by Adria Quiñones
Henry Neff, author/illustrator of The Tapestry series of contemporary MG fantasy novels and our guide to world-building, began the October Professional Series lecture with an intriguing fact: J.R.R. Tolkien created the languages of Middle Earth before he imagined the world. “The invention of languages is the foundation,” Tolkien wrote. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.”
Most of the rest of us work the other way around: we figure out the story we want to tell, and then, sometimes belatedly, come up with a set of rules to govern that world. In the case of contemporary fiction, we might not think much about the rules of our world—after all, we know them. And yet, “it doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing,” Neff pointed out. “It could be a neighborhood story, it could be historical fiction, it could be science fiction. You are world building.”
“Ask an author about the place and time of their story and you’ll get an immediate answer. But where is the economic wealth? Who is lionized in this culture?” Neff continued. His background as a history teacher led him to repurpose the framework he taught students to use when studying a society for use when creating a fictional one. The acronym SPRITE (Society, Politics, Religion, Ideas and Culture, Technology, and Economics) is an easy way to remember the salient points. “It’s not a paint-by-numbers scheme,” he cautioned, “but a group of tools and ideas to help you gain traction since we all think and problem-solve a little bit differently.”
Using some well-known titles as examples, Neff described which aspects of SPRITE an author might need, and how deeply they might need to develop or describe a world, depending on the type of story. A book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid would require a small amount of world-building compared to The Grapes of Wrath and the Harry Potter series, whose worlds have some familiar aspects, while books like Dune and Lord of the Rings require extensive world-building across all of SPRITE’s elements: their worlds are unfamiliar, and the rules of the world help drive the plot.
While planning his upcoming middle-grade fantasy series, Impyrium, which takes place on Earth 3,000 years in the future, Neff created background documents and maps. “Knowing whether the story takes place in an island coastal community, inland in the north or inland in the south, the distances between where things are happening, how people travel, the relationships between groups of people—all of these factors affect why things are the way they are. And if you don’t have a clear sense, the reader won’t have a clear sense.”
Still, world-building has its limitations. “A cool world won’t compensate for bad characters,” Neff said. “People read a book over and over again not because of the world-building, but because it’s emotionally satisfying.” Ultimately, the characters are at the center of the story, but good world-building produces a rich environment within which that story can play out.