Creating the World of the Unbelievables by K.C. Tansley
Worldbuilding in a paranormal story starts off easy. When you introduce a new power or a rule into your world, it’s all shiny and fun. It’s thrilling to have it in the story. You can’t wait to play with it. But as you progress into the novel, the powers and the rules layer upon each other. If you’re not careful, you can get ensnared in the web of your own worldbuilding.
The deeper you go into the story, the more careful you have to be. Because now you’re not just playing with one shiny, cool power. You’ve got several powers and rules in play. And they have to function the way you told readers they do. So you have to make sure you understand how every power works, including the strengths and weaknesses of every supernatural being. But you don’t just have to know the rules; you have to grasp the ramifications of the rules. You have to understand everything that can and can’t happen in your story world.
It’s a lot like a game of poker. You have to have clear rules so everyone (you, your characters, and your readers) knows what trumps what. As the writer, you have to know much more than the characters know about the world, so the rules that they don’t know are always enforced throughout the story.
There will be rare occasions where you’ll have to invent a loophole, too. Because sometimes the rules can’t apply. Exceptions have to remain very rare. Otherwise, what’s the point of worldbuilding? If you characters can do anything at any time, there’s not point to creating rules that no one follows.
It also annoys the reader if you create rules and break them all the time. They notice these things. It pulls them out of the story when they have to stop and figure out how the rule can be violated. It annoys them. And you never ever want to annoy readers.
When I’m worldbuilding, I have to think through the consequences of things. I have to imagine different scenarios for my rule and see if it holds up. In The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts, I needed a reason why some people see ghosts and some people don’t. I also needed to explain the entire spectrum of what they perceive as ghosts. Some people see a physical ghost and talk to them. Others feel a coldness or see a shadow flicker. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted this perceiving of ghosts to be something that could change. That someone who never saw a ghost could at some point see a ghost. So I tried to come up with a reasonable rule. Something that readers would grasp and that I could build my story around.
I had taken a workshop on witchcraft and much of it was centered around intent and belief. I decided to base my ghost worldbuilding on belief. If you believe in ghosts, it allows them to manifest in your world. Then you can interact with them. Your interaction depends on the strength of your belief. It explains why some people see a shadow or feel a sudden chill; whereas, others can actually see ghosts and communicate with them. I wanted a range of ghostly experiences.
I like to ground my worldbuilding in a simple concept that you can relate to your daily life. This belief thing struck me as very common. Think about how many times you have sworn you lost your car keys, only to find them sitting on your desk. You convince yourself they are missing, and your brain believes they aren’t there, so your senses don’t pick up on them.
That’s a central rule for my ghost worldbuilding. I had to carry it through the entire book. Anytime someone saw a ghost, they had to be a believer; and if they didn’t see the ghost, they had to be an unbeliever. I even went so far as to name the supernatural creatures “The Unbelievables” because I really wanted to drive home this worldbuilding rule.
When I was revising the story, I would refer back to my rule anytime a ghost appeared to make sure it was consistent. If it wasn’t, I reworked the scene until it was. If I felt like this was a place I needed an exception, I figured out how the exception worked and why it was rare and then wrote it into my worldbuilding.
It’s important to limit the powers of your characters. Nobody wants to read about a protagonist who has no weaknesses. It’s predictable and kills the tension. I tried to build a weakness into each character’s powers.
Kat can see ghosts and interact with them, but it drains her energy because they use her energy to maintain a presence in her world. So she can’t constantly see them. It would be too much for her. She also has a complicated backstory with ghosts that requires her to block them out by actively not believing in them. It’s the only way she can live a normal life.
For Toria, I wanted her to be a psychic. But if she was all knowing that would be very boring to the reader. Limits are what make powers interesting. She can’t force a vision. They come when they come. Sometimes they overwhelm her. And they are always symbolic. Nothing straight forward. Having to interpret her dreams and visions means there’s an element of error in it. That keeps both the character and the readers guessing and second guessing things.
For me, the essentials to worldbuilding are:
- Your rules must apply throughout your entire book,
- You know more about the powers than anyone else needs to, and
- Every power has to have a limit/weakness.
As long as you apply these as you worldbuild, your story should be a wonderful, rich world for readers. Miss one of them and the worldbuilding will come crashing down like a house of cards on a windy day.
In The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts, prep school junior Kat Preston accidentally time travels to 1886 Connecticut, where she must share a body with a rebellious Victorian lady, prevent a gruesome wedding night murder, disprove a deadly family curse, and find a way back to her own time.
Never one to say no to a road trip, she’s climbed the Great Wall twice, hopped on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and danced the night away in the dunes of Cape Hatteras. She loves the ocean and hates the sun, which makes for interesting beach days. The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts is the first book in her YA time-travel murder mystery series.
As Kourtney Heintz, she also writes award winning cross-genre fiction for adults.
Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/kourtneyheintzwriter