Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Holly Lisle's Vision

Background Color in Worldbuilding

By Steven Swain

© 2002, Steven Swain

So...

You’ve named your world, chosen your main characters and your villains, and figured out a plot. You’re all ready to charge headlong into your novel, right? Sure, if you want your novel to be bare of all background color.

I can hear you now: “Background color? What are you talking about?”

Let’s use a photograph as a metaphor. Imagine there’s a picture of you - what else is in it? Are you the only thing in the picture? There’s stuff behind you, isn’t there? In a studio picture, there’s a colored background behind you. Maybe even a picture-background to make it look like you’re in front of anything but a blank wall.

Now, suppose you’re writing a fantasy and in this picture you’re in front of a forest with a castle tower looming behind the forest. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.

Are all the trees the same kind? Maybe, maybe not. What kind are they, though? Made your decision? Great. Say, what about all that stuff under the trees? Bushes, right? Again, same kind or not? What kind? Oh, what’s this? Flowers? Lovely. What color? Just one bloom per plant or several? Is that grass right at the edge, there? What sounds do these plants make when the wind blows? Do they rustle or whisper or what? What do they feel like - smooth, rough, bumpy, thorny?

Easy, right? Everyone thinks of plants and things of that sort. Let’s get a bit deeper into the background now, though.

Look right there at the edge of the picture. What’s that nibbling on the grass? A rabbit, perhaps? Or a deer? And what’s that shadow over there? Perhaps a wolf hunting the rabbit. Or a shy squirrel? Say, what’s that little yellow thing flitting from flower to flower? A hummingbird? Not that big, huh? What about a bee?

Speaking of birds, what kind is that perching on the tree branch and singing? What color is it? Is it alone or does it have a mate? For that matter, do any of the other animals have mates? How well are they eating? Is food plentiful or not?

Not that bad, huh? These are what I call non-character animals. This is to differentiate from the Queen’s lap cat called Hypatia; and the King’s brave warhorse, Geronimo; and the Prince’s faithful hunting dog, Zebedee. Okay, they’re corny names, but you get the idea. These animals are what I call character animals. They have names, and one or the other is usually present, and the writer inevitably gives them a few anthropomorphic mannerisms of their own. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It just means they aren’t quite part of the background color anymore.

Moving along now. Let’s get a bit more detailed.

Remember that castle at the back, there? You wouldn’t happen to know how many towers it has? How tall are they? Come to think of it, how tall are the walls themselves? Are the battlements crenellated or not? (While we’re on the subject, here’s two good websites on medieval fortifications: http://library.thinkquest.org/10949/fief/hicastlegate.html  and http://www.angelfire.com/wy/svenskildbiter/  )

To continue: Is there a drawbridge with a portcullis? Are the castle inhabitants friendly and usually leave the drawbridge down? Or are they fearful and paranoid and have it up? Are the walls fully manned at all times or is there a skeleton watch? It’s probably safe to assume the castle is made of stone - what kind of stone, though? How strong is it? And, to descend into utterly mundane details, what color is it? Is there any patterning in the stone? Has the stone been smoothed over or are there edges and cut-marks?

Is there a convenient road to the castle? Or is the road “over thataway and you’ll have to use the path”? Is the castle a residence or just a fortified guard post? Are the walls in good shape or dilapidated? Is there a village nearby? Are the castle walls big enough to enclose the village, or do the villagers huddle up inside for protection only during attacks?

Still not too bad, is it? Remember that things like this are the spices to the meat and potatoes of the main story and the main characters. A little bit goes a long way. But at the same time, the absence of these little details here and there is quite noticeable. Just like a main dish shouldn’t be 75% spices and 25% meat and potatoes, a story shouldn’t be 75% background and 25% main story. It can be tricky to get the amount right, but you do need to have some background color.

A lot of this detail will live only in your imagination and the worldbuilding notebooks. But you need to have them available for appropriate times in the story. And speaking of imagination, what if you are creating a world without “the usual flora and fauna”?

Here you can let your imagination truly run amok. You can, if you want, decide that most big mammals have six limbs instead of four. You can decide that, for some strange reason, tree bark is green and the leaves are brown. Stone can be any color you want. Heck, the sun can be any reasonable color you want (within the scientifically available range).

That brings up another point. If your flora and fauna are, shall we say, alternative, you need to at least have a nodding acquaintance with the reason for it, whatever it is. In the tree example, perhaps the sun is filtered in such a way that chlorophyll looks brown instead of green and browns look green. What can be a real pain, though, is being consistent. If sun-filtering changes the color in one thing, but not in another, you either need to explain that reasonably or change it to be consistent.

The same goes for any other changes you may make. It doesn’t need to be - and shouldn’t be - a long exposition. Just a sentence or two here and there can suffice if that sentence is well thought out. You may occasionally need to do a whole paragraph. But the “spice rule” still stands. These changes are still flavorings, not the story -- Unless, of course, you’re writing a zoological thesis for the University of Tau Ceti.

Remember that while the first three sections are required to varying degrees, changing flora and fauna to non-Earth-norms is not required. In most cases, it may even be counterproductive. If you want to change things around, you need to consider whether it would cause trouble instead of simply adding to the scenery.

In conclusion, there are a lot of ways you can add background color to your worldbuilding to make your world become alive and three dimensional. Just as these little details make us appreciate our own world more, they will also make your imagined world seem more complete.  The readers will appreciate it.