World building is a complex process, and everyone has their thoughts on how to do it best. I’m not going to give a list of Do This and Don’t Do That, because no single piece of advice will ever be universal. Don’t dump all your world information in long paragraphs of explanation? Tolkien would like to direct you to The Silmarillion. Don’t use flashbacks? Try out Red Sister and Lies of Locke Lamora. Neither are quite up my alley, but I understand their use of flashbacks is exquisite. And all three of those books have readers who hate their world building for the exact reasons that others love the world building. Because reading taste is subjective.
What I want to talk about is something I think is a little more universal than any specific strategy. Something that almost all methods have in common. A unifying theory of world building, if you will. Details.
Conventional Wisdom Says…
Most people have heard some version of where I’m starting. If you go to a writer’s conference, or ask questions of any experienced writer or publishing professional, you’ll tend to hear the same thing. Give the reader just enough world building to understand the immediate action of the scene. Apply small details like smell, taste, touch along with your sight, but don’t go overboard. Fantasy writers get this particularly hard, because they have a reputation for info-dumping. The character wouldn’t stop and examine the scent of the stable before shoveling manure, so why are you pausing to describe it?
Yeah, your character probably wouldn’t do that. But as writers, we aren’t creating reality. We’re creating a false narrative that always focuses on things our characters wouldn’t notice in order to emphasize the important parts of the story. Think about how this plays out if we apply the “would the character do this” logic to another situation. If I watch an adult man and his younger sister, neither of them would refer to each other as sister or brother except in specific cases, like introducing themselves to a stranger. So if I write a first person narrative where a man and his sister interact with only people they know, does that mean I’m never allowed to tell my reader they are siblings? That’s illogical. Some level of contrived narration is necessary, and everyone knows that. So why can’t we have a stable hand walk into a stable and pause to grimace at the scent of unshoveled manure before he gets to work?
And the right answer? Maybe you should. Just not every time.
Details Done Right
Many years ago now, I used to be an obsessive player of World of Warcraft. Eventually I stopped playing (for a number of reasons, but primarily because I disliked a particular expansion’s changes), but when I did I tried out the then-new MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. I never got too invested in that one. After a while, I heard about Rift which was supposedly really good at keeping engagement, so I tried it. Fun game, but not something that really drew me in like WoW. I also tried the Monster Hunter MMO—not my style—and the Lord of the Rings MMO—felt really old. Eventually I found myself completely without an MMO for years. I missed it and I told my husband that I wanted to play WoW with him again, even though many of the things I’d enjoyed were no longer present.
And I loved returning to WoW.
I didn’t have the time to commit that I had in the past, so I never became a top end player. But it was like going home, and that made me wonder why. One day, as I was sitting in the city of Stormwind waiting for something in game, I noticed that the two children who had been chasing each other on a loop around the city since the game’s released had reversed roles. Originally, the boy stole a toy from the girl and was running around taunting her with it. Now, the girl had taken a toy of the boy’s and was taunting him. There is no quest, or event, or achievement, or anything else involving these children. They are the purest form of flavor text, and that explained to me why WoW stole my heart and four other games failed. The details.
As you’re playing through early versions of WoW, you’re walking down the road and you see a dire wolf. That wolf might charge out of the grass to the side and attack you, but it also might chase down a rabbit to kill and eat. It depends on who is closer and what “threats” the wolf perceives. It’s all programming, of course, but there were no wolves chasing rabbits in SWTOR, Rift, Monster Hunter, or LOTRO. There were no patrols of opposing faction guards traveling the roads of Arathi Highlands and sometimes getting into fights with each other instead of the player characters. The wolves, guards, and monsters in those other MMOs were only there to chase you.
This is the difference between a book where the stable hand stops to grimace at the stench of un-mucked stalls before getting to work (once, not every time) and a book where you don’t even see the stable hand unless he happens to be central to the plot in one way or another. The momentary distraction of real life makes the bigger, world-changing or story-altering or character-defining moments feel real. When everything plays into the central narrative, nothing feels authentic.
Just the Right Amount
This is, of course, not an invitation to infodump the history of your world in the opening to your novel. To retain my video game analogy, I’ve played through every race opening in WoW at least three or four times (some a dozen or more) and I can’t tell you anything about the content of the opening cinematics for any of the races. I don’t remember any of it. But I remember those kids running around Stormwind and the toy vendor who sometimes has a white kitten for sale. I remember Anduin Wrynn as a 10 year old moping in the palace wondering where his father was. And hundreds if not thousands of players remember the struggle to locate Mankrik’s wife, who wasn’t where he said she was. It’s the small things that people remember.
So, when you’re building a new world—especially a secondary world fantasy, which needs so much more explanation than one set in contemporary worlds—how do you manage to insert these details without dropping the novel equivalent of a WoW opening cinematic? Well, there’s a few methods that often work.
- Start with a small moment. This sounds pretty antithetical to most current advice on how to start your book (that you should start the book with conflict), but it’s actually not contradicting that advice. “Conflict” doesn’t have to mean “something big and dramatic” and it turns out that for most readers a small conflict is easier to attach to in a strange world than a big one. So instead of starting with someone dodging a fireball, start with your character being turned away from a shop because it’s closing time while the character argues that if they can’t buy the extra blanket they came for their sister might become deathly ill from the cold wraiths that stalk the city. Now you have a small moment that grounds the reader in a simple need (to help their family stay warm), have signaled that there is magic in this world (cold wraiths), and have a conflict on page one. Does it matter if the sister or the blanket ever come up again? Probably not, if you handle it properly.
