Competing Theories of World-Building

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?



Filed under Writing

7 responses to “Competing Theories of World-Building

  1. As a reader, I usually glaze over when I get to a paragraph describing the “lush garden” that our two main characters are making out in. (Seriously, I doubt they’re going to notice…) In fantasy epics, I don’t really read the epic setting in which our final battle is taking place, I just want to know if our main hero(ine) is getting killed.

    As a writer this makes me impatient and irritated when I start looking at settings! But only sometimes… other times, when I’m inspired or just in a mood, I can get a little more detailed. But for me it’s the characters that do the trick 🙂

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way, both as a reader and as a writer! I think setting descriptions work when it would be of interest to the character. The example I always think of is in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth visits Pemberley. She is VERY interested in Mr. Darcy’s home, and so the long description is interesting to the reader because it’s intersting to the character. But when it’s cataloguing a lush garden that the characters are just registering as “summer green and private, let’s mack”…? Yeah, not so effective!

  2. World building in my case is huge, as I have a series going. I’ll give you what someone said to me about the first page of the current WIP. It’s set in New Orleans and everyone and his brother knows what New Orleans looks like, so I tried a different approach and apparently succeeded. (At least on page one…)

    “The first para is a surefire grab for me, descriptive without being frilly. I takes me right to the place I’ve only seen on TV and movies, and in a way that shows me the stuff that’s never shown on TV and in the movies.”

    Setting is important for this series because the city is, in essence, a character, but at no time did I beat anyone over the head with Jackson Square or Bourbon Street. Instead, I went with things that people *don’t* really know, like the view over the Quarter from the rooftops; the side streets and the bridge (The CCC); the brewery sign lit up at night; the way the Quarter smells in the heat after a brief rain. It’s those things that I take in when I’m there, so that’s what I shared. I’m highly, highly introverted, so I tend to sit and watch and be in the moment. These are things I absorb, so they are what I try to impart in my writing. A sort of, “Let’s forget about everything you know about New Orleans. We might stop on Bourbon for a moment, a glance, just so you know where you are, but that belongs to other people… let me show you *my* world.”

    I’m reading a book right now that has so much description of the setting that I swear – no matter how big this writer’s name is, and he is huge right now – if I read one more word about what the Mississippi River looks like at night I will throw this book across the room. And I’m only on page 78 of over 400 pages. I know what the damned river looks like – trust me. Get on with it, already. I take lessons from books like that.

    Describe the world, make me want to be a part of it, but don’t make me want to leave (skip pages/paragraphs/throw the book in annoyance).

    • I think that is a good approach to take. The details that *you* notice are the same details a character would notice. Or, as Chekhov (I think it was Chekhov) put it, “don’t tell me the moon is full, show me the moonlight glittering on broken glass” or something like that. Carefully chosen details say much more than paragraphs of catalogued details or carelessly chosen ones. For me that kind of description is its own editorial pass, because I simply do not build them into most scenes naturally. But that’s what revisions are for, no?

  3. ABE

    The best writing I can do is to provide enough detail for the reader to create his/her own version of the setting – and nothing more that might interfere with that construct. So, readers only need to know the kitchen is on the north side of the house if the window in the kitchen is going to be part of an invasion from that side of the house, or eavesdropping on a conversation in a car parked on that side. The north side is mentioned fleetingly to reserve the south for an extensive garden – and full sun on its plants.
    Anything more than that might clash with the setting being carefully created in the reader’s mind – and yank the reader out of the illusion of being or reacting to the characters.
    How much actual description that will be will vary – as long as people (say, beta readers) don’t tell me they’re skipping parts, or are confused as to where they are and how the action relies on the scene.
    Of course it’s a judgment call – but that’s where readers will decide whether they like your style and your stories. I need something to pin my own mental image on, and tend to describe just as much as I would need, but I can see being told readers needed a little more (or a lot less!), and then evaluating whether that worked for me.

    • I think that’s a good way to put it and a good approach to take…mention the details the readers will need to know later, and the things that will ground the story, and no more. And you’re absolutely right that how much varies from reader to reader…I know plenty of people who *love* the long descriptions and intricate worlds some authors put together. I am just not one of them. 🙂

  4. I like the idea of a setting as a character. That’s what I’m trying to do.

    I snickered with the garden reference – my characters tend to spend a lot of time in gardens or other settings outside where the mood is more important than the details. I’m terrible about mediphors and themes – it’s a silly habit I’ve gotten into for some reason.

    Sorry – I’d rather tell you it’s a rose garden than describe (show) the roses individually. More important to me is how the characters react to the garden. Are they working (weeding and all that) or are they walking through it, having an important conversation and doing a bit of gentle flirting as well? Or is he a ‘war-weary’ vet who finds a place by the fountain, in the shade, that sooths him to sleep for the first time in a couple of days?

    World building, IMO, can be done with a spray can, a roller or wide brush with details layered in. The texture, the mood between the characters, everything has to agree with the time and place. I want LAYERS, lay it out for me with broad strokes and fill in details where the plot requires them.

    If I’m just getting ‘talking heads’ in a black background, the writer isn’t doing their job. I’ll forgive too much – just don’t leave me with a blank background.

    Oops – where did that soapbox come from? Er – well I guess I’d better step down now.

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