Inspired by Reality: World-building with Ruta Rimas

Originally Posted: August 2013

by James Gain

World-building is one of the most difficult tasks in writing fiction, said Ruta Rimas, editor at the Atheneum and Margaret K. McElderry imprints at Simon & Schuster, in the June Professional Lecture. The world of a book must be thoroughly imagined, audience-engaging, composed of authentic details, activated by voice, and event-driven, she said. And regardless of genre, from contemporary realistic to high fantasy, the world must be “inspired by reality.”

Rimas explained that the main goal of the author is to “convince the reader of the plausibility of the world within your book.” Using examples from published fiction and providing concrete tips, she delved into the complex and necessary challenges that accompany world-building.

To build authentic and memorable worlds like those in Harry Potterand the His Dark Materials trilogy (both featuring enormously successful invented worlds), Rimas suggested that writers research actual societies or historic periods, make maps of their fictional countries, and create reference pages for each character and location to keep details straight.

Within your story, Rimas said, “there are cultures, power structures, languages, foods, attires, traditions, rituals, and religions.” And it isn’t enough to know they exist, she said; “writers must know why things are this way in order to integrate them into the story.”

World-building is important in every genre, Rimas said. She provided examples from contemporary novels, fantasies like theGraceling and Mortal Instruments series, and historicals such as the middle grade The Prairie Thief.

Rimas emphasized that one of the essential ingredients of world-building, and a way to avoid the dreaded “information dump,” is voice. Providing sample prose from a manuscript, she examined it first from a third-person narrator’s point of view and then, after it was rewritten, from the main character’s.

Hearing about the world in the main character’s voice invited the reader to make judgments alongside the main character. The “info dump” turned into authentic detail when seen through the main character’s eyes, which made an upcoming plot confrontation more affecting. Although the change in voice might seem subtle to the writer, the difference on the page was enormous.

“Be an archaeologist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist,” said Rimas. “Don’t just appropriate an existing culture. Look for real life elements that can apply to your created world.”

Rimas recommended these further resources on world-building: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, author Malinda Lo’s essay on her website (www.malindalo.com/2012/10/five-foundations-of-world-building/), and articles on the Science Fiction Writers of America website  (www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/).

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James Gain is an MA graduate from the Gallatin School at New York  University. His novel, A Curse for My Sister, is about a young woman who flees the Salem witch trials and enacts a curse of vengeance upon those responsible for hanging her sister.

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