World Building or, Seriously, I’m Not a Moron
World building is important. Some people hate it. I happen to love it. I love knowing every detail of my characters’ lives: their favorite flower, the way they roll their socks, what they eat for breakfast, other… erm… proclivities. Something that has been pointed out to me by beta readers, however, is that the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know all of that. The writer’s job is to give the reader a world in which she can be come engrossed; zoom to far in, however, and the reader will trip over the edges of the set and walk into a hanging boom mike. Pull out too far, and she’s stranding in an arctic wasteland trying to figure out why she gives a fuck.
It’s a very difficult balance. I’m working on it. Hard. I am sure I will be working on it for as long as I write. The view, of course, changes depending on the story, the intention, the form and that changes the balance, making things even more difficult.
You know what they say. Anything easy ain’t worth doin’. I won’t lie; it would be nice if it were easier every so often. But then I’d be missing that thrilling rush of, “holy shit, this might not suck.” That doesn’t happen with easy. That happens with caffeine sweat and sleepless nights, and tightrope walking.
Yay, tightrope walking.
Here’s why that balance is really important. Besides keeping you from getting killed or, when someone close to you falls without a net, making you a ward of a billionaire and the next girl wonder.
I don’t want what’s happened to me on several recent occasions to happen to my readers (all five of them). I don’t want them to get bored by laborious detail and put my book down. Nor do I want them left bereft by a cardboard world so flat they never become lost in it.
At the moment, I’m reading God’s War by Kameron Hurley and I am riveted. The characters are compelling, the story is fascinating, and the book has that urban-fantasy-tipping-toward sic-fi edge I so enjoy and which is another very difficult rope to walk with any sort of balance. The reason I mention the book here, however, is because the world building is the best I’ve seen in a long, long time. Maybe ever. I plan to use it as a model going forward with my own project and I can only hope to be half as successful as this author is.
Here’s the secret: Kameron Hurley assumes her readers are smart. As do I, by the way, my inclusion of silly, minute details being more related to my inability to keep anything about the characters I love so much to myself. But in so many cases, authors seem (seem) to be under the impression their readers are as dense as a San Francisco fog. They seem to believe the reader needs everything laid out for her up front, giving her a top heavy read that is ultimately pinned beneath the weight of their own ego. As we make the attempt to slog with the author, he explains every moment of every second of every minute etc, every blade of grass, every puffy cloud, every leaf on the wind. Eventually, the reader hits the point where her brain freezes, or she’s Dorothy in the poppy field, or she throws the book across the room because the thud of it hitting the wall is more satisfying than the peat-mired plot and characters so detailed they can’t stand under their weight of their own detail.
That’s right. I said balderdash.
Because readers are smart.
Ms. Hurley’s word is complex and detailed and awash in religion and sexual politics and castes. Bugs and sorcerers and half-organic machines. And she has masterfully give her reader the glimpses she needs to draw her in and invest her in figuring the world out on her own. There’s plenty given, more than enough to make the world vivid and real, but not so much it reads like a text book of a planet far far away in a time distant from now. I find myself invested, not only in the characters, but in the sights, the smells, the touch, the brutality, the beauty of the world because I am truly exploring it, trying to parse it out, backtracking, drawing analogies. Living it. It is an organism and, rather than being a detached scientist studying it, I am a cell moving through it.
I like being a cell.
Having faith in oneself as a writer is very important. You have to believe people are going to want to read the stories you bleed for. So do them a favor and assume they want to be there. Assume they’re there to discover. Give them something to be actively curious about and know they’re happy to come looking. Have some respect.
Oh, and read God’s War. You’ll thank me. And, more importantly, you’ll thank Kameron Hurley for writing it.