As you may know, my most popular blog entry (still) is the one entitled Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe: A Example of Poor World-building. Every month or two, someone new discovers this post and feels they must take me to task for nit-picking because of my elaborate examination of the cultural and industrial implications of this particular garment. Hey, I’m always glad when folks are reading, and when they care enough to respond to something I wrote. But this past week, I got such a comment just after I had done a workshop for the Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop (a six week bootcamp for science fiction, fantasy and horror, where I was pleased to attend back in 1997).
My talk at Odyssey was entitled “Making it Real.” It’s not the first time I’ve given the talk, but I keep coming back to this topic because it is critical to the creator of fictional worlds to be able to reveal them clearly to the reader. The more real the details of your world, the more believable will be the events that happen there, and the characters who make them happen. I realized, in thinking about this talk and about this latest comment criticizing me for nit-picking, that really, when you are creating a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.
If you wanted to write a book in New York City, you could make a couple of vague references to subways, skyscrapers and bagel joints, and probably most readers would be satisfied. They will be filling in the details from what they already know about that place, and about modern cities in general (although half of them will be picturing Toronto, which stands in for NYC in many television programs). But if you want to create a world people have never seen before (including re-creating another time), then you must not only generate the landscape for that world–the geography, the climate, the plant and animal life–but you must find ways to reveal it with care, and with an economy of language or image. What you show on the screen, in the frame, or on the page is what the reader will see and understand about that world.
The creator provides the key elements, and allows the reader to fill in the rest–there just isn’t time in the space of a book or novel to fill in everything, and it would get pretty boring if you did (this is one criticism of many fantasy novels, actually, that they go too far in pinning down details of setting and history that the reader isn’t engaged with. Instead, you must be extremely deliberate about what you show, and, ideally, you try to make each of those images speak to multiple layers of the world: the climate, the local culture, the availability of luxury goods, the status of this character, the level of technology.
Every individual item you depict, whether it is the king’s Golden Hall, the janitor’s key-ring, or the shaman’s head-dress reveals a wealth of information about the world you are creating. If you are not making deliberate choices about those items, then the world the reader imagines is not the same one you have in mind. Sometimes, you can use these disconnects to build in a sense of mystery, as when Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman, in an apparently medieval setting, finds a blue “gem” the reader will eventually understand is a fragment of a solar panel.
If the author gets sloppy with details, including items outside the purview of the world, with unavailable materials or processes, or sending confusing signals about what they mean, the reader will begin to distrust the author, and the entire enterprise–founded on a willing suspension of disbelief, begins to crumble like the cheap facade it is. These details that don’t fit, that fail to build a coherent world, are like dangling threads that will draw the eye and the mind–drawing them away from the story you want to tell.
When you are building a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.