea come in?
I’m a world-builder. I love what-if questions when it comes to setting.