Because I am currently writing in a historical setting, I am offering this discussion with that in mind, but I think it applies to fantasy or contemporary world-building as well.
World-building. It’s one of the buzz-words in critical book blogging theory right now, and has been for several years. Does the author build us a reality entirely her own? Can we see it and taste it and smell it? Do we feel like we could walk around in that world in our own imaginations and get it more or less right?
Whether good world-building requires a yes to each of those questions is a matter of taste. Some readers love to be immersed in a world and live the nitty-gritty details with their characters; others just want the story and skip descriptions or “idle” sections. Some readers like to have mysteries and backstories and histories hinted at but not directly addressed, while others can’t stand to have things brought up that are never explained.
I have been each of these types of readers at different times and with different books, so, looking at this issue as a writer, I can’t just pick my own aesthetic and write to that. I think, in general, my preference is the Jane Austen style–that is, very little time spent on descriptions and details of life, and the ones that are included there for reasons of character illumination or plot furtherance. But is this a satisfying feel for modern readers reading a historical romance (versus a contemporary romance in a setting they are familiar with)? Does my not bothering to explain what was on the table set to “satisfy the appetite of Mr. Bingley and the pride of a man who had 10,000 a year” matter to readers?
My conundrum is this: should the details of life that have changed for modern readers be included to satisfy their interest or ignored because to the characters those details would not be worth noticing?
Hence my competing theories of worldbuilding–do I build from the reader’s perspective, or the characters’?
Building for the readers would mean including either directly or by reference details of life (and maybe explanations) that characters simply would not notice or think about. This approach lets readers feel like they are visiting a different world, because to them those details wouldbe noticed and would be interesting enough to stop and marvel over. Some people read historical fiction (or fantasy…or contemporary books about places they do not know well) for the sake of being able to feel like they went there. This profusion of details also adds a bulk to the word count that has little to do with the story and risks dragging the story to a halt amidst a sea of descriptions and ancillary observations. Not to mention the fact that after a while eyes glass over and new knowledge stops being comprehended or retained.
Building for the characters means referencing superficially the elements of their world that the characters interact with but leaving unsaid and unreferenced everything they do not encounter “on screen” in the course of the story. This approach can sometimes leave characters floating in a gray cloud bank instead of inhabiting smoky political clubs and gauze-curtained parlors.
I think much of the approach an author takes has to do with how the writer him- or herself interacts with their own world. I have said before that I am introverted, in the sense that my focus is internal, into my own mind rather than outward toward the world around me. I am, in fact, one of the most introverted people you could ever meet. I hide it well, but at any given time I am more likely to pay more attention to what’s in my head than I am to what I’m doing, saying, listening to, looking at, etc. I do take moments where I notice the world around me; I don’t drift blind and dumb and deaf through the world. But my noticing is more “everything is in place”/”that is out of place” or a momentary “wow, this is a beautiful day/view/house/etc.” than it is is dwelling on what is being input into my five senses. If you asked me to write a scene from my own life as if I were a character in a novel, there would be almost no descriptions because I don’t think about the world around me. That is not to say I can’t marvel at a sunrise or stop to inhale the heavy sweetness of Confederate jasmine in bloom on my fence, but those moments are the exceptions, the extraordinary moments that shake me from my rut. I do not consciously catalog the details of my life.
So for me, it is absolutely realistic for my characters to live in a solipsistic universe–that is, they only need to mention or think about something in the world as they interact with it. The interaction makes it real; otherwise it is out of sight, out of mind as far as the physical world goes.
But…is this how other people react to the world? I am the first to admit I’m weird. I have been told by many friends over the years that I am “weird, in a good way”–in fact, I think the more you get to know me, and the more honest I become with you, the weirder I get. In a good way. Comments like that never make sense to me. I cannot experience anyone else’s view of the world. I cannot know their mind or how they see or think or process what happens to them and around them. All I have is the reality I inhabit, and the shades of other writers’ realities I have read. Is my experience of the world enough to base characters on? Or do readers need more?
I am obviously drawn to the minimalist approach to world-building…the one that ignores describing what the characters ate for dinner unless there is a scene that takes place over dinner and in the course of that scene the character has particular reason to notice what they are eating–it’s especially delicious, it’s terrible, it’s their favorite, it’s what they hate most in the world, etc.. But if it’s, you know, plain boring food they’ve had twenty times that year, what they will notice in the scene is not what they eat but what happens. Because that scene isn’t being shown for the sake of exposing what a 19th century family ate for dinner, it’s being shown to advance the plot or epose something about one of the characters. That is the part of the meal that they will notice, because that’s the part where something is different. In the same way that stories are not made up of all the moments of someone’s life but rather of the moments in which something happens that is relevant to the story being told about them, I naturally gravitate to limiting the world-building to what is relevant to the characters because it is different, creates a problem or a solution for them, or forces them to react to it in some way. If the world is a passive stage for action to be played out upon…why would they notice it?
But is that good enough? That’s the million-dollar question.
What do you want as readers? What do my fellow writers out there think about world-building and how do you approach it in your own work?