Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.48: Believable Worlds Part 2: Creating Texture

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler

As we do our worldbuilding with similarity, specificity, and selective depth (per the previous episode), we should take care to apply these things throughout our stories. In this episode we discuss how these elements we’ve world-built can become “textures.”

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Free write your character with a day off to spend near their home. Where do they go? What do they see? How do they get around? What interactions do they have? What details do you learn from this exercise that you might use in the background of the story?

Thing of the week: Jade Legacy, by Fonda Lee.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Similarity, specificity, and selective depth help you create texture in your world. Help give the sense that your world is lived in, that the characters are interacting with it. Let them move through their world in their daily lives, just like you do. Put conversations in different places. Along with the purpose of your scenes, consider the activity, what the characters are doing in that scene. Don’t just think about big things, think about what people do in their daily lives. Give your characters strong opinions. Remember that a little goes a long way.

[Season 16, Episode 48]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Believable Worlds Part 2: Creating Texture.

[Fonda] 15 minutes long.

[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Fonda] I’m Fonda.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Dan] All right. So we are still talking about believable worlds. Last week was the illusion of real, and this week we’re going to talk about creating texture. What is texture in a story in worldbuilding?

[Fonda] Well, this really is a continuation of what we talked about last week, because a lot of the things that we mentioned, similarity, specificity, selective depth, help you create texture in the world. When I say texture, I mean the sense that your world is lived in. That is not just sort of a stage backdrop to your characters, but that your characters are interacting with that world. One of the ways that I try to make this happen in my stories is to have the characters move through their world in their daily lives, the way we move through ours. School, religion, shopping, daily transactions that you make, transportation, getting from one place to another. If you can do this while also advancing the plot, you will do a lot of worldbuilding in the background in a way that feels very organic. So if you have characters who need to have important meetings and they need to meet with other characters to exchange information, or to have confrontations and to have different things going on from a plot level, one of the best ways to world build is just to have those conversations happen out in the world in different places. So don’t have them all happening in the headquarters or in whatever, in their home. Like, have them get out there. I have a scene in which… It’s a very tense situation, and it’s this confrontation with the two characters, but it happens in a temple. So you get to see the temple and get a sense of what religion is like in this world and the fact that one character bows in the temple but the other does not also tells you something about the characters. I also have a scene where two characters meet at a sporting event. So, those are… That’s a way to have the world move by almost like you would in film. Where of… In film, things are happening and there’s so much of the world building that is in the background with the costumes and the sets and all that, and you’re not paying attention to it, but you’re absorbing it. You can do the same thing as a prose writer.

[Howard] Yeah. A couple of examples that leap to mind. The used universe of the first Star Wars film in 1977 which so influenced the genre. This was the idea that things get dirty. Even spaceships got dirty. They were used, and they had dents and scuffs and scrapes and whatever else. When Ridley Scott produced Aliens, he called that look Trucking in Space. It was very informative to us, and it let us feel like we were living there. Contrast that with when Lucas shot the prequels, so many of the sets were designed it just as green screen that a great many of the scenes were a pair of characters carrying on a conversation while walking down a hallway in which they interact with nothing. Even though they then built lavish whatever’s around them, it felt stale. So, for us as authors, having people conversing in a temple, having people at a sporting event, where the conversation, the scene requires interaction with what is around them, that’s crucial.

[Mary Robinette] There is actually an industry shorthand called touch the puppets.


[Mary Robinette] Which sounds different. But it is exactly this. That when you have three-dimensional figures that the actors, the human actors, can interact with the puppet actors, and it feels very real. Whereas when you have CG characters, there’s often no interaction. So it feels like they’re existing in two different worlds. One of the things that I do when I’m plotting is that I will write down purpose of scene, which is my narrative intention for the scene, but then I’ll write down activity. The activity is the thing that the characters are doing in that scene, which often has nothing to do with the purpose of the scene. So if they are plotting… It’s like we’re going to plot this heist. They’re doing it over… While cooking a spaghetti dinner. The thing that does for me is it makes the world richer, but it also allows me to introduce micro tensions, because that’s… There can be things that are going wrong in the scene, like the water starts to boil over. Which can mask the fact that they’re just exchanging information in prepping for something. But it also, again, has that texture of making the world feel more real, because small things go wrong in day-to-day life. Like, in one of the episodes that we recorded previously, we had to start over because outside the booth, my cat had knocked over the cat feeder and had, like, jumped in it. If we had left that, this would have felt so very real.


[Dan] We removed our vital worldbuilding details. This is one of the benefits that novels have over a lot of other mediums, in that you’re essentially unconstrained by budget or time. If you’re making a movie or a TV show, then, yeah, you probably only have a handful of scenic locations that you can use in your story. If you are writing a novel, you can have as many as you want. You can have that meeting take place at a temple or a sporting event, because you don’t have to pay extra to get a whole sports arena into your book. You just put it in there.

[Howard] I remember my first iPhone. It was expensive, and at one point I cracked the screen and could not just run out and replace it. See item 1. It was expensive. For a while, finger swiping across the screen, there was a texture as I ran my finger across the crack. It was the texture of regret for having dropped it.


[Howard] It was the texture of need for not having enough money. I felt it every time I use the phone. Okay? That was a little tiny rib feeling under one finger. Those kinds of details will give you way more insight into your characters than you just got into me.

[Dan] All right. So, our book of the week this week is one that does this so, so well. Releasing this week into the world, we’re so excited, Fonda, tell us about your book.

[Fonda] I guess I should mention that I have a book coming out this week.


