Teachers Write 6/15 Guest Post with Mike Jung

Teachers Write welcomes debut author Mike Jung today for a guest post on world building. This will be especially useful to those of you working on fantasy & science fiction but applies to other kinds of writing, too. You may want to bookmark it for later if it doesn’t seem to fit what you’re doing right now.  Take it away, Mike!

Hello teachers! I’m thrilled to be here at Teachers Write, and I applaud you all for taking the plunge with us. My sixth grade teacher Miss Drake, would have been extremely pleased to see me involved with this terrific project.

Now, Kate herself is a far greater authority on worldbuilding than me – check out this blog post about her TED talk, for example – but I have a few thoughts on the matter, particularly as I’m currently working on two separate manuscripts that involve a fair amount of worldbuilding.

But perhaps you’re saying “hey pinhead, what the heck is worldbuilding?” Okay, here’s the Mike Jung definition: worldbuilding is the process of creating the setting that your story takes place in. If you’re a Tolkien fan like me, you may be recoiling in horror at the thought of creating thousands of years of history, a panoply of elfin and dwarvish peoples with their own cultures and characteristics, and a bunch of fake languages nobody can actually pronounce.  Create an entire world?? Are you crazy, Mike? Or maybe you like that idea, in which case, hey, go to town.

That’s not precisely what I’m talking about, though – I don’t think of “worldbuilding” solely as the creation of an entirely new world from the ground up, although that’s certainly one option. I think of it more as creating a setting with enough credibility to evoke a sense of reality in the reader, support the suspension of disbelief you’re asking of the reader, or both.

Here’s an example that’s also a thinly-veiled reference to my own book *cough cough* – Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities takes place in a small, contemporary city that’s fairly realistic, except for the fact that it has a resident superhero, Captain Stupendous, with the powers of flight, super-strength, invulnerability, and super-vision. In fact, there are over 50 superheroes scattered throughout the world, and they’re constantly defending the safety of their respective cities by battling one crazypants supervillain or another.

Nobody’s EVER going to mistake my book for a work of non-fiction, and clearly readers will have to willingly engage in some suspension of disbelief. So I didn’t try to create some plausible, scientifically-grounded explanation of how Captain Stupendous actually could fly in the real world. There’s enough pop-cultural precedent for that particular element of fantasy to make it easy to swallow.

One thing I did do, however, was try to establish some consistency and logic behind the way people in the world of Geeks think and react to the thyroidal spandex-clad weirdos in their midst. For example, I created a very broadly-sketched culture of superhero fandom throughout the country, a culture that’s represented by two specific Captain Stupendous fan clubs in my fictional city.

I also needed to create some settings that would fill the needs of my plot, and also the needs of my characters as real people, if that makes any sense. For example, there’s this pizza parlor which worked really well as the setting for my first chapter in terms of facilitating the plot, but it also fills a role in the characters’ lives outside of that chapter. Kids need public places to hang out, you know? Spud’s Pizza was my characters’ place to hang out long before the events of the book happened. And I didn’t want that because my story absolutely needed a pizza joint instead of, say, a boba tea house, an ice cream parlor, or a convenience store full of giant-size beverages and various conglomerations of processed butter and sugar – I wanted it because it helped make my characters into people who could be real.

A character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions may be driven by her pointy-eared people’s fifteen millennia of dragon-infested history, but they might also be driven by the history of her local town, which has always been driven by a particular multinational company that’s suddenly decided to shutter all its local facilities. A group of disenfranchised kids might end up mystically transported to a dimension that’s terrorized by giant, intelligent fish, or they might face challenges with the bully population at their school, but in either case the antagonistic characters will be products of their environment and history.

All of which is a rambling way of saying that on the surface, worldbuilding is about…well, building a world: creating a sense of place; conveying specific details; establishing continuity; and making things believable, all of which are hugely important, of course. But on a deeper level, I think worldbuilding is actually a vital way of showing the history behind our stories, and ultimately, the history of our individual characters. No matter how fantastical or everyday our settings are, their ultimate purpose is to illuminate the worlds inside the hearts and minds of our characters.

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Mike Jung has obviously read a whole lot of fantasy and science fiction. His debut novel Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities will be released on October 1, by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. He lives in Northern California with his wife (who tolerates his weirdness), his kindergarten-age daughter (who can already debate him to a standstill), and his toddler-age son (who’s developed a suddent reckless streak). Learn more at his website and follow him on Twitter @MikeJung.

