mxpw's Scribe Theater Three Thousand

So it seemed like the first part of my two-part introspective on Frea was a fair success. Awesome. I wasn’t sure how it’d go over, but people seemed to like it and find some merit to my analysis. And that’s good, because Frea has ordered me to do the second part, and well, I’d like to avoid the lash, so here it is.

The point of this column is world building: what it is, how you do it, and how do you do it well? These are all tricky questions to answer, as quality world building is fundamental to quality writing, and without it, your story will almost certainly fall apart.

Fortunately, we have somebody here in Frea that is very good at world building. I’d say that it’s one of her strong suits as a writer. One of the reasons why is because she has a very active imagination, but that’s not necessary (though it sure helps) to creating a successful alternate world. What you really need is detail, detail, and detail. You need to be meticulous in that detail, and perhaps most importantly of all, you must be consistent in that detail. If you introduce something in Chapter One, that idea must apply to the rest of your story for eternity, unless you are breaking it for a very good, very intentional reason. If you don’t, it will pull the reader straight out of your story (I once read a book where one character’s eyes changed half way through the book for no discernible reason other than it seemed like the author forgot). And when you pull your reader out of your story, you lose your reader.

What is world building?

World building is everything. You might think that goes without saying, considering the term, but it’s true nonetheless. World building encompasses everything in your story, from your characters, their physical characteristics, where they live, what kind of society you’ve created, the political situation, the “rules” of your universe, everything. It’s not just developing the magical rules for a magical society or creating a Jedi code, it’s also deciding stuff like Chuck eats cheeseballs when depressed or cleans to relieve stress. It’s dressing a training dummy up in a dress and corpse-like makeup (and then writing a whole one-shot from the dummy’s perspective).

From the very first page of the book till the last, everything in between becomes your whole world. Frea described it to me as a closed-ecosystem and that’s a good analogy. Everything affects everything. When world building, sometimes the smallest, most innocuous changes can affect everything because your world is self-contained. It’s like tossing a pebble into a pond, the ripples spread out and the pond is no longer the same. Every detail counts. You can create a world that mirrors reality except for a few minor differences (and yet those minor changes make all the difference) or you can create a whole new world from the ground up, like Tolkien or Robert Jordan.

How do you do it?

World building is actually pretty easy; it’s the staying consistent with your details that are the hard part. Chuck the show is not really a good example to emulate in this regard, as their world building (not to mention, continuity) is so full of holes that you could drive a whole platoon of tanks through. All the characters on the show suffer in this regard, though I think Casey is probably the worst offender. Don’t be like them.

The best way I’ve found to stay consistent with your world building is to take copious notes. Document everything. It may seem like a lot of work at first, but it will prove invaluable later on, especially if you are doing a project of considerable length (like a novel). You don’t want to inadvertently screw up the magic rules in your magical universe because you forgot what did what.

Here’s a handy guide I use when I’m doing my original work, though it could easily apply to fanfic as well. Now I’m not saying that you have to do this (in fact, I’d encourage you to develop a system that works best for you), it’s just an example of some of the things I do when I’m developing a character, and it is by no means exhaustive:

Also Known As:
Significant Other:
Physical Description:

This allows me to stay consistent with my details, because I can just refer back to my notes. Not only does it let me develop my character, but I can also develop the societal/political/economical framework that surrounds that character just by filling in some of the blanks. I do this for every character, even the minor ones, because by fleshing out the characters with as much detail as possible, you flesh out your world (for example, Fates is really only half a story. Frea spends almost as much time developing the background of her alternate universe, stuff that never even makes it into Fates, as she does developing the stuff you do see).

Every character should be connected in some way to another character and the plot. If they’re not, then they probably shouldn’t exist. A list of features like up above allows me to explore those connections to the fullest and round out my world (for example, just by determining “Occupation,” I actually end up giving context to quite a bit of the surrounding world). If I’m writing something where I have a completely different societal framework from what we are used to in the real world, well, I then plan that out by writing up a summary and exploring those differences.

