World Building vs. Characterization: the Struggle

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BigJ1

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Hey all, Justin Attas- scifi/fantasy writer here. Everyone who writes in these genres understands the importance of a strong, solid world more than most. It's the backbone of these genres. If you walk me through a portal and say "There's magic here. That's... pretty much it." I'll slam the door and never look back. I need information! I explanations! I need you to make the mysticism as real as the pages under my fingers.

That being said... if you build an amazing world and fill it with dull one-dimensional characters, you're going to get pretty much the same result. Slammed door. 0 interest. This thread is to discuss the struggle of balancing these two extremely crucial aspects in scifi and fantasy. World building and characterization. How do you make sure neither one of these falls short? I tend to include one character who doesn't know what the hell is going on, either through lack of education or sheltered upbringing. This allows the readers to learn about the world through that person's eyes, while not taking away from the core story of the characters.

What are some other strategies you guys use? I love to learn! Go!
 

pharm

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This is the single biggest internal struggle for me in writing speculative fiction. Well, I say “internal” struggle, but it’s really a struggle between what I personally like and what I perceive readers or the nebulous “market” of editors and publishers to be liking. My favorite works of speculative fiction are often mysterious, surreal, and confusing. They don’t explain the fantastic elements of their world if those are elements the characters take for granted. The work of interpreting context is left to the reader. It’s challenging and at times exhausting, yet I find it so much more rewarding than simply having a world explained at me. You could call this the Miyazaka Hidetaka or maybe Gene Wolfe school of worldbuilding, which probably has more in common with mystery fiction or certain subsets of noir than most fantasy novels.

But that’s where the struggle comes in: most speculative fiction which seems to sell includes a heavy dose of worldbuilding-as-explanation. I understand why that’s appealing and accessible. There are plenty of times I just want to enjoy a work passively as opposed to expending mental labor to put its pieces together and fill in blanks. And even with these works, there’s a huge difference in craft between clumsy exposition and thoughtful revelation. I’m not disparaging this school of writing at all.

...yet I can’t help but feel a little discouraged from doing what I’d rather be doing in my own writing. I want to write in the Miyazaki or Wolfe school of storytelling. It’s self-doubt in my ability to pull it off — and what I perceive as the acceptance of the book market for that kind of literature — that keeps me from really going for it.

So instead I explain, and I do my best to keep the explanations flowing as organically as possible.
 
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lizmonster

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I start with character, and as they interact with the setting, I fill in details. Then I hand it to a beta reader, who tells me where they get confused, and I revise the confusing bits.

Readers, I've found, are much better at keeping up than we fear they'll be.
 

Kjbartolotta

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*Shakes head*

I wish I knew. I like settings. I like characters. I like them both together.

And yet, I can't get them to hang out how I want.

:gaah
 

Cosmering

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I wish I knew! I once got feedback that while I did a good job of not info-dumping about my fantasy world, I was actually maybe TOO afraid of it and needed some paragraphs that just laid it out. I tend to focus too much on my characters and be afraid to explain to the reader anything about my magic system or culture because I'm trying too hard to just weave it in through the POVs.
 

Woollybear

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Some of my readers insist they want the info dumps. They INSIST they want them. Some of my favorite books have them.

Check out Emotional Mastery #8, page 67, in Maass's amazing book The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

It is a primer on how to info dump.

The man is a genius.
 

Sue77

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I started a novel last NaNoWrMo which is futuristic and involved a lot of scientific research. The issue I found was how to include the science in the world building so the world was solid and believable, yet not have the science be overbearing and boring. The route I've taken is to focus on my characters journey through this world so the science is revealed by what they see, discuss and do; via events that structure and further the narrative. I'm hoping this leads to a blend that works for the reader. I'll be back to it this NaNoWrMo. :)
 
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AwP_writer

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I tend to err on the side of worldbuilding as my natural inclination, I think it was G.R.R. Martin who said something like Aragorn might be a great king, but what's his tax policy? I can answer questions like that, but don't plan to put it all in the books. What I DO plan is that if they end up doing halfway decently, I'll pop out some world source books that are basically encyclopedias on each culture. Only a certain percentage of readers like that sort of thing, but those that do eat it up. For characters... I'm not sure, I feel the characters are pretty complex and engaging, but I'll have to find out if others agree.
 

gradually_ladylike

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I feel like this is the hardest part for me. I seem to either have one or the other, a great world planned out or interesting and full characters, but never at the same time for some reason.
 

onesecondglance

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It can help to do your worldbuilding somewhere else - like in a short story, or in a couple of first draft chapters that you know you'll cut - before you get down to writing your main story. Then you can just concentrate on character and treat the built aspects of the world as ordinary - which is more appropriate to how those characters would interact with it.

If it's necessary to expand on the world as you go, do it in relation to a character. What part of the character's history can you bring out to show the world? It's a two-for-one.
 

HD Simplicityy

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Im a visual thinker. So I enjoy visualizing all the worldbuilding as I go, then polish and build more with iteration. Thats usually how I go about it. For a massive story I ought to conceptualize and worldbuild first before I dive into the characters.
 

BigJ1

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I love this quote from G.R.R. I remember this one. It hit hard. He even went into what happened to the Orcs after the Return of the King? Were they all tracked down slaughtered? Ect.
 