- Find reasons for the character to connect events to larger world building elements. You have to be a little careful with this one so you don’t fall into the trap of everything existing just to serve the plot, but done right this is the best way to include backstory and world building. Consider the difference between these options: your character is trying to decide whether or not to take a magical sword and suddenly remembers that magical swords are the only way anyone in the world gets magic and he needs magic to defeat the villain. OR Your character is trying to decide whether or not to take a magical sword and suddenly remembers that if he gets the magic from a magical sword he might be stuck with it forever because magic swords always turn people into wizards and he worries about how he’s going to live the rest of his life as a wizard. The last one doesn’t tell you he needs magic to defeat the villain, but we probably suspected he needed magic anyway. What it does do is give you an element of worldbuilding. Every person with magic in the entire world has touched a magic sword, and as a result gave up any other dreams that magic might interfere with in order to have that magic. What might their motives have been? This world feels more real now because the magic power up is a thing that could happen to anyone, with uncertain consequences.
- Introduce new characters through context with existing characters, but give them interests outside the main plot. And more to the point, don’t drop a bunch of characters at once. If you have a group of seven people, take the example of Lord of the Rings and introduce them slowly, through the book. There, we first met Gandalf and Frodo (and Bilbo, of course, but he wasn’t a major character in Fellowship). After that, the important people inserted themselves in memorable ways throughout the story, such that no one forget the main characters. Merry and Pippin are the mischievous hobbits who tend to get Frodo into trouble. Sam is the loyal friend, Gandalf is the exotic visitor Frodo remembers from his childhood. And at no point do these other characters feel like they had nothing going on outside of the main story. Sam has the girl at the inn, Merry and Pippn are literally in the middle of something when they get dragged into the story. Gandalf straight up vanishes for months on his own business. If your characters come in because of a connection with or forced interaction with existing characters but recognize other elements of their lives that still matter, you create deeper characters. And deeper characters imply a deeper world.
- Remember what things are new to your character, and what your character would notice/think. This is a common mistake that writers make at all levels of experience. My character is terribly poor. He doesn’t even have a home, just sleeps on the street. And he writes a quick note to his friend and slips it under the door as he runs off to get dinner at a local tavern. Wait, what? He can’t find a place to live, but he can afford paper, pen, ink, and to buy food from a medieval restaurant-equivalent? These tiny details can be extremely hard to remember, but they can also make or break the immersion level of your story. If I don’t understand the social and economic aspects of society, how will I ever understand the character’s personal struggles within that society? Most fantasy authors have been cautioned a dozen or more times against info-dumping this information, but you don’t need to. All you have to do is have the character notice how exotic the taste of the tavern food is while others turn their noses up at the plain, unappetizing meal. And give me a reason he has the money this time, but there are a dozen or more reasons for that.
Beware the Conlang
This should really be a point on the list above and the broader concept here is relatively simple. If you create a new language (a “constructed language” or conlang) and then write long explanations in it, your reader won’t have any idea what you’re saying. I doubt anyone really needs that information told to them. But there’s a more complex issue at work here, so I’m going to temporarily misuse the term “conlang” and broaden the definition into “any term either created for a fictional story or significantly re-purposed from its usual meaning to suit the needs of the story.” This expanded definition allows me to more easily discuss a problem I often see in fantasy and science fiction writing. I once saw a description of a novel that went something like this (conlang terminology, names, and some events changed primarily because I don’t remember any specifics, just the effect):
In the Mor’can Galaxy, Flerbendurdin Ajaor Kinlishious faces the deadly Hyncrix as the Flerbendurdin Council Flerbenmental for aid from the Junocipetrish. When Flerbenguard Jocsiaron…
Dude, I have no idea what this says. I guess maybe there’s a war? Or is it insurgents? Is Flerbendurdin a noun or an adjective? At the point where I had to stop mid description to try and identify what parts of a sentence the various new terms formed, the author killed any chance of me looking at the book. Your pitch is supposed to entice the reader with understandable character and conflict hooks. It is not designed to explain the world-building.
This is an extreme example, but it’s a problem fantasy authors always run the risk of facing. This is because every fantasy story has something that falls into my expanded definition of conlang. “Seeing” is a normal term that many fantasy writers use to mean “see the future,” but its most common usage actually means “perceive with the eyes.” Every fantasy author has to find ways to introduce new language without confusing the reader. Too often, in trying not to infodump, we make mistakes in this space in and give way too many details without anywhere near enough context.
For all my flippant disregard, I understand the problem this author faced. I once attempted to pitch a novel that featured zero human characters and the main character was of a serpentine race somewhat reminiscent of half-dragons from D&D. The thing is, their lore was that they believed themselves to be descended from real dragons, but in actuality dragons were pure myths and these creatures had a completely different historical lineage that mattered to the story a lot. But how do you pitch that book? You have to say the main character is a “half-dragon” because anything else either ignores the character not being human or adds a bunch of conlang/world building details that the editor doesn’t care about. As an author, I railed against the idea of mislabeling my character, but failing to find another solution, I called my main character a half dragon and his main enemy an elf. The editor replied “Everyone loves dragons and elves, but why do I care about yours?”
How Do You Use Details Well?
I like to think about the moments that worked for me in WoW. The children in Stormwind. They added flavor, depth, and complexity to the world, but if I was describing the game I’d never mention them. Details work best as seasoning, like salt in King Lear. It sounds like a minor thing and you’d rarely bother to mention it in a description. But what would your story be like without any?
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