by Raelene Gorlinsky
Yep, we all know how important worldbuilding is. Whether your story is contemporary, historical, futuristic/scifi or paranormal, you need to envision all the details about the characters, timeline, geography, setting. But as discussed in our previous post, it's not enough to build the world -- it's just as important to document the world you build. Don't depend on remembering it all. And if the details are written down, you can help your editor by sharing the information with her or him.
A little tip: You may also be able to turn some of the information in your bible into interesting Author Notes to go in your book, or articles for your newsletter or website. See, multiple uses -- if you just make sure to write it all down to start with.
So what do you put in your story or series bible? You can find many online classes or worksheet examples. We have a sample Worldbuilding Worksheet at ECPI. It gives authors a place to start, and can be modified to fit their world. Here are the basics you need:
Characters: List every single character, no matter how minor. Include name and physical description and everything else you know about them -- job, education, hobbies, personality traits, behavioral quirks, how they are related to everyone else in the book. One of the most common errors editors see is varying spelling of a character's name.
Setting/geography: Where does the story take place? Both the big picture (planet, country, city) and the specifics (the house, the street it's on). Also include information about the culture and society, if this is not a common contemporary "real" setting.
Timeline: Everything from what year it is down to what day and time each scene of the story happens. Include historical or current events and dates, if they relate to the story. (I read a novel once that had the French Revolution off by twenty years!) Make sure everything fits and is logical. Was there time for the character to get from point A to point B? Did things happen in the right sequence? Did events take a realistic amount of time? Several years ago, we had a story where a secondary character was pregnant. During revisions the author inserted some new action and an additional six months in the timeline - resulting in Ms. Mommy-to-Be having a year-long pregnancy. Luckily the copy editor caught the problem before publication.
Language/special terms: Make a glossary! This is obvious if you are writing a futuristic or paranormal with a fictional alien language. But even for a contemporary that may be set in another country or have ESL characters, it's important to keep track of the foreign phrases you use. Make sure you've got them right in meaning and spelling, and that you use them consistently. Is that term of endearment ma cherie or ma cheri?
Naming conventions: As in, the background or meaning for character names, titles, and location names, if there is some logic behind them. It's simpler for contemporary stories, but you may want to note that your fictional family always gives the first child the maternal grandmother's maiden name, or that they name their kids in alphabetical sequence. Naming can become far more complex and important to track in a futuristic or an alien setting. Do your characters necessarily use the Earth custom of a personal name plus a family name? How do the characters' names illustrate the relationship between them? Several years ago I had to explain to the copy editor about the names in a story I edited set on another planet. This is an example of the type of information you would want to document in your bible:
Males are named "clanname don al' personalname. Females are "clanname dem al' personalname". How the character is addressed depends on the situation and the relationship of the speaker to the character. In formal or business settings, the full name or a title are used; family and close friends may use the personal name or a nickname in private or in social situations.
For example, the hero is Alalakan don al' Chardadon. (Meaning, he is a male of clan Alalakan, his personal name is Chardadon.) His family and close friends call him Char. In a social situation, a person who is not closely acquainted enough to call him Char would address him as Alalakan or possibly Chardadon. In his role of running the family's starships, he is addressed as Captain Alalakan. In a formal setting, his full name is used. In other business conversation but not formal enough for the full name, he may be called Alalakan. In his role as head of his clan, he would be referred to as the Alalakan.
Got all that? If it weren't written down, could you keep it straight every time someone addresses one of the twenty characters, to be sure the appropriate and consistent name was used?
Remember that many a time the story starts out right, but then errors get introduced during revisions. The timeline gets screwed up, the characters repeat or skip important actions, the clothing is no longer what they should be wearing at that point, and so forth. So always refer back to your bible when you do a final read-through of the story.
See why a bible is important for author and editor? You don't really want readers pointing out all your errors and inconsistencies, do you?