BigJ1

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Wow, it's actually kind of reassuring to see how many people also struggle with this. Another strategy I've recently learned is to incorporate world-building into your conflict. This kills two birds with one stone. Putting world-specific roadblocks in your characters' path not only flushes out details of the setting, but drives character growth in how they deal with said conflict.
 

Kjbartolotta

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He even went into what happened to the Orcs after the Return of the King? Were they all tracked down slaughtered? Ect.

Since Mordor never joined restored Gondor & was mostly left alone, they formed into a fledgling democracy & later industrialized.

*Immediately pummeled by Tolkien's ghost and tossed into Door of Night*
 

GarethD

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I love this thread. It's such a challenge to build a convincing world and have it populated by characters who are more than cut-out-and-keeps.

I find that the world building is where I can let my imagination off the leash (Go on, boy! Go on, chase the ducks and jump in the lake!) while the characters and plot rely much more on evolutionary thinking and careful planning. This is partly because I feel readers will accept floating cities of marzipan on a planet in polar orbit around a black hole, but if the characters and plot lack internal consistency or believability then the whole thing falls apart.

Or, as Terry Pratchett put it: "It was funny how people were people everywhere you went, even if the people concerned weren't the people the people who made up the phrase "people are people everywhere" had traditionally thought of as people." Pratchett's world floated on the back of four elephants on a turtle, and his characters were vampires, trolls, dwarves, gollums, etc., but they were still, essentially, people.
 

Sue77

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This is probably a very careful planning geeky thing to do but, before I started my novel, I drew up character sheets detailing jobs, relationships, physical and emotional characteristics and the such. They're still on my wall :)
 

Layla Nahar

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I have always thought that 'worldbuilding' is what we share with the reader so that our world makes sense. IOW - 'worldbuilding' only takes place in the text. What we do outside of the text is something else, no matter how detailed it might be.

I have to say that this question is not one I trip up on (my problem is coming up with the events that make up the story). But I did pay a lot of attention to how books that I really liked handled this and usually the two are wrapped up together - frex, when a character things about his/her current situation they will do so in the context of thier world. This is an opportunity for us to slip in some information to the reader about our world.
 

Mari

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This is probably a very careful planning geeky thing to do but, before I started my novel, I drew up character sheets detailing jobs, relationships, physical and emotional characteristics and the such. They're still on my wall :)

I do similar.

I keep tons of notes with OneNote along with pictures, infographics and other stuff on my hard drive. On my hard drive, I have a story specific directory divided into story, news, research (divided into pictures and notes (what notes don't go into OneNote)).

I also write longhand in composition books, college ruled. I write on one side of a page. So if I think of something or need to make notes or a revision as I go along, I can put that information on the back.
 

Introversion

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I love this quote from G.R.R. I remember this one. It hit hard. He even went into what happened to the Orcs after the Return of the King? Were they all tracked down slaughtered? Ect.

They all became hedge fund managers.
 

K Robert Donovan

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The world I have built has come to light as I have defined the settings that my characters interact in. That, and I have a very good artist who is drawing a number of illustrations that will be sprinkled throughout the novel with chapter headers. None of the drawings contain characters; well, there is a horse, but he has no verbal dialogue.
 
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Samsonet

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I'm thinking about series that mixed these well. Artemis Fowl, for instance. It has a voicey narrator, so when said narrator gives anecdotes and side notes about characters and the world, it's fun.
 

Nitaa

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Balancing between world building and characterisation is a delicate art. That said, I think one should err on the side of characterisation.
 

CWatts

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I've been thinking the same thing. I'm used to the research kind of world-building in historical fiction, but one project may turn into gaslamp fantasy based on Victorian spiritualism with a bit of necromancy. So I've got my characters from the mundane world encountering the supernatural, how much do I explain?
 

iBleed2

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As mentioned by others, I think a good place to start is the characters. Sure, build the world, but that world should somehow explain why the characters are who they are. I would argue that sense of place is actually less than in other types of fiction, particularly literary as these novels tend to be more grounded in history and real life. These really intimate details are mostly missing in fantasy and science fiction and it's hard to duplicate because these surprising details aren't even usually noticed in real life let alone in a fictional world. However, I would say that the setting does play a massive role in SFF. I just think it depends on how steep you want the learning curve to be in your story. You can go Malazan and confuse the hell out of readers for several books or you can go tutorial style and explain things right away (not recommended). Most go for somewhere in between and it's usually a safe bet. Malazan works mostly on the strength of its characters and the interesting nature of the world. If you think you can duplicate that, be my guest. If you pull it off, I'd love to read it.
 

Laer Carroll

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Character BUILDING and world BUILDING are private functions you carry out. Then in the story itself you do character REVELATION and world REVELATION. Building and revelation are two separate functions.

You must do BOTH. And they affect each other. Shirking one or the other will produce a story that is unbalanced, ill-nourished, anemic, and weak.

I use the same tactic you do. I show everything through the eyes of the main character, who discovers the world as the story progresses. Occasionally I'll reveal the world through another character. Or through excerpts from interviews or newspaper stories. Or even from an omniscient viewpoint.

But I keep all those secondary views brief. And limited. I MYSELF need to know everything. But I don't want either her or the reader to know everything. I want the reader to remain with the main character, and be pretty much as ignorant as she is.
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away