Writing Excuses 16.43: The Narrative Holy Trinity of World, Character, and Plot, with Fonda Lee
Key points: The story is like a three-legged stool with world, character, and plot working together. Worldbuilding is a part of all kinds of fiction. Most stories start with a kernel, either a world kernel, a character kernel, or a plot kernel. Then you build out from there. For example, starting with a world kernel, look at what attracts you to this world and what kinds of conflicts does it have. That will suggest potential plots, and lead you to types of characters. Starting with a character kernel, think about the character’s journey, and what kind of world would make that journey more compelling and difficult. From a plot kernel, backfill, and think about what kind of world would make the stakes of that plot compelling and gripping. The world, in turn, is made up of environments, culture, and technology. Think about the ways things are interconnected. Wherever your story starts, take that kernel and build the world around it, tie the world, characters, and plot together.
[Season 16, Episode 43]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Worldbuilding Master Class with Fonda Lee.
[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] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] We are incredibly excited to be starting a brand new eight episode series. We’re going to be talking about worldbuilding. We have one of, in my opinion, the very best worldbuilders working today. Fonda Lee, can you tell us about yourself?
[Fonda] Yeah. Thanks for having me on the show. I’m Fonda. I write science fiction and fantasy novels. I’m best known for the Green Bone saga, which begins with Jade City, continues with Jade War, and concludes with Jade Legacy, which is coming out November 30. I’m also the author of a few science fiction novels, Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire, and a smattering of short fiction. I live in Portland, Oregon, and I love food and action movies.
[Dan] Cool. Well, thank you for being on the show. We’re really excited to have you here.
[Dan] You have prepared a class for us about worldbuilding. This first episode, we’re going to talk about what you call the narrative holy trinity, world, character, and plot. What… Start us off with that.
[Fonda] Yeah. So, I love worldbuilding. It’s one of the topics I always enjoy talking about. People often ask me about my worldbuilding process, how do I actually go about it, how long do I take, what steps. I often have a difficult time describing the actual process for them, because in my mind it’s really impossible to distinguish the act of worldbuilding from that of developing the plot and character. The reason I called this episode the holy trinity is because in my mind, the story is like a three legged stool, or perhaps a three cylinder engine, that only functions because the pieces of world, character, and plot are working together. When you ask yourself as an author, “Well, why do you go through all the effort of worldbuilding in creating this entire fictional campus?” On one hand, you could say, “Well, it’s really fun.” Which is true, a lot of us authors worldbuilding because it’s really enjoyable. But for me there also has to be a reason why that invented world exists and contributes to making the story uniquely what it is from a narrative perspective. I feel like we often talk about the relationship between plot and character, and what I’d really love to do in this master class is dive into the relationship between the world and the other elements of story.
[Howard] As I was thinking about this, I looked at the outline last night, I was reminded of an anecdote that I love to share about college Howard. Which has each of these elements in it. I was waking up in the morning and thinking, “Oh, I’m so happy that today is Friday, because I don’t have my 7 AM class. I’m so glad that today is… Or, no, I’m so glad that it’s Thursday because I don’t have my 7 AM class, and I’m so glad it’s Friday because the weekend is beginning.” Howard is lying in bed, mulling over these things and suddenly realizes, “Wait, those can’t both be true.” I asked my roommate, “Hey, David, what day is it?” He’s like, “It’s Friday.” “Oh, good, I’m glad it’s Friday. Wait, what time is it?” “It’s 6:45.” At which point, I leapt out of bed. The worldbuilding detail that I’ve left out is that the day before, David and I had installed bunkbeds, and I was on top.
[Howard] So I pancake on the floor and David looks at me and says, “If this is going to happen every morning, we can trade.”
[Howard] The point here though is that there is this character who’s kind of doofy, and there’s this plot about what he likes and what he doesn’t like. Then there is this worldbuilding detail which arrives a little late, but which sells the whole story. If you don’t have all three of those, it’s just another story about me waking up late.
[Mary Robinette] The other… And there are so many of those, honestly.
[Fonda] Now I want an entire series of just Howard’s college exploits.
[Mary Robinette] Right! But actually, this is a thing that I do want to point out for our listeners, because I know that while we tend to focus on science fiction and fantasy, and people think about worldbuilding as being a science fiction and fantasy hallmark, and it certainly one of the things that drives us, worldbuilding is something that you have to do with any kind of fiction. Even something that is set contemporary in your real home because you are still making narrative decisions about every piece of the world that goes on the page. So all of the things we’re going to be talking about are things that you will still be able to find and apply, even if you’re writing something that is contemporary.
