As some of you know, YALLWEST transferred its writer conference to online, meaning that I got to participate on several talks on some interesting topics. For anyone who didn’t attend, or wants to review, read these summaries!
Meeting #1. Modern Magic Worldbuilding
This was the first meeting I attended. My favorite part of it was getting to hear different authors’ thoughts on the process of worldbuilding, as well as their bravery in continuing with their advice when the conference was thrown into confusion over the coronavirus.
Besides that unsettlement, the main takeaways from the authors were:
- Everyone’s writing process is different. I feel like i learned this particularly, because Tracy Wolff and Frances Hardinge, for example, seemed like two different creators–yet both of them had excellent advice.
- Characters are the core of the story. Wolff said this, and I stand by her. Only after you know who your characters are, and what they want, and what’s in the way, can you create a situation that accommodates them. Like Margaret Rogerson said, starting with worldbuilding can bog your story down.
Wolff said much of her worldbuilding arises out of necessity: for example, explaining a way the vampires in her story could operate. The gaps in your story can be explained by worldbuilding.
Hardinge’s process differs–she pulls different, random ideas–like a beach trip, submarines, and nightmares–to create the basis of her magical world, and integrate it with the characters.
- Magic systems influence a whole world. This was important and helpful. Hardinge says she starts with three “screwy” premises of the magic system (bonus points if it makes her cackle) and then explores how it affects the characters’ and cultures’ histories, superstitions, beliefs, habits, traditions, diets, landscapes, and finally characters, places and inventions to be recruited in the story.
One author mentioned the role of the power system. Is it similar? Different? To that I would add–what do you want to communicate by it?
Thirdly, know how the magic system–and the world–affects the characters’ moral compasses. How does their situation affect this?
The moderator said he found magic worldbuilding started, for him, by a “seed” of one character, object or element that sparked the basis.
- Gaps make a world realistic. Gaps might keep a reader reading. Since we don’t know everything about our world, it’s unfair to expect ourselves to know everything about our magical world, either. And, sometimes one throwaway sentence about a religious concept in your world is all it takes to spark interest in the reader. 🙂
I’m sure you aren’t reading this, but thank you Ms. Wolff, Hardinge, Rogerson, Albert, and all the rest of you! Your comments are greatly appreciated.
Meeting #2: Hope, War, and Revolution
Second meeting! Since rebellion is a theme in my book, I was excited to hear the authors’ thoughts. Though I wished the lecture was longer, the authors addressed relevant topics and shared interesting facts about their books.
- What are their rebellions based off of? It seems like most of the authors based their rebellions off topics that were relevant to them and their families, such as Isabel’s family in Bolivia and Bolivia’s rebellion, Victoria’s family who survived the Holocaust, Jordan’s experience of being in a small private school, and so on. One author said current events like Charleston and Florida shootings inspired an event in her story.
- What do they explore? Jordan, for example, used her rebellion to explore the idea that even “good and righteous” empires like the United States are built on oppression and putting down others. She wonders what a truly good empire would look like, since we know of none that exist. For those facing catastrophes and real rebellions, writing is a way to understand them.
- How does it affect characters? Victoria Lee made sure to address the effects of rebellions and political instability/trauma, and how it affects families intergenerationally. How do our characters reconcile or weaponize this against themselves and others?
- Will people find ability and encouragement to rise up in small ways against evils? What evils would you like people to address? What small actions would you say fights these evils?
- Hope: The big one. To quote Jyn Erso, “Rebellions are built on hope.” Without hope, rebellions wouldn’t exist. What is your characters’ hope? What gives you hope? The authors offered different viewpoints on this. Rebellions mean darkness, but for people to keep fighting–like Hafsah Faizal said–there must be a light at the end of the tunnel.
→ Option: Write an ending to spell out the future you long for. As for your characters, don’t let them lose themselves to the fighting. The revolution doesn’t define them. Make sure they have things they love and live for before, during, and after the revolution where they can find themselves.
→ Option: Portray hope as being something that doesn’t depend on circumstances. How do your characters find hope within themselves, despite external circumstances? Secondly, know and communicate that everyone is human, to encourage when things feel hopeless.
→ Option: Trauma inherited from ancestors and parents means a character must deal with how a “perfect” or “good” situation is tainted, and how that influences them. Does hope mean the character discovering what she has the agency to change? How do they gain fulfillment in doing the right thing?
As Victoria Aveyard summarized it, hope is finding a way to deal with the world, and making future generations better. Writing is giving hope to someone else.
Meeting #3: Worldbuilding Beyond Wikipedia
Each meeting gets better. Though sadly time was run out of again, Roshani Chapkra did an excellent job moderating (no divulging on the Corona) and seemed well researched in the questions she asked the panelists, so even if the subject of Wikipedia and historical sources was never touched at all, you still learned relevant ideas from each of the authors present.
