I want you to take a moment to think about what it is that makes the Star Wars saga so special to you.
Go on. Take a few moments and figure out the precise thing that makes Star Wars a nostalgic part of your childhood.
Is it the characters?
Is it the storyline?:
Is it the various, unique sci/fi setting(s)?
Is it the epic battle scenes?
Or something else more specific?
Whatever it may be, keep it in mind because we’re going to circle back around to your answer in the end.
When I saw The Force Awakens, I realized exactly what it is that makes Star Wars so special to me, so different from other movies, and so inspiring to me as a writer.
Yes, I love the characters. I love the storyline. And heck yes I love the battle scenes. But really, what makes Star Wars so special to me actually surprised me:
It’s the world building.
It’s incredible how a “galaxy far, far away” can simultaneously feel so close to home. So, with stars in my eyes, I went home mulling over how it is the creators make fantastical places like Tatooine:
… feel like planet Earth- heck, even feel like my own backyard.
What I realized was, it wasn’t precisely the giant settings themselves: a massive, endless desert riddled with crashed ships, a lush emerald green planet busy with life. But rather it was the subtle nuances– the little details that make it feel so relatable, so very real.
So that’s what I’m going to break apart: why little details are the key to making your fantasy world real, relatable, and feel like home to the reader.
I believe Toni Morrison put it best when she said, “The ability of writers to… familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
It’s up to us writers to make something familiar feel new and something new feel familiar. Nothing could be more true of the world we’re creating in our stories.
There’s two scenes from The Force Awakens that stick out to me in particular in this regard.
When we’re on Jakku, Rey’s home planet, we get a sense of the setting almost immediately. There’s nothing but desert, rusting wreckage, and one bizarre where Rey exchanges salvaged parts for food parcels. It feels empty, lonely, abandoned even.
Jakku reminded me of the sahara desert, perhaps Egypt where there’s primarily desert sprinkled with ancient ruins.
But it was not the connecting factors of sand and ruins that made Jakku feel strangely alive, realistic and relatable to me.
Because to be honest, I’ve never been to Egypt (or Abu Dhabi, where these scenes were actually filmed!). I certainly didn’t grow up in a desert environment. Nothing but pines, winding roads, and snow in New England. I had nothing to relate Jakku to except what I’ve seen in history books about the sahara desert and Egypt. Much like Jakku, Egypt is foreign to me, a dream-like place far, far away.
So what was it that made Jakku suddenly feel like home to me?
There were two brief scenes just a couple of seconds in length that made Jakku, a made-up fantasy planet, feel very real.
First: the native creature
I scoured the internet in hopes that I could find a still shot of this scene, only seconds in length. But since I’ve come up short, I’ll describe the scene as it plays out:
BB8 is out on his own, roaming the desert plains of Jakku. He rolls across endless sands, and as he comes upon a hill, a little creature pops his head out of the ground. Yellow, wide-set eyes protruding from a triangular, crimson head follow BB8 as he rolls passed. Under his breath, the creature whispers something in his native tongue, almost in shock or awe of BB8. But BB8 pays it no attention and rolls on, focused solely on his mission.
Do you remember the scene I’m talking about? I hope so. But if not, you wouldn’t be alone. See, this scene doesn’t seem very pivotal. In fact, it hardly seems worthy of remembrance at all. But remember, J.J Abrams didn’t edit this minuscule little scene out when he very well could have. So in reality, it’s a huge key to making Jakku come to life. Why?
Jakku didn’t suggest much in the way of life and civilization. It’s a barren wasteland. There are some aliens at the bizarre, but we are not entirely sure if they’re native or not. This scene sets the record straight.
Underneath the sea of sand, there’s life. There are creatures who survive, even thrive in this environment. There are strange languages that are native to this land.
It’s so subtle, but it affects us, the audience a great deal. It has taught us that despite this planet’s naturally hostile environment, there are creatures great and small that call this planet home. Now, planet Jakku has become 50% more believable, more real, more relatable.
But how exactly is this planet relatable?