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20 Comments

  1. Posted June 15, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I am also a teacher who writes! (I teach drama). This is a great post. One thing I’d like to add is that even in realistic books, there is still a necessary “world-building.” For example, both of my YA books, dancergirl and the soon to be published Circle of Silence take place in Brooklyn. While obviously, I didn’t invent that city, it is the choosing of the specific details (the pizza place the kids in the book hang at on the real Montague St, the abandoned wharf in Red Hook) that create a specificity that can also be considered “world building.” It’s easier, yes, but just as necessary for a contemporary book to feel “real.”

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Hi Carol, thank you so much! And yes, you’re absolutely right – worldbuilding doesn’t just apply to fantasy worlds, a reality-based book needs an equal degree of care, coherence, and attention to detail. I don’t know if it’s easier, to be honest – it seems to me that writing about a real place requires the author to recreate the place with enough fidelity to satisfy people who know it, but also recreate it with enough verve and imagination to satisfy people who don’t know it at all. I’ve mucked about with using real locations in my manuscripts, and I find it hard not to get TOO sucked into the concrete, existing details. Thanks again for the kind words!

  2. Posted June 15, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    She is tired, but happy. She draws down the metal grate over the doors. He thin boney hands are strong. Strong in years, strong from writing and stamping, and just maybe strong enough to save the world. The sun is sitting on the horizon, she sees a couple walking across the street. Probably to the community dinner. She smiles. Amazing how you can hear the birds with no traffic.
    She checks the lock by pulling up on the grate. She is tired, she has been at this library for 42 years. Breathing for 68. She works her hands loose. Writing names, stamping due dates, shelving books. She shakes her head as she walks down the small set of steps. The library has always been a community hub, but now it is the center of this new era. The Oils Wars changed the land scape of the world, but didn’t change the thirst for knowledge. She was tired, but happy.

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      The blog post by Mike Jung inspired me to jot down an idea I’ve had in my head, sorry for the “story” post, but it just came to me this morning… :)

      • Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Hi Jamey, no need to apologize! I’m a firm believer in striking while the iron is hot, and I have complete respect for anyone who’s disciplined enough to do so. Jotting down those ideas and turning them into full-blown narrative text is ultimately the point of all this, and you did some very worldbuildy things in this very lovely piece: the community dinner; the ability to hear birds when there’s no traffic; things like that do a terrific job of providing insight into the world your characters are in. Well done, and thanks for sharing!

        • Posted June 15, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for reading. Your blog gave me some great ideas on approaching it. The “world” it is set in does need work, but I hadn’t really thought of it as clearly as you stated. Thanks for your post! (Now I got 3 serious stories in my head and notebook / app).

  3. Posted June 15, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Mike, I’ve enjoyed reading your comments during Teachers Write camp. You bring a spirit of fun to the mix, as well as good advice. Thanks!

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much Kristina, I really appreciate hearing that!

  4. Alexis Pernas
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    After reading this post, I got started right away with building the world in my story. I am struggling a bit, however, because the setting of my story is a real place that I have never visited. Also, it is not cosmopolitan, which would be more in my comfort zone since I’ve only lived in big cities.

    My objective in my piece is to try to be as accurate as possible in the descriptions of this habitat. Besides looking at pictures, do you have any other suggestions to assist in my worldbuilding?

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Just had a thought.. why not visit your place in Google maps street view or Google Earth? You can actually “be there!”

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Hi Alexis, Joan’s got a terrific idea there with Google Maps and Google Earth, both of which make me think we’re either approaching a Star Trekkish state of technological utopia, or a Terminator-esque state of technological horror. ;) Going to the place in question is always the best option, of course, but I know that’s not always easy (I don’t have the budget to travel to every location I might conceivably write about, that’s for sure). You might consider watching movies that are set in the place you’re thinking of (if they exist), and I’m actually a big fan of watching the occasional documentary about things and places I might use as inspiration.

      I think the next best thing after visiting the actual place is talking to people who know it well. Do you have friends there who you could chat with? Is there an in-person or online forum where you could post questions about the place? Once you’ve got some actual pages written, you could try and find critique partners who know the place in question, and get their feedback on your portrayal of it.

      You could also try and find comparable places that are nearby – if you’re writing about a rural place, you could try to find a similar place that’s within walking/biking/busing/driving distance. That won’t help you with readily identifiable things like landmarks, specific businesses, street names, etc., but it might help with more atmospheric things like the quality of the air, the overall pace of activity, the distance between residences, etc.

