How do you build a world?

Part 1: The Five W’s and a H

Before reporting became a dying craft, every newbie was taught that a news story had to answer five fundamental questions:

Who, What, Where, When, Why

… and sometimes, How.

In any piece of fiction, these questions are just as fundamental.

I’m going to talk about The Questions, here, while referencing a particular set of books, my own, The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, and “Shifter”.

Question 1: WHO?

When a squib arrived in my inbox announcing a forthcoming anthology of short stories about Weres, – accompanied by an admonishment of “and let’s see something different than the usual tired old tropes!” – I sat down to write a story that immediately popped into my head.

It was a story about a kind of Were-being that was very definitely not a “tired old trope” – it was something that I’d never seen described before, a wholly crazy out-of-left-field idea…

…the Random Were.

A Random Were was a shape-changer who would change into the last warm-blooded creature they saw just before the moment of their Turn – and if it was their FIRST Turn then that would remain their primary form, the form that they will always turn to if they do not see any other critters cross their path in the crucial moments.

The idea had some wonderful comedic possibilities – and in fact the short story I began for that anthology was very light and humorous. It began by positing an unfortunate farmyard incident which left my protagonist’s mother stuck for the eternity of her existence on this world… as a Were-chicken. And trust me, this still gets a laugh if I read that section of the story in a public reading. A Were chicken is FUNNY.

Except that this story quickly ceased to be mindlessly amusing. The Random Were could not exist without rules, and the more I thought about the rules the more a cohesive Were society began to shape itself – a society consisting of various clans who shift true to their form (the Corvids, the Felids, the folk who turn into dogs or bears or sheep or llamas…), the wild-card Randoms (who were the lowest on the totem pole, for obvious reasons) and another new thing, the New Moon Were, the kindred who shifted at the New Moon and not the Full Moon and who generally found themselves living as bats for the three days and nights of their Turn.

They rose in front of me, these people, these races, this society, and they became as solid and real for me as any (now all too ordinary) human being I happened to cross paths with in the street.

I abandoned the short story. It became clear that “Random” wanted to be a book, a huge book, in concept if not words. It meant creating a whole new world and building it up from its foundations… peopled by characters who quickly became some of the best fictional people I had ever had the privilege to work with.

But quite aside from tackling the big questions this book was also an intensely focused one, dealing with things on a much smaller scale than societal pressures – dealing with family secrets, and very very personal issues. The big picture was the Weres and their society – but within it, etched with a diamond-tipped pen, a sharp storyline emerged, and at the center of it was a girl called Jazz.

Jazz was the youngest in an immigrant family of Randoms who came to a new place looking for safety from persecution in the land in which they had been born. The safety proved to be somewhat illusory, because it was, first of all, bought at the very high price of personal freedom. The Were kindred was just as feared and hated here as they had ever been before except in the new world this was carefully hidden behind “rules” and “laws”.

Laws, of course, have always existed to be broken – and there is a level of both subtle and quite open torment – bullying, discrimination – leveled at the Were from their human peers. Jazz’s older sister Celia, who is central to this story, bore the brunt of this torment, to the point that it led to the fracture at the heart of this family – the silences and the secrets surrounding Celia’s death from an overdose of a Were-specific drug.

“Random” is an exploration of an individual trying to find her place in her world (particularly when her own Random nature leads to a transformation which will leave her in a very uncomfortable position) as well as an exploration of what it means to belong to a family, a clan, a race, a species.

It is, on the surface, a story about Were-kind. It is on a deeper level a story about what it means to be human.

“Random” wanted to be a full length book – but it was obvious very quickly that the story I had begun telling would not fit into a single book. I had a series on my hands.

What The Were Chronicles became is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, with a story arc being approached in three different books by three different POV characters – and in “Wolf”, book 2 of the series, the POV character is Jazz’s brother Mal. Mal is battling his own demons – he is at 17 the oldest unturned Were of his generation, which is destroying him, especially since his younger sister Turns before he does; and also, perhaps far more powerfully, he sees himself as guilty for his sister Celia’s death (because it was he who procured the tablets which she took, which then killed her).

The frustration and the guilt make Mal a dark character, perhaps even an unlikeable one – but it is his strength, his convictions, his ability to grasp a nettle when required and endure the stings which are necessary in order to achieve a particular goal, his growth as a character, his willingness to learn and change and shoulder both love and responsibility when they are both laid upon him, it is all these things that make him unique, and wonderful, and real.

He begins his book, “Wolf” as a whiny and petulant boy. He ends it as a man. This is a coming of age story, and it charts a path which may be thorny but which is always true.

Mal’s friend is the titular character of Book 3, “Shifter”.

Chalky is a young man who has lived by his wits and fended for himself since a very young age. He has acquired self-reliance, and power, and knowledge, and a mastery of his not inconsiderable gifts. He is a talented computer hacker, and he is also, as the book’s title implies, a wild card in the Were universe. 

He can change, as his kind can, into something other than human but for him this is not constrained by the phase of the moon or restricted to three days (neither more nor less). He can Turn into whatever he wants or needs to Turn into, whenever he wants, for however long he wants.

So my characters Jazz in “Random”, Mal in “Wolf”, “Chalky in “Shifter”, and Celia, the eldest sister, who spans all three books – these are the faces of the answer to my “WHO” question.

These are the characters who bear the weight of my story on their shoulders, which sometimes look entirely too fragile to hold up the load. But they are strong, my people. And they have a story to tell of their kind, of their families, of themselves.

Aspiring writers often ask how characters are created – and I have to disappoint them with an answer that, for me, characters aren’t created, they are born. My characters tend to step out of the back of my mind, fully formed, demanding that I sit down and take dictation.

They are real to the point that they will come and sit on my bed at night, kicking the side of the mattress with their heels, and tell me I am “doing it wrong” if they feel that I am. And they are usually right, damn them. To me, the person telling the story is a real companion, someone I know well, someone with whom I can squabble and tussle but whose opinions about their own story I deeply respect and whose suggestions (if I may call them that) I take very seriously indeed.

When it comes to “WHO”, it is very important to me that I know and understand the dramatis personae of my stories. Because without a strong “WHO” everything else can disintegrate fast. Do I begin with character, then? I could answer yes but again every story is different.

Sometimes it’s a situation that the characters are in. Sometimes it’s no more than the whistle of a distant train. Stories go where they will. But in the end, they are anchored by character – by the “WHO” in the equation. Because without a strong answer to that question you have invisible people who never come to life at all, and a story with characters who do not live – for you, the creator, as well as for those who will be reading about their lives when your story is done – is a story which will crumble to ashes at a touch.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles HERE