People exist on Earth all over. That is what unites all of us- we’re all human. But not every creature, animal, or species can be found in every continent. There are creatures that thrive only in certain environments.
Think about creatures that are native to the sahara desert.
Did camels come to mind?
Or perhaps Sidewinders?
Maybe even the Fennec Fox came to mind:
These creatures can rarely be found anywhere else in the Earth. They certainly do not thrive in the Arctic, Canada, Russia, or the Antarctic.
These creatures give us a sense of what their environment is like. But they also enlighten us. They tell us that despite the barren wasteland they live in, life is capable of thriving.
While there are no Fennec Foxes or Camels in New England, there are other little creatures native to our woodlands such as Barn Owls, White tail deer, and Coyotes. We have unique creatures where I live too. They help make this land familiar to me. And the mere fact that they’re natives of this environment tells a little story about the environment itself.
So there’s the relation. Jakku has creatures great and small that thrive in its environment too. That small, seemingly insignificant scene tells us a great deal about a fantasy planet. It also makes the planet feel so alive, so realistic. So, when you’re creating your fantasy world, it’s vital that you leave marked room for hints of life, suggestions of natural inhabitants, in the details. Be sure to write scenes which include paragraphs or little sections mentioning a native animal in a daily routine. In this way, your world becomes more real, more relatable to the reader. And even more exciting, the reader will feel as though your fantasy world is a place they’ve somehow been to before.
This was one key factor that spoke to me the significance of fine details in world building. But how about the second way I mentioned earlier?
The second scene that spoke to me was just as seemingly insignificant. Mere seconds in length, too. But it’s almost polar opposite to the previous scene. Still, it’s an equally important key in making a fantasy planet feel real, feel relatable.
Fortunately I found an image of the exact scene (yay!) so I don’t have to expound too heavily on the idea. Basically, this scene feels relatively insignificant. The sun sets on Jakku, some native dwellers walk across the plain. And in the distance a desert speeder flies by. Nothing monumental at all. That is, until we break this scene down.
This still shot is the “day in the life” shot of Jakku. One uniting factor between the real world and this fantasy world: routine. This picture identifies what most inhabitants do near the close of a long day in an unforgiving planet. Nothing very lively is happening, but the life you do see gives you a sense of the planet itself.
There’s struggle. There are few comforts. Comforts come in the form of the walk home with your friends or relatives. This planet, this environment feels stuck in time. There’s just two to three indications of technology. And the pieces appear old, perhaps they’ve been there for years without an update in sight. Technology seems sparse and hardly relied on (compared to say the Death Star). So this brief scene tells us a great deal in fact about the world, about life on Jakku.
Would you want to live on Jakku? Why? Why not?
What made you choose yes or no? The subtleties tell us a great deal about the world itself. And in this scene, they tell us about human/alien life. They tell us how far human life has come, and if there is promise of progress. These unique subtleties tell us what can be expected in a “day in the life” on Jakku. And again, they tell us if the routine of the people is a far reaching tradition, or a routine that is open to change.
So what is the personal connection here? What is the relation?
We look at the cities, towns, villages we live in and we learn very much about our worlds. What makes our home a city? What makes it a village? What are the minuscule details of everyday life that give our home its unique identity?
Star Wars teaches us a great deal about the importance of minor details in world building. However many subtle details you decide to include in your fantasy world, just be sure of these two things:
- Create enough subtle details to encourage the reader to make a personal connection.
- Make such details stir a desire in the reader to want to escape into your world.
If you have plans of seeing The Force Awakens again, or at all, then keep your eyes open. Make a concerted effort to look for the subtle details that enrich each planet and make them unique. I hope this aspect of world building will give you new found respect for the “little things” in life.
So now, do you recall what it was that makes Star Wars so special to you? I loved these movies so much, they were such a huge part of my childhood as I am sure they are to yours. But even today they greatly influence my own creative process. So let’s start a discussion! Tell me what it is that makes Star Wars special to you in the comments section below. And may the force be with you and your pens! After all, a pen is mightier than the lightsaber (but not mightier than force-choking, I grant you that).
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