Finding the Emotional Power of Your Story World (With the Help of Harry Potter)
As some of you may know, I recently completed a three part series of posts about what to do before you start writing. While many of you responded well to the series as a whole, there was one thing many readers wanted me to touch on even more: Story World, especially when it comes to fantasy. Just to refresh, in the series I explained the Story World as the spaces your characters inhabit, paying particular attention to the ones your characters visit repeatedly.
Determining Positive Familiar Spaces
To establish positive familiar spaces, you have to establish (you guessed it, ‘cause I’m always saying it) your characters. There’s no point in putting your characters in a coffee shop if ultimately they’re going to be a chemist, and so on. I know some of you will disagree, because your process dictates that you decide on the Story World before characters. That’s just fine! But that’s not a process I’m familiar with, so I’m not going to go in depth about it.
For me, knowing who my character is determines the requirements of my world. Let’s take HARRY POTTER for example: JK Rowling created a boy wizard who needs to learn how to harness his powers. His need determines the requirements of the world: a boarding for wizards and witches within a larger magical community.
But the school is not just a vacuum of learning. There are specific areas within this school that become familiar to Harry for various positive reasons – the Gryffindor Common Room, the Quidditch Pitch, Hagrid’s Hut and the Weasley House. These are all spaces that each provide Harry with something crucial – friendship, passion, family. He is as emotionally connected to many of these spaces as he is to other characters. They have a certain warmth, pleasant smells, activities he enjoys. Think about the places you love and the reason you love them: your family home, which has a certain smell and a huge backyard. Or your best friend’s apartment, where the two of you spent long nights talking and mulling over life. Or the cabin in the mountains without any electricity or running water that you sometimes escape to when things are difficult. Think about what makes a space positive for you, and give your character a positive space that he or she can love too.
Determining Negative Familiar Spaces
Just like you want to find positive spaces, no world would be balanced without its negatives. Harry grew up sleeping in a cabinet under the stairs. He might have lived in the Dursley’s house, but it was never home. It was a place of absolute trauma. The Dursleys hated him. Dudley was a bully. His bedroom was literally a closet. Despite Harry’s relatively easy acclimation to Hogwarts life, thanks, in no small part, to the positive spaces there, every summer he must return to this cupboard. Jumping from his positive spaces to this negative one gets harder and harder ever year, resulting in more and more emotional outbursts that sometimes legitimately harm other people.
Just like Hogwarts has many spaces Harry loves, it also has spaces that are downright terrifying. The Forbidden Forest becomes a place Harry knows quite well, but that almost always instills a sense of dread when entered. It’s dark, misty, smells damp and is full of strange noises and creatures. The shack where Remus used to turn into a werewolf also becomes a familiar negative space – a creaking, dilapidated place with bad memories for all involved. And who could forget the Potions Dungeon, the dark, cold room stone where Harry was forced to take lessons from a teacher who clearly hated his guts for nearly seven years?
The Emotional Power of Positive and Negative Spaces
It’s no coincidence that the positive spaces and negative spaces are almost exaggerated in their greatness and grossness when I list them out here. Without the rest of the world layered in, they can, and perhaps should, be exaggerated. That’s because they are the places with the largest emotional components. The negative spaces are cold, dark, dangerous. The positive ones are full of light, laughter, and butter beer. Harry’s low emotional points are reflected quite clearly in the negative places he’s forced to go, while his happiness is reflected in the positives. Obviously, the Wizarding World is full of exaggerated positives and negatives, and not every world is going to be like that.
Take THE WINNER'S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski, for example: Kestrel lives in a land her father conquered, and buys a slave from that land– a young boy named Arin. For him, because of his enslavement, spaces he used to love have become negative. And for her, the house she inhabits there is home, despite its bloody history. Over time, their positions reverse – the house that was once Kestrel’s home becomes a place that inspires nightmares, while the land where Arin was once enslaved is freed and becomes his home once more.
The Winner’s Curse is all about deceptions, betrayals, secrets. So it makes sense that even their love for the land, or hate for the land, is deceptive too. Everything about the spaces they love and the spaces they hate is turned on its head, until both characters are forced to reconsider everything.
Knowing what the positive familiar spaces are and what they look like can be especially helpful when you must rip your character from those places, or alter those places in some way so they’re no longer familiar. The lack of familiarity becomes part of the story as much as the character’s journey itself. The same goes for negative spaces. Establishing a character's emotional connection to certain places can help you create conflict in new ways.
This is the power of the Story World. It’s not just a place where your characters exist physically – it’s an emotional component to the journey they embark on and the story you want to tell. Determining the emotional impact of the familiar spaces within your story is one of the key components to creating an interesting and engaging story world.
Obviously, there is so much more to world building than what can be covered in a single post! But for me, this is where I always begin. If you’re interested in getting more into the nitty gritty of building a world, let me know in the comments! And in the meantime, I hope this was helpful!