by Allison Pang
It seems to me that world building is often one of those things that falls under personal preference. As writers, we certainly need to be able to convey the sense of time and place so that our readers can connect and understand what's going on. For some stories, world building may need to be intensive and full of rich description...and for others it's merely window dressing. (And both can work just fine, depending on the type of story.)
In a lot of ways, it's the audience that is key. The hard core sci-fi and fantasy crowd often tends to expect a greater attention to world building and detail. And as pointed out earlier this week - a story set in our world doesn't usually need the same amount of description as something being written from scratch. Unless it's a fish out of water story, where perhaps said character has never actually seen a car before, but that's usually a special case.
And of course - actual writing style makes a huge difference. I'll call on Tolkien, for example - as the "godfather" for the modern fantasy epic, no one can deny the sheer amount of influence his works have had on the fantasy genres as we know them - everything from Dungeon & Dragons to pretty much every movie or book involving a dwarf or an elf or an orc has him to thank for it.
But I'll tell you what? As much as I like the overall stories...I find his writing descriptive to the point of painfulness sometimes. And often dry. (And they are also basically white male sausage parties, but that's a post for another day.)
On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel. Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.
It's beautiful stuff, but reading passage after passage of it? Yeah. I suspect it would be a hard sell in today's book market.
On the other hand? Don't mess with Tolkien fans:
What I find most interesting about world building in general is that if done right, it can become its own mythos. Think Star Wars, or Star Trek or Dr. Who, or DC/Marvel comics, or Transformers, or Harry Potter. Most writers or creators should ever be so lucky to have fandoms that sit around and argue the semantics of what was said or done in movie x or issue y. (And in made-up languages, no less. I had a guy who sat behind me in high school that spoke Klingon. I myself have a large hardcover book that goes through the lore and history of a certain video game. I also gleefully watch flame wars on forums as fans freak out about what character x would taste like if drinks lyrium, but you know. Whatever.)
Though fandom has a dark side too, as evidenced as this video. (I'm sorry Brony, but I'm pretty sure My Little Pony is really for kids.)
That being said, I'm a big fan of organic world building. I don't need to have everything set up for me - give me characters I can relate to and let me learn about it as I go. Part of this personal preference - I don't enjoy info dumps - and part of that is because I tend to hold onto to relevant piece of information better if I can relate to it. (If it's important to a character I connect with, it becomes important to me.)
When it comes to my own writing, I tend to keep notes on things - whether it's for books or comics - usually to keep things straight. Even if it's information that might never make it into the book, it helps with the overall story and I can use snippets of that info to spice up the world building. For example - I may have an entire trade route mapped out between cities and the sorts of merchants and what they are trading - but even though it might be important for ME to know the price of gold widgets, unless it contributes directly to the story, it doesn't need to be there. I might have a character comment on it - "Gee, the price of gold widgets has gone up again. Hope they fix that bridge soon."
Maybe it doesn't affect the plot, but hey, we now know the character is observant of such things in his/her world...or maybe they express surprise at this bit of knowledge, or fear, or anger - basically it helps drive home the fact that there is a least some impact upon this person's life. (Just like we might observe the price of gas, for example - it helps lend an element of reality into the fantasy.)
The one thing to watch out for is world rules. Most of us have seen it before - whatever rules you set up for your world, do not break them without really good reason...and then, only sparingly. (Unless your world...has no rules, a la Alice in Wonderland, in which case, have at it.) Or your world is now written by a lot of extra people, like popular comics. In which case, the powers that be can wave their hands and retcon whatever they like. Superman and Lois Lane together forever? Nonsense. Lois is gone and now Superman and Wonder Woman can get it on!
This sort of thing does tend to irritate readers and fans though, so proceed with caution.
Unless you're talking about Highlander, in which case you're free to ignore the second movie with its whacked out alien sub-plot and move right on to three and four like everyone else did. Including the directors.
For my latest WIP, its been a very interesting challenge. It's told through 1st person present, and the protagonist is an illiterate gutter-rat who ends up getting caught up in all sorts of interesting political intrigue (among other things.)
So, how to portray the world through her eyes without overwhelming or confusing the reader, or magically having the protagonist jump to conclusions which would be pretty unlikely for her to reach, given her limited education? (She's street smart, mind, but books are useless.)
That's the fun part, I suppose. :)