[Fonda] Yeah. I’ve often said that even if you have your story set in a small town, or a nuclear submarine, the odds that your reader has actually been to that small town or has been on a nuclear submarine are vanishingly small. So you have just as much work to convince your reader of that world as you do a fictional world. The only advantage, or really difference, that you have when you’re writing that is opposed to a speculative fiction story is that you have more… You can count on your reader having more real-life cues to help them along in building that world in their mind than you necessarily would if you’re creating a completely secondary world from scratch.
[Dan] Yeah. I made this mistake yesterday, actually. In the book that I’m writing, I have a scene set in a law office. I wrote it. It just didn’t feel wrong, it felt hollow and weird, and I realized I had included zero worldbuilding details in it. There… If someone doesn’t already know exactly what a law office looks like or how it works, they would be completely lost trying to read that scene and understand it. So, yeah. You need to include this whether it’s real or… Real stuff or stuff you make up.
[Fonda] If you don’t get those details right in a real-world setting, there are people who will tell you that you got your worldbuilding details wrong.
[Mary Robinette] Even if you do get them right, I’ll just say, FYI, even if you do get them right, people will still tell you that you’re wrong.
[Dan] Yes, but at least you can feel good about yourself.
[Mary Robinette] I know. So, what are some of the tools that we can use, Fonda?
[Fonda] Well, often times people have asked how do you come up with the ideas for your story? Like, every single one of us has had that question put to us, at a reading or a book signing. The reality is that there’s no idea factory. Most of the time, we have some little kernel, and we glom additional material onto that kernel in order to make it turn into something that could potentially be a story. I find, at least in my case, that the story tends to show up as an initial kernel of either a world kernel, a character kernel, or a plot kernel. This is happened to me with each of my different projects. They’ve come to me as different kernels. The Green Bone saga, for example, that came as a world kernel first. So the world, the premise of the world, was what first arrived, and then I had to do the work of developing plot and characters. So if your world comes to you first, I think the thing to ask yourself is what attracts you to this world and what inherent conflicts are there that are present in that world? That will lead you then to what kind of potential plot might unfold as a result of the conflicts. It might lead you to what types of characters will enable the reader to experience that world and to experience those conflicts. But if you have, let’s say, a character kernel come to you first, then you can ask yourself, well, what is the character’s journey and what is it that you can do with your worldbuilding that makes that journey more compelling and difficult. Then, finally, if you have a plot kernel come to you first, it may be a twist or a cool climax idea, then you can backfill it with, okay, now you’re going to go do your worldbuilding. What kind of external worldly pressures are going to make the stakes of that plot extremely compelling and gripping?
[Dan] I am excited to talk about all three of those and dig into some examples. Let’s do a book of the week first, which is actually me. I’m going to talk this week about a book called She Who Rides the Storm by Caitlin Sangster. This came out just a couple of weeks ago, and it is an epic fantasy heist novel, with some really just incredible worldbuilding. One of the main characters has this incredible magical sense of smell. So, not only is it written with this really wonderful sense of sensory detail, but the smells that she is including in her fantasy world are all incredibly compelling. It has kind of driven her to create all kinds of interesting foods and medicines… She’s an herbalist… Things like this that came together through the sense of smell to give a really fascinating sense of place to the world that she is telling the story in. So that is She Who Rides the Storm by Caitlin Sangster.
[Mary Robinette] Cool. Well, there’s a thing that Fonda was talking about right before we took the break that made me think of a thing, which is that when we’re talking about the world, that I also find that the world is another three-legged stool. That it’s made up of environments, culture, and technology. And that each of those pieces influence the others. One of the things that I want you to be thinking about as we’re going through this whole thing is that just as the culture’s influenced by the environment… If you’re in a very warm place, that’s going to affect the kind of clothing that someone wears. The technology that you have will affect that as well, because if you’re in a warm place with air conditioning, you’re going to have a completely different reaction than if you’re in a warm place without air conditioning. So there’s this kind of cyclical interconnectedness. When we’re looking at all of these things, again, through the whole master class, one of the places that people come part with their worldbuilding is that they don’t think about the way things are interconnected. So they don’t think about how the technology affects the character and that then affects the plot. Or they don’t think about the way the plot affects the technology. Like they don’t think about the ways… That there’s a web. The thing about a three-legged stool is you can’t take any of those legs away without the whole stool falling over.
[Howard] There’s the classic example that we used in one of the very first episodes of Writing Excuses, which is the continual light spell in the Dungeons & Dragons setting. Which, if it’s been around for a generation or more, candlemaking is dead. Because I don’t care how much those things cost, now… They’re continual. You’ve upset an entire economy. So contemplating the implications of that cool stuff that attracts you to the world is key to making that world feel believable. Because at some point, we walk through these worlds that people create and something rings wrong and we realize it’s because, “Oh, wait. If A, then definitely not B. We’re spending all this time on B. We need to skip straight ahead to M.”
