My brother Jak surprised the heck out of me the other day. We were taking a break from some gaming (Arkham Horror, if you’re interested) and readying some dinner. I was in a hurry, so I pulled out two boxes of instant mashed potatoes.
“Do you want fake potatoes and gravy or flavored fake potatoes?”
“Honestly,” Jak said, “I’m not a big fan of gravy.”
My husband dropped a plate on the floor. And I’m still reeling.
You see, Jak is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He avoids vegetables if at all possible (and considering he’s an expert marksman, weapons enthusiast, all-around tough guy and absolute wise ass, he pretty much gets his way all the time), and he’s openly admitted he’s not the biggest fan of ethnic foods. He puts cheese or bacon on most main dishes. A guy like that, even his own sister expects to like gravy.
But because Jak is an actual person and not a cardboard cut-out, he doesn’t. And neither should your characters.
Oh, hey, they can like gravy if they want to. But they shouldn’t like gravy just because your average hot-blooded American male likes gravy. Your characters need one-a-kind details that fill them out.
The same goes for your worldbuilding. The year before last, Jak and my little family unit drove up to visit my parents in Edge-of-Nowhere, WA. The weather turned nice and we all itched for some outdoor time, so I decided we all should go exploring an oddity I’d seen on local signposts: the Odessa Craters. They sounded majestic, exciting, and otherworldly.
They looked like dents in the ground.
Sure, they were beautiful, in a dirty, rocky, sagebrush-y kind of way. And after I read just what kind of crater they were (in case you didn’t follow the link, they’re depressions caused by erosion during the Missoula Floods), I started thinking they were more interesting than I did when I first looked at them. But they certainly weren’t the kind of crater I expected when I set out to find them. However, someone in the area put up signs and helped me see them in a new way. Those heaps of rock stood out not just for their own beauty, but because of the way people engaged with it.
Your worldbuilding should be like that. It should have a connection to the greater structures and peoples of your world, and it should contain some little unexpected feature that makes it unique.
Did I lose you?
What I’m trying to say here is that my brother is a unique individual with surprising quirks, and that the Odessa Craters are a unique geological feature that’s not quite like the other craters you see in the world. And because of that, they’re treasures. They make memories that are indelible. As a reader, you know how important that is. What characters do you remember best from your favorite stories?
Here are some of my mine:
Silk–the rogueish thief of Eddings’ Belgariad series, who is not only a celebrated spy and businessman, but a man of honor and a surprisingly fine friend;
Samwise–an ordinary loyal servant who is surprisingly mean to Gollum (giving The Lord of the Rings its finest line: “Poe-tay-toes!”);
Alanna–a tough girl working hard to be a tough knight, with an unexpected power to heal (Alanna, by Tamora Pierce;
John–a doofus with no luck at all who never once described Amy as “the girl with one hand” in John Dies at the End.
Those characters are great because they are true to a certain archetype, but also remain themselves. Their one or two unexpected characteristics elevate them into a level of awesomeness normal characters never achieve. (This is why Barney is the best character on How I Met Your Mother and why Chris, Ed and Marilyn ruled Northern Exposure.)
Your worldbuilding can work the same way. Too many high fantasy adventures fall into worlds made out of pseudo-European features that are about as unique as Lego bricks. Take a page from Neil Gaiman, who wrote American towns so interesting I want to hop on a train and visit them. Give your world its own Odessa Craters–maybe they’re just ordinary divots in the landscape, but someone noticed that they were beautiful and gave them a sign and a story that made them stand out. Your unique landscape elements in your writing will come alive because your characters will engage with them in a special way.
If you want your writing to stand out, don’t just focus on your epic plot line and your fantastic themes. Give it a little twist. Give it … craters and gravy.