Although every genre has its own challenges, many writers shy away from setting their stories in the past because of the extensive research involved. Dozens of details need to be factual, including linguistics. Why are some historical novels so immersive? Because the authors understood how to translate their research into dialogue, narration, and action that convey the bygone era in its full splendor, without resorting to anachronisms that yank readers out of the story.
Perhaps you’ve spent years drawing maps, creating languages, and brainstorming customs and cultures for your story world. Your worldbuilding document is packed with ideas, and you leave it open for reference as you write. However, worldbuilding can transform from a blessing into a curse if readers become so frustrated that they want to escape your world instead of exploring it. I’m going to help you reverse that curse with three tips for developing worlds that are both hospitable and richly detailed.
When we hunt for clichés to remove from our manuscripts, we pay attention to characters, plot lines, and even phrases, but we have a habit of overlooking settings. Genres, however, tend to recycle details to the point that readers can predict the culture they’re going to encounter before opening a book. They might still enjoy the story if it’s crafted well, but they won’t experience the wonder of exploring unfamiliar territory. As writers, we should be striving for greatness, but we can’t achieve this goal if we rely on copy-and-pasted settings.
Numerous books, blog posts, and worksheets claim that filling in hundreds of categories makes a story world complete. But without a goal at the center, your brainstorming will lack direction, and the details you come up with won’t fit together. Whereas if you integrate your story world into your plot and characters, every aspect of the culture will have a purpose. By following three steps, you can pull readers deeper in.
When you write, you don’t aim to recreate reality. Instead, you excitedly create a secondary world. Although a few aspects resemble reality to make the story understandable, other aspects are intentionally unrealistic to make a point. If this describes your work-in-progress, you know I’m talking about speculative fiction.
I’ve noticed a vacuum developing in fiction. Popular novels, particularly fantasy and young adult, tend to exclude child characters. And if children do play a role, they’re caricatures of how small people actually behave.
For many of us who write speculative fiction, worldbuilding is a key part of the process. I enjoy harmonizing the story world, themes, and characters. When I succeed, the results are rewarding, and I’m equally fascinated by complex cultures in the books I read. Since art both reflects and affects worldview, its role in a culture reveals many secrets.
Research can be a hassle. Still, most of us writers agree that we need to understand the facts to portray different places and times authentically. But sometimes we’re so focused on wars and revolutions, architecture, and major landmarks that we forget the smaller details.
One of the biggest challenges with writing speculative fiction is clarifying how your story’s magic and/or technology works. Once you’ve accomplished the monumental task of developing those systems, how do you educate readers without making them yawn? They don’t want you to pause the story to give a lesson on all the phenomena, yet they don’t like being confused (and prone to disbelief) either. (Aren’t readers exasperating?)
Like me, countless authors are fascinated by languages. Yet few of us have the energy to invent Elvish with its many branches. Coining a handful of phrases and ethnic names is doable, though still challenging. Also, developing a language is time consuming, and you’ll only get to feature it in one book (or perhaps a series).