Playing God: World-Building with Connie Hsu

Originally Published: May 11, 2010

by Emily Goodman

Connie Hsu, assistant editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, discussed the perils and responsibilities of world-building at the March 16 professional lecture, entitled “How You Get to Play God and Learn to Use Your Powers Responsibly.”

The lecture was devised, Hsu said, because Little, Brown receives many fantasy manuscripts and the editors frequently find these manuscripts need stronger “world-building.” This skill, she emphasized, isn’t only used in fantasy: every fiction manuscript, including historical fiction and contemporary realistic fiction, builds its own world, and it must be believable. “You’re asking readers to forget what they know is real and trust you instead,” Hsu explained.

“The three steps to building a believable world,” Hsu said, “are creating the setting, the rules, and the reality.”

The setting is the time and place where the story’s action takes place. Hsu suggests treating the setting like a character which interacts with the other characters and the plot. As an exercise, she recommends trying to evoke a time and a place without giving the year and locale up front; this forces the writer to be more descriptive. She also recommends using all the senses and being consistent. “Too often, writers forget to follow through. Characters come in from the rain and are completely dry. Tell us about their wet shoes and dripping hair!”

The rules of a world are its limitations and are paramount in making a world believable to the reader. “Things are done differently in different worlds. Think about how differently you would go shopping in New York City than in Alabama,” said Hsu. “Writers need to know how things are done in their world. How do people get water? Food? Shelter? How do they run errands? Where do they live?”

Creating reality means convincing the reader that the world is real. Hsu advises writers to be consistent and accurate. “Keep track of the days of the week, so you don’t accidentally send your characters to school on Sunday,” Hsu advises. “Fact-check everything! Do lions purr? How long would it actually take to repair a bus? Inaccuracies will be noticed by someone and will throw them out of the story.” She recommends that writers do more background research than they will actually use. “Find out ‘what’ and ‘why’ things are done in a particular world. For example, if you think a medieval character would wear leather gloves, find out why.” “Once you know your reality, don’t be afraid to make the rules,” she said. “It’s the limitations that make the story interesting.”

Following these rules means you are playing God responsibly in the world of your book!

Emily Goodman wrote the award-winning picture book Plant Secrets (Charlesbridge, 2009) and is working on other nonfiction and a fantasy novel.

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