Reprise: Writing/Worldbuilding Exercise: Three Things You Can Find in a…

The reruns continue. This one was originally posted on March 30, 2009.

One of the things that makes a world seem more like a world and less like a static backdrop is the presence of things that are suited to the location and aren’t directly relevant to the action. In some cases, this says something about the individuals occupying the space; I’ve already written about what you can learn about a character from what’s in her workspace. In others, it talks about the space itself and how it’s used; for instance, you’d expect different objects in an art museum than an armory, and even two different art museums probably wouldn’t have the same three things in their collections.

Photo courtesy of theswedish from stock.xchng.  What can you tell about this space from the things shown?

The three things can also tell you about the cultural context of the space in question. It’s one thing to mention there’s a plant on the windowsill, but you’re not going to get the same image from a blooming begonia as you would a bonsai, are you? Likewise, there’s a difference between a tapestry on the wall covered in intricate knotwork, and a minimalistic ink painting.

The scenery doesn’t have to be inanimate objects, either; it can be animals, or even people. In a bar, you might get the bartender, or one of the servers. A hunting lodge will probably have a hound stretched out in front of the fire. A stable will have horses of different personalities—one might try to raid people’s pockets as they walk past, while another kicks against the wall and another stuffs her face with hay.

In a world that doesn’t exist, these items’ uses can be turned around; instead of figuring out what a room is from what’s in it, you can know what a room is ahead of time, then find out what the culture’s like from what you see in it. Do their objects of art fit with our aesthetics? What do they sleep on? What sorts of things do they keep where they can reach them easily? On what do they write?

For instance:

Let’s look at libraries—and things in them that aren’t books. In a standard elementary school library, you might find a dinosaur diorama, a big colorful poster showing the numbers of books different classes have read, and a wall full of crayon pictures. In a middle school library, it might be a poster on the Dewey Decimal System, an aide in the back room taping an audiobook for a teacher, and a card catalog box. A high school library could boast a newspaper rack in the middle of the room, a Nancy Pearl action figure on the office windowsill, and a row of computers. A college library could have a row of kiosks for a laptop to plug into, a poster on the Library of Congress system, and a model of the university campus. In the main room of a public library, you might find a mailbag partly full of books from other branches under the circulation desk, a clipboard of timeslots for the computers, and a frazzled employee frantically checking in the previous evening’s drops, while the back room might boast a typewriter for spine labels, a miniature fridge, and a fan in the window. On the other hand, the Library of the Gods, far out in the southern mountains, includes a 1:1,000,000 perfect scale model of the world, a sphere of translucent obsidian the size of a human head on an ornate pedestal, and spectral butterflies that guide people to their chosen research.

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