As I mentioned in another post, your characters are the heart of your story. It doesn’t matter what neat little plot twist pops up or how fabulous your setting (world) is if your characters aren’t emotionally engaging.
Yes, you want to aim to be authentic, but you don’t want to miss the point of the story, and the point is the character’s journey.
The world your story takes place in is only wallpaper. It is the backdrop to which your characters will go through their journey.
1. Create your world.
Whether the story takes place on Earth in a setting we’re familiar with, in another time period, or on another planet, we do want to do our best to make the world real to the reader. You should aim to stay true to the place your character will be in. So research and get a feel for your character’s world. Research can be done on the Internet, in books (I find children’s books work the best because they break things down so it’s easy to understand), going to visit physical locations, talking to people who specialize in the area you’re writing, and watching TV shows/movies. The best approach is to take multiple resources instead of only one.
There are some rules you have to follow in being true to your world. For example, you don’t want a cowboy in 1880 to pull up to his house in a truck talking on a cell phone. You also can’t have your character go on a planet that has no oxygen without the proper equipment.
And if you don’t get it 100% perfect, learn from your mistakes and do better on your next book. Unless there is a glaring error in the book, I advise against going back to change something. You learn best by writing more books, not going back and revising old ones.
I’ll be the first to admit my books haven’t always been 100% historically accurate to the very nitty gritty detail, and I can assure you, if you miss something, it’s okay. Earth will still keep spinning. Life will go on. Aim to be authentic, but don’t get so obsessed with it that you get paralyzed and can’t write your story.
2. The characters can use elements in the world to enhance their journey. These elements must either help or hinder the character’s journey.
If the element you want to use doesn’t advance the plot, you need to toss it out.
For example, let’s say your character needs to drive from one state to another, but there’s going to be a roadblock up ahead in the middle of a storm. What you want to do is key in on the thunderstorm while the character is driving. Instead of just describing the storm, show the reader what your character is doing, saying, and thinking during this storm. Let’s say a tree falls right in front of the truck. What did your character do with the truck? Did he try to drive before it hit the road? Did he slam on the brakes and nearly hit it? Did he say anything? What was his heart rate doing? Can he keep going? How will he overcome this obstacle to reach his destination?
You do not want to tell the reader all about the pretty fields along the way, the kind of barns the character passed, what music the character listened to, what the character ate along the way, etc. That stuff had nothing to do with the obstacle (the storm which caused the tree to fall which stopped our hero from completing his journey).
3. The character is always center stage and the world secondary.
This isn’t to say you can’t throw in details and show the reader what your work looks like, especially if it’s a world we don’t live in. The more foreign your world, the more you have to show. But the key is to show it. Don’t dump all the information about this world on the reader right up front, which is a great temptation. Instead, show the world through the character’s eyes.
In chapter one, don’t spend the chapter (or even half the chapter) talking about the entire world and all the cool little things about it. You need to introduce your character. Start building the emotional connection so that the world around the character starts to matter as the story progresses.
Which beginning grabs you more?
1. The neighborhood was a typical suburban one. All the houses were two-story homes, though some were split level. Every house was well cared for, including the lawns. The people were friendly enough, calling out greetings to others as they passed. People drove their cars down the quiet streets. It was the perfect place to live. Except for one thing. The neighbor who lived at the very end of Husker Street.
No one could ever recall seeing him. All anyone knew was that he tended to the cemetery that was, coincidentally, right next to his house. And worse, the house was in bad shape. It had a sagging roof, a broken window in the attic, peeling paint, and vines creeping up the sides. The lawn was in equally bad shape. Weeds suffocated flowers that tried to grow in the abandoned garden, and the grass hadn’t seen a good mowing all summer.
2. Alex McConner made his rounds through the quiet neighborhood as he tried to sell popcorn for the seventh grade field trip. Though all he had to read the sheet with the sales pitch, he still had to take deep breaths so he wouldn’t panic. No wonder he didn’t have any friends. Just like Lucas Grover said, he was a loser. A loser in the seventh grade. Terrific. He couldn’t wait for high school when the bullying would really kick in.
He turned down another street, glad this was the last one. Then he could go home to the safety of his bedroom and his new WiiU game. His steps slowed as he saw the last house on the block. It wasn’t like any of the others. The other houses were well cared for with freshly mowed lawns. But this last house on–he checked the street sign–Husker Street looked as if it hadn’t seen an owner in ages. Weeds everywhere. A sagging roof. Peeling paint. Vines creeping up the sides.
Alex shivered. His gaze went to the hole in the attic window. His parents recently had a raccoon in the attic, and they didn’t even have a hole like that. He’d hate to think what creatures were lurking in that house. After a moment, he recalled the owner’s name. Ted Wilkens. Supposedly, Ted lived in the rundown house. Rumor was, he took care of the cemetery right next to the house. Ironically, the cemetery was in better shape than the house.
Alex swallowed and quickly turned away from it. He’d avoid that creepy place at all costs. He’d stick with the nice houses with the friendly people who lived in them instead. Even if he hated speaking to strangers, he’d much rather try to sell them popcorn than walk up the broken concrete walkway to Ted Wilkens’ place.
Notice two things happened in the second example.
One, the focus is on our character, Alex, and how he is thinking and feeling about the world around him. This also incorporates introducing the reader to him, and hopefully, the reader cares about Alex and will want to know more about his journey. If the reader cares, the reader will keep reading.
Two, we got a good look at the world through Alex’s eyes instead of the writer’s eyes. This is key. In order for the reader to escape into the story, they need to be connected to the character. The writer’s voice should be nonexistent.