Guest Post: Little Keeping Things by Chelsea Ichaso
When it comes to thrillers, the worldbuilding can make or break a reader’s experience. Ambiance, tone, and story play out in a world that many of us hope to never experience, so it becomes an author’s job to paint the picture. I asked Chelsea Ichaso to talk about worldbuilding in thrillers in honor of her upcoming thriller debut – Little Creeping Things! The story is noted for being eerie and twisty (hello, have you seen the cover?), so I am excited to have Chelsea chatting about worldbuilding today! Check it out below and be sure to pick up Little Creeping Things, out June 2nd!
Little Creeping Thingsby Chelsea Ichaso
on June 2, 2020
When she was a child, Cassidy Pratt accidentally started a fire that killed her neighbor. At least, that’s what she’s been told. She can’t remember anything from that day, and her town’s bullies, particularly the cruel and beautiful Melody Davenport, have never let her live it down.
But then Melody goes missing, and Cassidy thinks she may have information. She knows she should go to the cops, but she recently joked about how much she’d like to get rid of Melody. She even planned out the perfect way to do it. And then she gets a chilling text from an unknown number: I’m so glad we’re in this together.
Now it’s up to Cassidy to figure out what really happened before the truth behind Melody’s disappearance sets the whole town ablaze.
Worldbuilding in Thrillers
Hi! Thanks so much for having me on the blog! I’m excited to talk about worldbuilding in thrillers. It’s a term often associated with fantasy or sci-fi, when it’s actually essential to every genre. In thrillers, which are often set in our world, we don’t always recognize what the writer is doing as worldbuilding. But our world is a massive place, where no two places or people function exactly alike.
So then, what is worldbuilding in a realistic context? In her blog post, “Building A Real World,” author Malinda Lo says, “World-building is about establishing a believable cultural structure for the story you’re telling. The world informs the way your characters live their lives, sometimes bluntly, sometimes subconsciously. The world is the context for your characters’ actions.”
For thrillers set in the real world, a lot of this boils down to suspension of disbelief. In a genre where lies, murder, vigilantism, and grand schemes are par for the course, it’s essential to construct a context where otherwise questionable actions make perfect sense. On the surface, the idea of a teenager setting out on her own to track down her sister’s killer might have readers scratching their heads. But when the author portrays the protagonist’s homelife, socioeconomic status, past trials, and fierce spirit the way Courtney Summers does in Sadie, readers don’t bat an eye. We’re right there with Sadie, cheering her on.
This context is created when an author establishes the inner workings of a thriller’s world. We can’t rely on stereotypes or generalizations, or the book and its characters will fall flat. Let’s start by looking at the broader picture and working our way inward. On the broadest level, the story takes place in our world, yes. But in what country? What state? Even a town—real or fictional—operates according to its own beliefs, values, and cultural expectations. There will be spoken or unspoken laws by which the characters must abide. Legends, history, and rumors will add layers that ultimately set the stage for our thriller. In my debut, Little Creeping Things, the protagonist’s decisions are propelled by a rumor that members of the town have spread.
Racial, gender, and socioeconomic considerations will factor in as well. Power structures must be examined. Who holds the power? The wealthy? A secret society? Can we trust the local law enforcement or town authorities? For example, a perfectly generic mother in a nondescript city who decides to take her daughter’s missing persons investigation into her own hands will push readers beyond the bounds of belief. But if she suspects the sheriff of her small town, her actions are suddenly founded.
Working our way inward, we might focus on a workplace or perhaps a favorite diner to show context. Young adult thrillers are often set in high schools, which function as living, breathing entities with their own personalities. Does the school value football above all else? Academics? Money? Maybe it’s a fancy ballet academy where students would do anything to be the best. Think about power (specifically, who holds it), the rules, and the school’s particular brand of currency, because they will guide a character’s thoughts and actions.
The innermost area I’ll address here is homelife because it plays such an important role in a character’s worldview. As with Sadie, the protagonist’s family—or lack thereof—will feed into
every thought and decision. Is the spouse loving and devoted or unfaithful? Is there a tragic history that permeates every family meal? Think about where the family fits into the class structure of the town. Consider any aspects of homelife we sometimes take for granted that actually contribute to making a person who they are. This will lead to more realistic characters as well as more believable plots and decisions in thrillers.
Lastly, real-world thrillers can absolutely be every bit as imaginative as other-world genres! One of my favorite types of thrillers involves a seemingly-incredible game, ritual, or society. In Panic by Lauren Oliver, every year, teens compete in a series of dare-like, deadly challenges in attempt to win the grand cash prize. The game is built into the dead-end town through its legendary mystique and the accounts of past contestants. Add to it a girl desperate to escape said town, and you have yourself a not-so-everyday-thriller set right in the everyday world.
Chelsea Ichaso writes twisty thrillers for young adults, including LITTLE CREEPING THINGS (Sourcebooks Fire, 2020). A former high school English teacher, she currently resides in southern California with her husband and children. When she’s not reading or writing, Chelsea can be found on the soccer field.