Build worlds based on what’s relevant to you. Marie Lu’s writing process begins with a cool question or idea she plays with, and eventually she realizes the concept it builds around–usually what’s keeping her up at night. Gwenda’s advice on retellings might inform all writers of historical fiction: What are three things that are required to be part of that world? Secondly–what can I add to that world? Jennifer Donnely claims inspiration from ghosts of memories: studying the story of one historical person intently, which opens a door to that time period. When you can hear the jokes, the swearing, the life of people from that period, and the details that make up their lives–then you can understand your characters.
Remember the details. What makes up your characters’ lives? Bethany C Morrow poses an interesting idea: interrogate your characters. Ask questions. But importantly: what are they doing while you’re talking to them? As if you’ve stopped them on the street and begun to ask questions?
Renee Abdulai mentions food as a central sensory experience, and how food can tell you so much about a person–and a character. Where are they from? What is their way of life? History? Music is a similar concept. As a secondary worldbuilding question, what does the characters’ culture do with the dead? How does it inform their religion, castes, or ideology?
It’s a combination of the characters, concept and setting that guide your way in historical writing. While you’re at it, great tips to put in practice would be:
- Explore the food of your time era. How does it relate to your characters, the geography, and their lives?
- Explore the music, also. Remember sensory experiences and details.
- What does the culture do with the dead? How does that shape their lives?
- While you’re questioning your characters, think about what they’re doing. What is the day to day life like?
Happy worldbuilding! Now I’m off to look at some Victorian “receipt” books. 😉
Meeting #4: Writing With Empathy
Moderationally, I enjoyed this the most; the moderator was great about staying on topic. I was unfamiliar with all the authors present, and ironically, alien to a lot of the topics they discussed as a part of writing with empathy. They divided it into three main questions, which I found helpful.
Many of the panelists were diverse–female, queer, black, Latina, etc. They offered helpful tips, but I felt like a few of them were exclusive to themselves and their stories or writing characters with experiences similar to themselves.
Empathy is about being yourself and telling your story. Instead of trying to write stories to appeal to the races and identities of people around them, all the authors felt empowerment and inspiration in choosing to write stories that resonated with who they were. By this, they both affirmed that their story was worth telling, and that others like them had stories worth telling, too.
Empathy was compared to mirrors: including diverse characters can be a way for different readers, and maybe ones who feel marginalized, to see themselves reflected in hopeful and affirmative ways. Identity is deeply rooted in who we are as people and isn’t a label you can slap on a character.
“True” Characters. Part of writing empathetic characters means knowing the truth about our characters, and representing that truth. For many of the panelists, their “truth” was communicating real experiences felt by them and people like them, and struggles faced. But how do you make a “true” character? A character who isn’t just a mirror for readers, but accurately embodies the struggles and interests and humanity of a real person? Authors offered these tips:
- Know how diverse characters, and people in general, judge each other by looks. Think about how that affects your character.
- Think about how a character, if she is in a privileged situation, can use that for good.
- Don’t only communicate the character’s pain, anger and sadness at dealing with their struggles, but also happiness and upliftedness–similar to how real humans never feel only one emotion.
- Incorporate your experiences into the character’s. Help people similar to the character find answers about how to cope with unkind people, know who they are, and how to respond to hatred they might receive. What is the truth of how to best deal with situations like these?
The Craft Itself. Writing empathetic characters must be done tactfully. You can’t just create a character who’s marginalized and claim they’re empathetic by virtue of being marginalized. So how do you balance writing an issue-based and an interesting book? How do you balance inclusion while staying on track with the message and themes of your story?
- Adam Silva asks himself, “What would be the most fun thing that could happen?” And how can I talk about my characters’ issues without making it a traumatic experience?
- Another author uses fantasy and supernatural elements to embody ideas of generational hatred, phobias, and more–which are little details representing issues for readers who want to see it and need to see it, but don’t hijack the entertainment of the book for anyone else.
- Dhonielle Clayton affirms that writing books are writing stories: in the end, no matter your cast, the story is a story. However, the “bumps along the road”, and even minor obstacles like microaggression and feelings of unbelonging, add realism to the character’s journey.
- Speculative elements can be used to embody complex issues–and vilify hatred.
- Craft real characters. Base characters on people. People are never only one thing, and neither are your characters. They’re up and down, happy and sad, obsessed with TV shows and social media apps and school subjects. Don’t gloss over these aspects of who they are–this will create connection and empathy between the reader and character.
- On a similar note, Kacen Callender advised dealing with issues of characters within plot threads. They will be experiencing multiple plot threads that move the story, not an expostulation on one struggle.
- Finally, Zan Romanoff, who is white, said that although her Main Characters tend to be white, she believes the side characters who are diverse matter and it’s important to know their struggles and storylines inside and out of the story.
That concludes YALLWEST! It was definitely inspiring and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from these authors. I’m surprised (and pleased?) by the amount of Lewis and Tolkein fans among secular authors (although they claimed LOTR needed more diversity, hmm ;)). Keep writing, and stay inspired!