  5. Posted June 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mike, I just followed you on Twitter. This idea of a real world w/ enough fictional elements to satisfy both those who know the place and those who don’t is intriguing. I can’t think of anyone who does that better than William Faulkner w/ his fictitious Yoknapatapha County, the fictional Mississippi setting of so many of his novels and stories. The place is both real and unreal. Love that.

    I’m looking forward to sharing your ideas w/ students. Most of mine are h.s. seniors.

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Hi Glenda, thanks for both the follow and the kind words! I just read a really good middle-grade novel by Joanne Rocklin, THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK, that’s set in Oakland, where we coincidentally both live. She populates the story with fictional people, of course, and they work in fictional businesses and live in fictional homes, but she does a great job of evoking the reality of a specific stretch of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland (the Temescal district, to be precise) through specific details: the way traffic noise filters into residences, the places in alleyways where people grow flowers in planters while being forced to dispose of the odd stray cigarette butt; what it’s like to stroll through a cluster of tiny independent businesses in a previously disregarded strip of retail space. Thanks again, and here’s to some great future work from your students!

  6. Posted June 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post, Mike! I’m in the midst of developing a world for a novel and your post is well-timed. Bookmarking away. Thanks!

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      Hi Marissa, thank YOU, and good luck with your worldbuilding process!

  7. Posted June 15, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Mike, for sharing your thoughts on this and for joining us at Teachers Write! I found your explainations and examples to be quite helpful and enlightening. I also love the name “Spud” for a pizza joint. Quite clever!

    I’m currently writing a realistic fiction YA novel and am pretty much using my home community as the primary setting, and I would love to specifically say Newton, Kansas (which is my home town), but I am hesitent to do so. I’ve sort of been struggling with idea of authenticity in terms of wanting to be true to where I live, but still wanting it to have that Anytown, USA feel to it. I worry about being TOO specific regarding things like the names of schools and school mascots, names of businesses, landmarks, grocery stores, parks, etc. I read your earlier response about needing to strike a balance between those who know these places and those who don’t, which makes perfect sense. Do I need to worry this much about specificity, or should I just worry about getting the manuscript finished and sort the details out later?

    • Posted June 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Hi Micki, thanks for the kind words! I’ve been really enjoying this, and I’m grateful to Kate and everyone for having me here. :)

      This is a great question, and one that I may not be the best author to answer, but I’ll take a swing at it: Think about what it is you want to convey about Newton – is it the actual name? Is maintaining fidelity to the place itself of crucial importance to you? If so, why?

      My gut feeling is that when you say you want to be true to where you live, the important thing is to reflect the way it FEELS to live in Newton, rather than putting Newton itself on display. From that perspective, street names and schools and landmarks and other details, big and small, that are unique to Newton may not actually be the most important way to convey it. You can examine those things and unearth what it is they say about Newton.

      Are the street signs all named after important figures in the town’s history? Or are they named after the indigenous peoples who lived there before European colonization? Is the school mascot old, scruffy, and somewhat dated in tone, or is it new, a bit aggressive in tone, and probably irritating to the town elders? Things like that can be used to indicate something about the town’s character. There are other things too, of course – how do people treat each other there? Is there a sense of communal well-being, or has the town been hit hard by economic misfortune or personal tragedy? And so on.

      My personal opinion about authenticity is that an author can achieve it largely by means of EMOTIONAL honesty, and I bet you could ferret out what the emotional truths are behind all the specific, concrete things you want to communicate about Newton. That said, I’d say the absolute most important thing is to figure out which approach most easily allows you to get the words out of your head and onto the page. You can always write the story in the Newton you know and later, if necessary, change it to a fictional town that has the essential nature of Newton. Or vice versa.

      That’s a long-winded answer, but I hope it’s helpful. Thanks again Micki, and hey, I’m making my first visit to Kansas for a conference in October – I’m really looking forward to being there for the first time, the Kansans I’ve met so far are wonderful!

      • Posted June 16, 2012 at 1:50 am | Permalink

        Is it the KATE conference in Wichita by chance? If so, our paths just may cross.

  8. NÚRIA
    Posted June 16, 2012 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    I like the idea of worldbuilding…. well I find all you explain interesting
    I can’t wait to get a Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities copy

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