[Fonda] Right. I mean, there’s so many choices that you make in worldbuilding. Ideally, you want all of those choices to continue to reinforce your characters, challenges, and their choices, and enable the story that you want to tell and make your plot more compelling. You don’t want your worldbuilding to undermine your story. I think we’ll talk a lot over the course of this master class about how do you make choices that help your story as opposed to just acting as a backdrop for the story.
[Dan] I really love this idea that you gave us about the kernels. World first, character first, and plot first. I’d love to dig into those a little bit and get an example. I kind of want to ask about the Green Bone saga. You mentioned that idea came to you as world first. Can you give us, very quickly, kind of a sense of how you developed that? How starting with the world informed the way that you came up with the plot and the characters?
[Fonda] Yeah, so my initial kernel for the Green Bone saga was Jade City. That was… Those were the two words, it’s the title of the first book, and that’s what came to me first. The premise of it was almost an aesthetic one. I wanted to create a world that had these… An awesome kung fu magic powers that I saw in my favorite films. People being able to like leap off buildings and punch through walls, and ground that in a story where that made sense and there was a magic resource that explained that. Then mashed it with my favorite crime drama aesthetics. So that was the premise of the world. In order… Where I built off from that was saying, “Okay. Well, what kind of world is going to most fulfill this vision?” That allowed me to decide where to set it in terms of time. Because the default with a lot of fantasy stories is to set it in like a medieval period. But I had a really clear aesthetic in my mind. I’m like, “What is a gangster family drama unless it’s got luxury cars and the submachine guns and the dark alleys and the men in suits smoking in rooms?” So that led me to the decision to set a fantasy… An epic fantasy story in a more modern, latter half of the 20th century time period. Because I knew from the start that I wanted to invoke a family saga, like the Godfather, that made me make a decision around characters. They have to be… I had a multiple POV story with a cast of characters, and each of them has a different role in the family. Then, that led me to a lot of plot decisions, around how the characters would interact. So it’s sort of a cascading effect in which you come up… You have a kernel, and then you make a number of choices in your worldbuilding that help you tell the story that you want to tell.
[Howard] I find it really useful to prioritize the things that you loved early on, the decisions that you’re making. Because I inevitably in my worldbuilding in my storytelling will arrive at a point where I can see very clearly, “Oh. This is the thing that I absolutely need to be exploring, but in order to do this, I have to knock down that very first piece of foundation I built because those don’t work.” Because I’m working in comics or in prose, that’s not terribly expensive. If I were working in cinema and had already built a movie set, then that would be a terrible decision to have to make, but I don’t. So that’s not the way it rolls.
[Dan] We are running… Letting this episode run slightly long because we wanted to introduce the full master class. Let me give a really quick example of a plot first story kernel. With my Zero G middle grade books on Audible. The whole impetus behind that story was Home Alone in space. The idea that there is a kid on a colony ship who has to defend it from pirates, because everyone else is asleep. In order to tell that story properly, starting purely with the plot, that created or forced a lot of worldbuilding decisions such that I didn’t want it… If he has to defend the ship by himself, then the cryo-technology that keeps everyone asleep can’t be something that he can just undo… He can’t wake people up and put them back to sleep again. It forced a lot of the technological details because I needed a story in which a 12-year-old boy had to solve all of the problems by himself. Does anybody very quickly have an example of a character first?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I do. Ghost Talkers started with the character of Ginger Stuyvesant. All I really knew about her, the sense that I had, was that she was this glamorous heiress, and that she was a medium. That was kind of all I knew. I wanted there to be some banter, and that there was a noir feel, kind of a… Then I had to figure out sort of where she lived and figure out what the world was that she inhabited that allowed her to be a medium that solved crime. Which I knew that… That also then gave me the plot. It’s like, “Oh, she’s solving mysteries. That’s what she’s doing with this thing.” But it definitely started… I had a very clear image of Ginger. Then I had to figure everything else out around her.
[Fonda] What I love about all these examples is that it shows that wherever your story starts, you are taking that kernel and you are building that world around it as opposed to just sort of putting it up against a backdrop. You’re trying to find ways to tie the world into all the elements of character and all the elements of plot.
[Dan] Awesome. Well, this has been a fantastic episode. We’re going to end with some homework. Fonda? What would you like our listeners to do?
[Fonda] I would like you to pick a favorite book with worldbuilding that you admire, and see if you can identify in what way the worldbuilding supports the character journeys that happen in that story, supports the plot, and also supports the themes.
[Dan] Cool. Well, there you go. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.