In Fates, one of the major differences from canon that Frea has developed over time is the addition of the Gwen Davenport character. She may seem like a relatively minor character (indeed, I believe she’s only actually appeared in three out of forty-three chapters), yet her influence on the turn of events is huge. Because of her, the threat of Chuck being confined to a bunker doesn’t exist (which is a huge change from canon). Because of Gwen, Chuck has an advocate with the government and they’re not allowed to browbeat him like they do in canon. Basically, because of Gwen, the entire relationship between Chuck and the government is wildly different from canon and this is a major way that Frea has used her world building skills to make Fates into an alternate universe/reality. Chuck’s perception of his role as a spy and of the government has changed, Sarah’s perception has changed, Graham and Beckman’s perception of Chuck has changed, the fears and threats are different, the punishments are different, the character interaction is different, and all this because of Gwen Davenport.

How do you do it well?

Initially, I was going to do a detailed analysis of Chapter One of What Fates Impose, as that is the perfect example of how to world build and how to do so with authority (basically, whatever you do, commit to it). But this post is already too long and I’ve probably bored you by now, so I’m not going to do it. Maybe I’ll save it for a rainy day. To world build well, it really only comes down to one thing: consistency. Be consistent, commit to the world you’re building, and know where you’re going. Once you do that, everything will fall into place.

I hope that this has proved helpful to you. Feel free to ask any questions you want, I’ll do my best to answer them. Or, feel free to tell me I’m full of it. Either way, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

For my next post, I think I will be taking a look at how to write a quality action scene, in honor of Sarah Walker getting her Rambo on in 4.09.


  1. You know, the term "world building" reminds me of my D&D days. Excelent article, really useful.

  2. Sparky19.11.10

    Gwen Davenport is one of the major parts Frea's Fatesverse,she makes the story look tamer and the espionage world less grim.

  3. Less grim? Really? Wasn't expecting that. If anything, I'd think the espionage in Fates would be viewed as more grim, given that Chuck watching people die in front of him is actually affected in Fates.

    But yeah, YMMV. I set Gwen up to be a powerful behind-the-scenes player in Fates, but I never really considered her impact as a world-building tool. Thanks, Max for letting me see that.

    I also have a few character surveys I generally fill out for my original work characters that I'll try and remember to post on the blog soon. Perhaps in the eBooks section or maybe on a "great writing tools" subpage. mxpw's survey is a great thing, though. Having a filing system or a "bible" on your original works is pretty vital, I think, unless you're like Fates Sarah and have a damn near photographic memory. I don't actually keep one for Fates, which I'm starting to regret as we're nearing fifty chapters. Thankfully, I've still got the master document and CMD F is a great shortcut.

    Anybody else got a great filing system for their stories?

  4. I don't know if I'll call it a great filing system, but I wrote down the timeline for my story a long time ago. I also wrote down the rules for how "the pond" of my story works, even if not all that rules have an impact on the story.

  5. Sparky19.11.10

    "Less grim? Really? Wasn't expecting that. If anything, I'd think the espionage in Fates would be viewed as more grim, given that Chuck watching people die in front of him is actually affected in Fates."

    Let me rephrase: Some parts of it.Chuck has someone to count on among higher ups,that's tamer.

    Other parts are certainly darker in fates,I.E: Chuck mortally wounded someone,that's harsher.

    But give Chuck credit:),we did see Milbarge get shot.

  6. Oh, man, I'm still trying to brain-cleanse that shot of the glasses out of my mind, Sparky. Just one more thing in a long line of things that happened in that episode that spelled out the bad things to come. Oh, omens.

    And ooh, I see what you mean now. :)

  7. Sparky19.11.10

    @Tynianrex: It is nice to know that a good start like yours has the potential to be much more :)

    @Frea: It was tragic in a funny-don't judge me-way,Emmet had a strange view of the world. And it did show us that Chuck's world doesn't tolerate that.

    It was a wake-up call after Buy-Morons taking on Fulcrum agents.

  8. Frea already said a few words on the subject, but I wanted to add some of my own thoughts. I don't think Gwen made the spy world tamer in Fates, so much as she made it more realistic. The spy world in the Chuckverse is a hyper-realized, super-stylized, fantastical rendering of what being a spy is like. In some ways, it's more Bond than Bond (especially since Craig's Bond has been more grounded in reality than the previous incarnations). What Frea has done with Fates is remove a lot of that fantasy element from the spy story. It still exists (evil toy robots, anyone?), but it's not as prevalent as it is in the show. Gwen Davenport is a big reason why.