[Fonda] So, I am finishing off the Green Bone saga with Jade Legacy, which is the third and final book. It is coming out November 30th in the U. S., December 2nd in the U. K. and internationally. It is… I’ve described the green bone Green Bone saga as an epic urban fantasy Asian inspired gangster family saga. That’s probably as succinct as I’ve ever been in describing it. But it is about… It takes place in a modern era Metropolis, and one in which there is a resource, magic Jade, which endows certain people with very cool abilities. It is the story of two clans in conflict. I’m just super excited to bring the story to a close. It has been a long journey and I’m glad I got to come on here and talk to you guys about it.

[Dan] Well, thank you very much. The Green Bone saga is one of my very favorite fantasy series ever. So excited for Jade Legacy to come out. So, the first one is called Jade City, the second Jade War, and then this new one, Jade Legacy. So if you’re unfamiliar with it, start at the beginning.

[Mary Robinette] They are so good. They are so, so good.

[Dan] If you like… If you have been waiting so eagerly, like the rest of us… Mary Robinette, you’re a cover quote on it, aren’t you?

[Mary Robinette] I am. I say that it’s like your favorite wire work film crossed with The Godfather. It’s just… But it’s so good. Such, just beautiful intimate portraits of people. I just love it a lot. Also magic.

[Dan] Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee. Go buy it right now.

[Dan] Anyway, back into our world building and creating texture. What are some of the elements that are often overlooked when we are trying to create texture in a world?

[Fonda] So there are… There’s many that people don’t automatically think of, because they think worldbuilding, and they think lineage of Kings and government and geography and so on. But things that are very much a part of our own world, like pop culture and entertainment. What are people doing for fun? Fashion trends. Schooling or education. Fitness. Sports. We mentioned food earlier in this master class. Religious life. Daily commerce. These are all… Just sort of think about how you go through your day and the ways you interact with the world. Are you doing that in your fantasy world?

[Dan] Yeah. The… So I play a lot of role-playing games, and one of my favorites is Warhammer Fantasy, which is set in kind of a low magic, fake magic Europe. That world always feels much more real and grounded to me than most of the D&D settings, even though I love them as well. I was trying to figure out why. What about that feels more real? It’s this concept of texture. The idea that any given Warhammer Fantasy supplement in describing the world is also going to have a sidebar that tells you about the specific names of all the pub games that they play in the taverns, or they won’t just be food, they’ll have names for this type of meat pie or something like that, to just add extra specificity, like we talked about last week. But then also kind of give those context, so it’s not just we’re in a pub, but we’re in a pub playing this game of dice which is called this because of this, and the last guy who played it lost in his name is still carved into the table and things like that.

[Mary Robinette] The other… With those things, the pub food, games, all of that, give your characters strong opinions about something. Like that’s… And maybe give them a foil who has a counter opinion. Again, it can give you micro tension within a scene, but it can make things feel more real if it’s like he hears the sound of the arcade game and it haunts him because he broke up with his teenage girlfriend and lost the top score and has never been able to reclaim it. I don’t know. I’m making things up wildly.


[Mary Robinette] But… Because I was…

[Dan] It’s a good writing prompt.

[Howard] The smell…

[Mary Robinette] That’s where I was going.

[Howard] The smell of a dresser drawer, that at one point had mothballs in it, but hasn’t for probably decades, is the smell that will always bring me back to me being 12 years old and visiting my grandmother’s house for the first time. That’s… But most people will smell that and think, “Oh, how do you… You haven’t gotten the mothball smell out of that drawer, have you?” That’s not the reaction I have.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I’m sorry… I’m… Weirdly, I’m going to wind up quoting Hemingway, which I did not expect to do in this episode.


[Mary Robinette] But this goes back to something that Fonda was talking about much earlier about similarities, that you can look for similarities in these specific details. Everyone has heard the write what you know Hemingway quote. I’m going to take a moment to read the… Like, the length… The actual quote. Because it actually gets to what we’re talking about here. So… It’s not what most people think it is. “You see, I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of actual life across. Not to just depict life or criticize it, but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me, you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful, you can’t believe in it. Write about what you know, and write truly, and tell them all where they can place it. Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study about. Whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.” So you know what it is to really like the taste of something. You can give that sensation to your character with a thing that is specific to that world. You can have someone in that world… Or a type of music that you know intimately what it is like to love as a fan. You can attach that to a new type of music that you have made up for this world. That’s going to make it feel specific and real and textural and grounded.

[Fonda] Yeah. I definitely think that that phrase write what you know gets misunderstood a lot, and that really, what you’re talking about, Mary Robinette, is writing what you know on a deeper level, on an emotional experiential level. Taking that and applying it to new contexts in your fictional world. One thing I want to say to all the readers here is a little goes a long way. Like, we may be giving you the impression that you have to just now all of a sudden just over describe everything and fill it with nuance and context. But that’s not necessarily true. You want to pick your places. Show those moments, those glimpses that imply that the whole world has that same texture. I use the example of, like, the Hollywood back lot tour. Where I went to Hollywood studios… Or Universal Studios, and you take the little tram, and the streets on this back lot look so real. Like, down to the bubblegum that’s stuck on the railing or the chipped paint on the windowsill. It’s entirely convincing. Then you turn the corner, and, like, it’s just held up by like boards. There’s no building behind it. It’s just the front. But what you do show has texture and feels very real and lived in. The reader or the audience fills in all the rest for you.

[Dan] Awesome. All right. So, what is our homework for this week?

[Fonda] I would like readers… Listeners to go and take a character that they have in the project that they’re working on and free write your character with a day off. Have them just spend it doing what they would do on a day off. Where do they go, what do they see, how do they get around? What interactions do they have? After this exercise, see if you can’t find a few cool details that you learned in the process of this free writing that you can use in the background of your main story.

[Dan] Awesome. Well. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.