World Building 101: Stress Fractures

NeuschwansteinWhen I was in my freshman year of college, I was sitting at my desk doing some homework.  I reached out towards the mouse, and twang.  Something weird happened in my wrist.  A little strange snapping noise, a bit of pain, but I ignored it and it mostly went away.  The next few days, I felt like I had sprained it.  The next few weeks, I started to get worried.

The next two and a half years, after lots of doctors, x-rays, a couple of MRIs, and a lot of cab fare to see a specialist in New York City, my entire life became consumed with the fact that I couldn’t use my wrist at all without a great deal of pain, and no one in the world seemed to know why.

Eventually, that specialist found the answer.  I had a quick surgery to repair a tear in a loose tendon sheath that was disrupting the whole motion of my joint, and now I’m as good as new.  But that tiny movement brought everything to a screeching halt for longer than I had ever anticipated.

That tiny, little, insignificant part of my body, that shred of cartilage, changed everything else about my life because it decided to misbehave.  It sent me on a painful, expensive, tedious journey that taught me lessons I didn’t particularly want to learn, but altered the way I view my physical self.

Whether you’re a vegetable smoothie world builder or a proponent of a more direct approach, developing your setting is the key to drawing in your readers and retaining them throughout the arc of your story.  And in fantasy, that story arc often involves some kind of seismic shift in the political landscape that sends your characters tumbling along on their adventures, at the mercy of capricious gods or evil men.  It’s not always a huge, cosmic event, and it’s often a lot more believable for the world to turn on the fate of one man (or an ornery tendon) than it is for a planet to come crashing into the sun.

It’s that imperceptible shift in landscape, that tiny rupture in the norm, which drives history forward.  So the primary question you need to ask is this:  What is keeping my world working, and what is the absolute smallest thing that can make it stop?

People in a world with many cultures or races or even a rigid social strata tend not to like each other very much.  Why not?  How can you create a spark that makes those tensions erupt into conflict?  It doesn’t have to be more than someone of the wrong caste walking into the wrong shop.  An argument is started, someone gets shoved, and all of a sudden, you’ve got people bashing each other with rocks in the street, a panicked ruler afraid of an uprising, and a smarmy foreign king looking to swoop in and exploit the chaos that tips the region into all-out war.

Societies crumble easily.  Revolutions start from the bottom up, and find openings where one might not expect.  Tiny, stupid things align to bring down dynasties, and those unexpected stress fractures have felled more empires than I can easily count.  So try it.  Raise a tax.  Imprison an activist.  Reveal an illicit affair.  Derail a peace talk because someone throws up on a rival after drinking too much.  They’re not big things, but they can bring action, tension, bloodshed, and impetus to your landscape, providing a rich and realistic backdrop for your characters to wade through as they strive to heal the wounds.

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