    The problem with the show is that too often spy is synonymous with assassin. Casey and Sarah aren't really spies, they're thieves and murderers (as Frea mentioned in our mxpw vs. Frea review for Fear of Death). Fates has kinda done away with a lot of that, and Gwen is a major symptom of that. The espionage world is more controlled and not like the Wild Wild West as it's portrayed on the show. So I suppose in that sense, Fates is less grim, but the flip side is that the consequences are more real and have more emotional heft than what we typically get in canon.

    Anyway, thank you, Frea, for your support! I strongly believe that any writer should have a "bible" for their story. Can you imagine how much different Chuck would be if there was a show bible? Just look at how screwed up the timeline is for Season 4. If you go by what was said in Anniversary, then the premiere should have ended sometime in January of 2011, yet we're about to approach Thanksgiving in 2010 in the Chuckverse. Issues like that wouldn't happen if TPTB had a bible that they could put all their world building in and refer back to when needed.

  9. JohnClark20.11.10

    mxpw: "The spy world in the Chuckverse is a hyper-realized, super-stylized, fantastical rendering of what being a spy is like. In some ways, it's more Bond than Bond (especially since Craig's Bond has been more grounded in reality than the previous incarnations)."

    This is something thats always amused and annoyed me about the show. There are moments in the show when they really get carried away with the idea of what being a spy is all about that just make me think that somewhere John Le Carre is curled up in the fetal position rocking back and forth while whisper comforting things to himself.

    Its in those moments that I try and tell myself that Chuck is more of in homage of Peter Sellers work than anything from Le Carre, Ludlum or even Fleming. Living in England now thats how I've tried to describe the show to friends, as a sort of Inspector Clouseau of the spy world. Its a faulty comparison but it feels a bit more honest then any other comparisons to spy/espionage genre work in the past.

  10. Sparky20.11.10

    "Realistic" is a subjective term here. In 3x10,the show was realistic enough to imply torture off American soil. Guantanamo?

    That's why Gwen Davenport doesn't necessarily signify realism to me. That's not to say Gwen Davenport made the story less believable-don't hurt me,Frea :P -.

    I just can see both,with or without Davenport, possibilities plausible.

    Of course,Sarah and Casey are murderers but that can be called normal when they are a black-ops team.Chuck isn't as brutal as them but his adversaries are.

    Shaw told us that Chuck had been on more missions than most cia agents. This is the playing field intersect is
    supposed to be in.

  11. @JohnClark - A Peter Sellers homage? I suppose that I could see it. Personally, I like to view Chuck as Get Smart on crack, as that's kinda what it is. Though Get Smart never mined the depths of angst like Chuck does, so it's not a perfect comparison by any means.

    @Sparky - I'm sorry, but I think I'm going to have to disagree. Realism is not really a subjective term in this case. Just because the show may have individual bouts of realism at times, does not make the whole, or the premise, actually realistic. Anyway, I think you're missing my point here. There is no question that within the Chuckverse, Chuck lives a very dangerous life, facing dangerous foes. But we're talking about the Fatesverse with the Gwen issue, and they are two very different animals. Both are certainly unrealistic in comparison to the actual world we live in. Only in Fates, Frea makes an effort to acknowledge or explain some of those unrealistic elements, such as her occasional wink, nudge comments about the basic illegality of the CIA operating any kind of operation on domestic soil, let alone having a permanent base in a major American city, something, to my knowledge, the show has never even tried to do. And that's the kind of stuff that I was talking about earlier.

  12. Sparky20.11.10

    The premise isn't realistic,of course.Parts of it are.

    Government abusing power? And no checks and balances in some cases? That's realistic to me compared to the world we live in.

    Gwen Davenport changes that and i have no problem with it.

    "Only in Fates, Frea makes an effort to acknowledge or explain some of those unrealistic elements, such as her occasional wink, nudge comments about the basic illegality of the CIA operating any kind of operation on domestic soil, let alone having a permanent base in a major American city, something, to my knowledge, the show has never even tried to do. And that's the kind of stuff that I was talking about earlier."

    You are right. I don't remember an actual explanation in the show.

  13. Hm, let's keep it to the show, fanfiction, and writing, Sparks. There are more appropriate places to rant about the government. Thanks.

    In fact, switching back to the original topic--anybody got any great world-building tips? Or what's your favorite part of world-building, if you are a writer? My favorite is picking out the interpersonal relations and backstory. I looooves me some backstory.

  14. Sparky20.11.10

    I was just giving an example. Other than that,i have no desire to talk politics here.

