I wanted to talk about how reader assumptions and questions-that-lead-to-questions should be a factor when considering worldbuilding in your stories. But first a little info dump . . .
I love it when I’m reading or watching or somehow experiencing pretty disparate things, and they line up, they connect, they bring new questions to mind. In literary studies, it’s called intertextuality, how different kinds of “texts”–which can be any form of human expression–“talk” to one another. If you like, you can call it serendipity.
Whatever it is, here’s some thoughts on worldbuilding in genre fiction that came about from my own moments of serendipitous intertextual experiences.
I’m reading Jim Butcher’s THE AERONAUT’S WINDLASS right now (along with a few other books–it is my MO). So I saw Lindsey Rey’s video review of the book come up on Twitter so I thought I’d check it out.
DISCLAIMER: Jim Butcher is one of my writing gods. The Dresden Files got me through some tough times, and I loved Alera for its own quirky reasons.
So it was a bit tough to see Aeronaut’s Windlass get a 3/5–but Lindsey Rey brought up an important point about worldbuilding. It’s going to vary from reader to reader. She talked about a scene in the book (that I haven’t gotten to yet myself) where she realized that most of the characters were living under a dome. Talk to any of the characters and “yeah of course we’re living under a dome!” Butcher keeps a tight POV, and the fact that most of his characters have never seen the sun never comes up. There’s a lot about great families and dueling and growing meat in vats, but what the sky looks like (if they have a concept of sky!) never comes up in the narrative.
So opposite of the info dump.
How you react to this will depend on whether you like that kind of approach to worldbuilding. I do happen to like it. Lindsey Rey does not. And that’s fine of course.
The limit of the tight POV (reader lives in one character’s head for this scene) is just that. The character has assumptions about their existence that the reader may or may not share. She compared worldbuilding in Aeronaut’s Windlass to Butcher’s Dresden Files, and I think that’s another fair point, if you have lived in or visited a large American city. There are things about Butcher’s Chicago that are different from the ‘real life’ one, but very much out of my own life experience. But closer nonetheless, and the magical world that Dresden lives in has Seven Laws of Magic. It’s much more upfront worldbuilding.
Then this morning I watched this video produced in 1983 of an interview with Richard Feynman about magnetism just after he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on magnetism. And it’s fascinating how a master in his field explains complicated things in such a simple, joyful way (after you watch this you might wish you had had him for a school science teacher):
For fantasy writers (if 7:32 is TL;DW for you) the point is that asking why something happened digs into further and further questions. I remember Butcher talking about this a while back (I’ll post the video if I can find it later), I think in conversation with Patrick Rothfuss. His example was having a car in a story. If Dresden starts up his famous Blue Beetle, Butcher doesn’t have to go into detail about how it works. We all sort of understand, more or less, how a car works. But throw in something strange, fantastical, and the reader wants to know how or why it works.
So just to recap, when you’re creating worlds for your readers to explore, keep in mind how different they are from your readers’ experiences (and that is a big unknown variable in itself). You can explain things rather upfront or hold back for effect later in the narrative. Some hints, breadcrumbs, are nice along the way if you go the latter route though. And remember that one question’s answer should ideally lead to more questions. And more questions. And . . . okay, you get the idea.