World-building is an intrinsic aspect of all manor of fantasy and science fiction novels and short stories. Beyond landforms and national boundaries, the authors need to think through modes of government, social cultures, cultural histories, species adaptations, economics, belief systems, and backgrounds of characters among many things. It’s a lot. But thinking through various scenarios, one gets to invent less as cultural dominoes fall and repercussions ripple. The story takes on a life of its own with some aspects starting to tell themselves.
This is my topic for this Friday [and weekend] as lately I’ve read some novels that did not seem to have themselves all worked out. Some fantasy social practices did not seem to have a fathomable reason. I understand that there are villains whether individuals or whole societies, but I do not accept EVIL as a reason for action. Voldemort did not do what he did because he was just evil; he was evil in that he was willing to sacrifice anyone to get what he wanted [everlasting life, power, minions etc]. There is a difference. Even villains have a reason, a logic, a belief system–however screwy and detestable it may be.
Authors: Know your world. Know it all.
On the flip side, some authors have gone to such depths in creating their worlds and the components of it that they wish to expound upon it. They lovingly tell every detail of the clothes and spaceships etc. But if it does not effect the story and plot, why are they wasting the ink? One space opera I read spent tens of pages on the descriptions of spaceships. Characters did not get developed until pg 75 or so, and the “other” alien race was described as “just pure evil.” In my opinion, all of the world-building energy went into the wrong details. Also, only the valid details of the ship and clothes should have been revealed and on a need-to-know basis.
Authors: Yes, Show Don’t Tell. But Don’t show it all. Tell the story.
I believe that the extensive world-building that takes place for an author to Know It All, will reveal itself naturally and subtly with confidence within the act of story-telling. The author’s confidence and knowledge will create consistency of expectation and give the reader the tools they need. [Good Beta-readers can help the author find that fine line by asking questions of Why? and How? If they don’t catch the Why and How then clearly another rewrite is in order.]
My question is: Am I giving too much credit to the reader, to the author, or to the writing process? Readers, what is your experience with good, awkward and bad world-building? Writers, what is your mantra? What are your tools? [I personally keep maps, calendars, chronologies, and elaborate outlines and references for my stories. I do not plan to include any of the above in the finished product. I would include a map if my story was in a fantasy land–but it’s not.]