    IMO,some people spend too much time setting up the lore or they do it without breaks to keep the reader interested.

  15. Once more, in my teenage years I used to dm a lot (Yes, I am a nerd), and I think that's a great place to get some practice in world building. My usual technique was to write down the history of the world (or the setting) and never reveal it at once, but keep track of what little bits of information the players (now the readers) learn. Right now, I'm using it a lot, but it can be messy, since I'm basically dealing with two realities.
    And you know what is a great world building tool? A review by Ayefah. The girl definitely got a knack for detail.

  16. I've helped my friend do some worldbuilding on his D&D campaign, and it's definitely a great place to learn.

    Knowing how much to tell and when is also an essential thing to learn, especially in relation to how important any scene is to the plot. If you're needing to show a motel room, you can give basic details because chances are, your readers know what a motel room looks like and they can fill in the details themselves. However, if it’s a motel room that's the scene of a gruesome murder? Be prepared to describe everything.

    Interestingly, most of us can kind of cheat with details in Chuckfic since the world is mostly established for us: everybody knows what Castle looks like, everybody knows what's in the Buy More, etc. But on the other hand, writing an AU like The Pond or like ninjaVanish's Frontier takes a lot more description of background and environment since the only thing the readers are familiar with is the basis for the characters and even that gets altered, depending on your plotline.

    I know for me, when I was writing the first chapter of Fates, I had to describe Bunker 77142135 because people need to associate to it, but I didn't want to go into massive amounts of detail because I didn't want to lose what little momentum I had built up. I picked things I wanted to convey, like the lack of space, the dimness, how regimented it is, and I went with that. To do that, I used Chuck’s reactions to his environment—which were very “same old same old” until Sarah arrived—rather than long, descriptive paragraphs you’ll sometimes see, especially in complicated fantasy worlds.

    And I hear what you’re saying about Ayefah’s reviews. The woman has required me to be at the top of my game since Chapter 1. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s the reason I do so much research (which is not a bad thing! I love Ayefah and her reviews).

  17. Ayefah22.11.10

    *blushes mightily* Thank you, guys. I'm always worried that I'm crossing the line between "engaged in the story" and "friggin' annoying".

    The best worlds, for me, are ones that remember that the characters are people with glands and dendrites and other weird bits, just like the people in meatspace, and eat and sleep and pee in ways that are individual to them and their story/socioeconomic/other circumstances.

    When you don't fill in details, the reader will fill in some themselves - using the source material, as Frea pointed out, or using their own life experiences and expectations. The best worlds are the ones that have authors who bother to examine their own assumptions and expectations and see through how they would change for this character and this story.

    For example, I can float through most stories assuming that Chuck eats...some generic twenty-something American dude food. To have the show tell me that he indulges in cheese puffs when depressed isn't a subversion of those expectations, but it is specific and individual and lends Chuck Bartowski just a tiny bit more depth and heft and realism as a character. It means that the writers sat down for a second and thought about what the Chuck they were writing would snack on mindlessly while growing a Beard of Despair.

    So basically, I'm a huge fan of the thoughtful little detail that takes a scene from "descriptive" to "individual".

    I like worlds that are worlds and not just set dressing for a story, in other words.

    I wish, for example, that the show had bothered to build a little more detail into the hospital where Ellie and Devon work and made it more than just Generic Hospital For the Healing of Espionage Injuries.

    I'm not saying that I demand to hear extensive stories of Ellie's workday and career path - though hell, I wouldn't mind - but throwaway mentions of work make Ellie into a person in her own right rather than just Chuck's sister. I realize that that's her big story function, but it doesn't hurt to add those individual details around the edges.

    The third thing: Actually thinking through the consequences of what you write. If Chuck lived in a bunker for three (five) years, how would it affect him? What would keep him from becoming non-functional? How would he eat, drink, pee, and work? Fates won me over pretty much instantly because it answered those questions thoughtfully and in ways that made sense for Chuck as a character. If Frea was a more purely instrumentalist writer, she wouldn't have bothered, because she's be focused on the story purpose of the bunker rather than what it actually does. Instead she dumped us in there in detail right away.

    Frea is hardly the first writer to take the "Chuck got recruited at Stanford" idea for a spin, and to use that as a way to (among other things) put his development as a spy and as a love interest for Sarah on fast forward. What makes Fates awesome is that she actually thought through what that freaking well meant.


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