Thursday, September 17, 2015

Have I Built My World Enough?

by R.C. Lewis

A funny thing happens sometimes when you read book reviews—your own or otherwise. (I know, I know. "Don't read your reviews." Good advice in general, but you do you.) You see a lot of contradictions, and one in particular I've been thinking about.

Reviewer #1: This book is full of amazing, rich world-building!

Reviewer #2: This book could've been good, but the world-building was pretty much non-existent.

(Not real review quotes!)

So, who's right?

They both are. Reading is subjective, and I think when it comes to world-building especially, it varies by both perception and preference. Some readers crave detailed descriptions painting the exact picture as the author intended it. Others want just enough on the page to trigger a mental picture of their own, leaving some of the work of creation up to them.

Neither is wrong.

Some readers focus on the visual aspects—geography, clothing, architecture, art. Others pick up on the less concrete details—sociological, cultural, historical influences on characters' lives.

Again, neither is wrong.

Perhaps the most objective evaluation of world-building would look at how fleshed-out and detailed the world is in the author's head. If only we could know. Alas, all we have is what's on the page, so that's what we have to go on.

That's why it's tricky assigning value judgments like "good" and "bad" to it.

My advice to authors (including myself!) would be to focus first on that off-the-page world-building. Make sure your virtual world is fully realized and makes sense. Then let that reality filter and ooze and weave through the story in whatever way fits your style. Always try to do better, but realize that if readers knock it, it may just be that your style isn't for them. And it will be for someone else.

What do you like to see in world-building? Pet-peeves? Tips for excellent execution?

R.C. Lewis is the math-teaching, ASL-signing world-builder of Stitching Snow and Spinning Starlight (Oct. 6, 2015), both from Hyperion. You can find more information at her website, or find her random musings on Twitter.


Matt Sinclair said...

I happened to be reading a review of Stitching Snow just yesterday that talked about not having enough world-building and I thought, "My God, how much longer of a book does she want it to be?" But readers of science fiction often like it long and densely packed with details. As you said, it's a valid critique for that reader; I found the book nicely detailed and highly readable (i.e., not overly drawn out with extraneous stuff I didn't need as a reader.)

Sophie Perinot said...

We must world-build in historical fiction as well and it is nearly impossible to please everyone. Readers in our genre need to remember that plot and story drive our books so we strain the facts through those. Something political that is absolutely fascinating may have no place in a book that focuses on themes the event does not impact.

I very much agree with your point that WHAT builds a world for a particular reader varies wildly. I, for example, cannot stand to be told directly how a character looks (it messes with my imagination). I want to build my own picture of him/her from tidbits and actions. And some people need scents while others need sounds. Lots to ponder . . .