Friday, April 1, 2011

Put your secondary world to the test

I had a pretty funny experience yesterday (one day early for April Fool's, I guess). I had gone to the grocery store for a few items, and as I passed the pharmacy I remembered I had just sent one of my characters to the pharmacy in my book. I stopped my shopping cart right in front and started studying it, trying to see what aspects of it were going to be common to the world of my book, and what aspects of it would be different. The poor pharmacists, not having dealt with a writer staring at their workplace before, finally asked if I needed help. I told them what I was up to.

They seemed a bit bemused by my explanation.

Here's the thing, though. A pharmacy in a secondary world isn't going to be like a pharmacy in ours, especially if all the social conditions underlying it are different. For my world, I can't go back to the historical Earth model of the apothecary, because it won't fit. I have to figure out what would make my pharmacy right for the world I'm working with.

Here was my detailed pharmacy logic: to look like a pharmacy, it has to have a front counter, a person responsible for dispensing medications, and shelves of medications. However, in my Varin world, there's a strict caste separation that keeps the drug designers and manufacturers - members of the knowledge workers' caste - from working with the product sellers - members of the merchant caste. Thus, none of the bottles can be branded. They are labeled by contents, and by whether any special caste-based dispensation laws apply to them (members of the nobility are restricted in their use of certain medications, such as birth control). Then, because this pharmacy is designed specifically for use by medically trained members of the servant caste, the front counter worker is not a knowledge worker, but another servant - a warden, whose special function is to serve as guardian of the pharmacy's contents.

This location is "onscreen" for a single small scene, and is in primary focus for roughly 225 words. But because I want my world to be whole in all of its details (and I'm a little nuts), I care. I care about
1. giving the place common characteristics with our world that make it recognizable as a pharmacy, and
2. giving the place three special details that make it distinctly Varini (warden, unbranded bottles, caste-restriction labels).

Frankly, I would recommend this type of thinking to anyone working with a secondary world or alien environment. If it's a place your character walks by with hardly a glance, the information may not be important enough to spend time on. However, if your character is interacting with the place (as mine is), the contrast you set up between the familiar and the strange will make the difference between the place feeling bland, and the place feeling right. Don't take anything for granted. Put your world through its paces; chase it around corners and into nooks and crannies.

For each environment your character must interact with, here are some things to think through:
  1. Is this character doing something that readers will recognize from the real world?
  2. What elements of the activity will be familiar?
  3. What elements of the activity will be unfamiliar?
  4. What kind of people are present there, and what function do they serve?
  5. How might large-scale physical differences between our world and this world influence the conditions in this location (this might be architecture, economy, natural resources, etc.)?
  6. How might large-scale cultural differences between our world and this world influence the conditions in this location (this might be population, manners, rules, etc.)?
  7. Can you find two or three specific details to include which will reflect these differences?
  8. Is there a comparable setting you can visit in the real world to get detail ideas?
It's something to think about.


  1. Labour-intensive stuff, but worldbuilding can be worth it! Your caste-related labelling really strikes me as a great detail to define a society with. Limiting medication use to people of the appropriate social class ... Sounds like there are dark corners to be looked into!

  2. I would agree that it's labour-intensive, Heidi - but for me, it is certainly worth it. I'm glad you like the labelling idea. And yes, I'm hoping to explore a few dark corners!

  3. This is off topic, but your blog post reminded me of an experience at the doctor's office.

    I went in for a bad upper respiratory infection. I was researching my current novel at the time, of which the protagonist is diagnosed with schizophrenia. So I brought the non-fiction book Diagnosis: Schizophrenia with me to read while I waited.

    The NP walked in and performed the exam and diagnosis. Before she left, she looked at the cover of my book and said, "What's up with this?"

    I've never given such a nervous account of why I was reading a book in my life! Thankfully she believed my story and did not have me admitted!

  4. Corey, that must have been awkward! I'm glad you got out of it okay.