World Building Day 2
Worldbuilding is important to all genres of writing, of course. We want our reader to experience that “presence of place”, that connection with the surroundings in which our characters are living. Successful “world-building” helps “ground” the reader in the story landscape we are presenting to them. But how much or how little world-building should we do?
In most cases, if we are writing a contemporary story, a sense of place is helped, to some degree, by the reader’s own experiences and reality. In a contemporary crime novel, it may be enough to describe a trash-strewn alley lined with broken bottles, refuse cans and paper wrappers stretching into darkness. Many of us may not actually live in the big cities where such alleys are commonplace but we have seen them, if not in real life, then on television or the movies. We may have no problem visualizing the scene from a brief description. To spend paragraph after paragraph describing the filth and litter present in each overturned trash containing may actually take the reader out of the story.
If we are writing a historical, our world-building efforts can benefit from accumulated knowledge. The reader’s imaginations will augment even the briefest descriptions with the images they know from artwork, historical documents, textbooks and the like.
But if we are writing science fiction or fantasy, world-building is crucial because we are exposing a reader to a world, society or culture they have no familiarity with. Because it is a world that exists only in our minds. The craft of science fiction and fantasy then is the effort to get that vision out of our minds and onto the paper so the reader can share it with you and see the same ‘movie in your head’ that you intend.
One of my favorite novels had its’ main character indulge in a form of world-building as part of its’ premise. For those who have not read Roger Zelazny’s masterpiece “Nine Princes in Amber”, I highly recommend that you do so. This is one of those rare works that I have read countless times and gain something new with each reading.
Without giving away the entire plot, which is delightful, the protagonist Corwin, wakes in the hospital with no memory but the conviction that there is nothing wrong with him. Over the course of the novel, he comes to realize that he is a member of the royal family of Amber, and that Amber is the one true reality. All other “realities” are merely imperfect reflections of facets of that one true reality. To return home, it is only necessary to add and subtract features to the current “reality” to make it more like Amber. When the results match your mental template then you are home. That is a very simplistic rendering of his process but isn’t that what we do when we world-build? We add and subtract features to and from the current reality until what we have on paper matches what we hold in our minds.