Every fictional reality needs anchor points; symbols, objects, or landmarks to remind and reinforce to the audience the nature of the reality you are building in your story. This article acts as a follow-up to my previous worldbuilding post “The Five Levels of Reality”. If you haven’t already had a chance, you can read that here.
When worldbuilding, it can be very easy for the reader to wind up confused and disoriented in the reality of the story. They may miss key elements, forget the “rules” that govern the environment, society, and nature of your story. Just as we are reminded every day of the nature of true reality, readers need landmarks or anchor points to keep everything straight in their mind. There are many different ways these anchor points can be included in your story. Here are just a few examples:
Every fictional reality depends on rules or laws that dictate the reality. These can vary from physical laws like gravity to laws that govern society.
In regards to physical laws, consider “Peter Pan”: while the idea of children flying may come across initially as a bit absurd, we are given a “rule” or explanation in the form of pixie dust and “a wonderful thought”. Though fantastic in and of itself, this physical law acts as an anchor point for the story, giving it an abstract legitimacy.
In regards to rules which govern society, consider the laws which govern the farm animals in “Animal Farm”. Not only do these laws provide a sturdy backbone for the titular farm’s society, they also act as a major plot point, showing how the very nature of the farm changes with the altering of the laws.
A major anchor point for your world can be the geography itself.
–How “big” is your world?
–How far will your characters travel about in it?
–Will your story be encompassed within a town, a house, or even a single room?
Let your readers know early on the limits of the characters’ geography. This will provide security and familiarity with the reader and will help them to more easily visualize the world you are creating. One point you should determine early on is exactly what sort of story you are crafting, as this will often determine the geography of your world. As a general rule use:
- SINGLE ROOM SETTINGS: For psychological, character-study driven stories
- 2-4 SIMPLE SETTINGS: For simple stories featuring not more than a handful of characters, and that center around a single conflict
- ADVANCED COMPLEX SETTINGS: For layered stories containing multifaceted conflicts affecting a variety of different characters
- LARGE SCALE GLOBAL SETTINGS: For lengthy, character packed stories, possibly encompassing various timelines/generations
Of course, a story isn’t a story without characters. Characters can anchor your story in a very unique way: your characters are the windows into your fictional world.
Apart from the narrator’s perspective, your story will be told through the eyes of your characters. By limiting those characters whose POV you will allow your readers to look from, you provide major anchor points for your world. Through the POV of your characters you can establish:
- Perception of events
- Relay of information
- Relation to other characters
- Effect of world’s “laws” on characters
Though often something of an afterthought, the morality of your world often acts as a major anchor point. What is perceived as right and wrong in your story? Does it hinge on clear cut “good versus evil”, or is your world inhabited by anti-heroes and characters with shifting loyalties? Stories in which the fictional worlds are influenced heavily by morality include:
- Dystopian works
- War sagas
- Legal dramas
If the morality in your fictional world contains a significant “slant”, make sure you make this clear to the reader. For example, in the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, it is obvious that the world in which the characters dwell is heavily prejudiced. This negative “slant” of society becomes one of the central conflicts of the story, largely because it is directly tied to the fictional world itself.
One last, and not-to-be-overlooked anchor point for your fictional world is dialogue. Simply put, the inclusion or exclusion of dialogue dictates how information will be relayed to the reader.
— How often do people talk to each other in your world?
— In what way do they talk to each other, and what does the reader learn through their conversations?
The human mind is incredibly sensitive to patterns. If it becomes clear early on that much of the transfer of information in your world comes through dialogue, readers will begin to expect it. Conversely, if your world is revealed more through reflections of characters rather than their conversations, readers will come to expect this. Whether your dialogue is extensive or minimal, it should always be necessary. If nothing useful is being conveyed through your dialogue, you should seriously consider revising it or removing it entirely.
In the end, your readers need to be comfortable and familiar with the world you have built. A confusing or difficult to visualize setting will quickly send your audience packing. Anchor points are not only useful but necessary elements to worldbuilding. They add stability and continuity to your fictional universe. If written correctly, anchor points can allow your readers to easily visualize even your wildest of creations.