There are other kinds of worldbuilding besides the deep-background variety I was talking about last post, to wit, the immediate-background sort and the in-story sort. The immediate-background worldbuilding, like deep worldbuilding, is stuff that not everyone needs to do in advance. It’s very similar to the deep-worldbuilding in that it’s about making decisions, but most of the decisions are about how things are in the story-world right now. Do they drink coffee? Have public/private schools? Are there police, city guards, local security gangs, or do citizens just have to protect themselves if they’re out on the streets after dark? What do the locals eat? How do they dress? How do they greet each other?
Since the immediate-background stuff usually comes up in the story, a lot of writers can just make it up on the fly. I find that I’m better off at least thinking about some of it in advance, because if I wait until two of my characters are introduced to each other in Chapter Three, I’ll probably have them bow or shake hands just because that’s my default and I want to get on with the scene. If I make it up ahead of time, I’m more likely to take a few minutes to come up with a formal greeting that reflects the culture I’ve invented.
Which brings me to the other other kind of worldbuilding, the kind that every writer does to some extent, and that’s the kind that’s done in the story itself. It’s not about inventing the cool details and clever twists on history; it’s about conveying a sense of place and culture and background to the reader.
There are three things to look at when thinking about this sort of worldbuilding:
- How familiar is the place/time/culture to your expected readers?
- How much does your story depend on unique features of the place/time/culture in which it is set?
- How much would your story be enriched by including unique features of the place/time/culture in which it is set?
1. A lot of present-day fiction is set in Generic City or Generic Town, Writer’s Home Country, because the writer quite reasonably expects the story to be published in his country, and they’ll all know how things work there. Also, if you set a story in a place, time, or culture that you have no experience of, you will have to do research to get it right, and let’s face it, generic is easier.
The farther you get from the place, time, and culture your readers live in, the more worldbuilding your story has to offer them if you want it to feel as if it really is in a different place, time, or culture. Chicago is not L.A. is not New Orleans is not New York is not Miami…and those are all major cities in the same country. The farther out you branch, the greater the differences; Paris is a lot more not-Moscow and not-Beijing than New York is not-Chicago, and Paris in 2013 is not Paris in 1968 or 1798 or 52 BCE.
2. This ought to be a no-brainer; after all, anything that the story depends on needs to be in the book, right? When a story is based in a real place, time, or culture, though, some writers forget that they can’t leave out a critical bit of information just because their readers can google on the meaning of cranes in Japanese culture. Worse are the folks who presume that if they can rattle off a list of every type of hobgoblin in the British Isles, all of their readers will know all about them as well.
3. The first two points aim the writer at things that really need to be in the story; this one is for looking at the things that are optional. Every place has things about it that are unique, or groups of non-unique things that add together into a unique “feel.” A story may not need to be set anywhere more specific than Generic Metropolitan Area, but speaking as a Chicago ex-pat, there’s something special about books set in Chicago that capture the feel of the place. It may not matter to the story that the El (elevated train, for non-Chicagoans) is really, really noisy, but I get a warm fuzzy feeling when the characters in a Chicago story have to stop talking in mid-conversation every so often while the El rattles by.
And that brings me to the how part of the post. A lot of writers seem to think of worldbuilding as description: what things are there, what they look and feel and sound like. But places, times, and cultures are – or should be – a lot more than a painted backdrop that you can unroll behind your characters as they move through the story. Good description is certainly part of worldbuilding, but if you really want your readers to get into your world, you have to give them more than a handful of local placenames and a vivid description of the harbor/town square/other big tourist attraction.
Every aspect of the story is part of the worldbuilding on some level, from what the characters have for lunch to the style and type of clothing they (and others) wear to their manners when they’re greeting someone to things like having to stop in mid-conversation to let a noisy train go past. The particular piece of the world we live in affects every aspect of our lives, all the time, but we take it so much for granted that we don’t often think about how. My sister in Alabama does not have the January Reflex where you automatically take your shoes off just inside someone’s door, because where she lives, she a) does not have to wear snow boots in January, and b) does not come in with shoes covered in ice-melter and dirty snow that will track over two rooms, minimum, if you forget to take them off.
Worldbuilding in a story is remembering to include all those little things, from the vitally important social aspects (whether that means remembering to curtsey to the king and bow to the queen, never vice versa, or whether it means always stirring your tea clockwise) to the everyday things like swapping your shoes for an “indoor pair,” or opening/closing all the windows at particular times of day because of the temperature.
It’s the way living in a place affects the everyday lives of the characters down in the details. How many details are too many is a matter of taste; some authors go for lots of lush description of everything, even making breakfast, while others go for bare-bones Hemingway-esque sketches. One way or another, though, the world is always there in the story…because stories need a place to happen in as much as they need a problem to be about.