Recently I had a few experiences with culture and media that made me thoughtful:
Seeing a Hong Kong action film wherein I was about the only person in the theater to get a reference to classic Chinese Taoist tales and jokes.
When writing a story using two gay characters, a joke between them was taken wrong by an editor due to cultural differences.
What does this have to do with writing and worldbuilding? A great deal.
You can build a world as detailed as you want, or use a historical period. You can know the finest details of the religion, culture, sexual preference, clothing habits, and religions of your characters.
You can also leave your audience incredibly lost because you have to have them understand the world and how it works so they can understand your story.
EXPLAINING THE WORLD:
One of the problems with worldbuilding, especially more exotic worlds, is that you can leave your readers out of the loop because of the culture of your characters. Your characters and story can be whirling merrily along, and your audience can end up confused – they know something is happening, but that’s about it. The characters know, they’re used to it – but the audience doesn’t know the whys, hows, and wheres of what’s going on.
The problem occurs, I feel, when people mix up writing and worldbuilding. If you are a person writing about a different world, you need to be both, and you need to be both at the same time. Forgetting one or the other means losing something.
Sometimes worldbuilders get too wrapped up in the creation to forget that they have to communicate their world to others. And at that point, you are forgetting to be a writer.
THE COMMUNICATION PROBLEM:
The problem is communicating enough of the contents and ways of the world to the reader so they understand it without making that explanation blatant. Clubbing the reader over the head explaining the significance of the Diphadella Flower in your world or why Castle Cragavell is haunted is as bad as not explaining anything.
These are the points where writing and worldbuilding merge completely. You have a world to describe, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise your writing. If you don’t explain it, your reader is lost. If you overdo it, they’re all too aware they’re reading a story, and you may spoil some plots.
Of course if I didn’t have a solution I wouldn’t be writing this column.
Actually, I have several.
MY SOLUTION #1: Narrative Moments
First, as a writer, I look for what I call “narrative moments.” Moments that may not necessarily have to be in the story, but are not inappropriate, that can give the reader more ideas of how the world works. They may be little extras, secondarily related to the story your telling, but they can mean a lot to the reader.
These narrative moments also can really help you as a worldbuilder and a writer – give you a chance to play more, be less constrained, yet improve your story.
MY SOLUTION #2: Narrative Characters
For worldbuilders, it’s a great blessing to discover your cast has what I call a Narrative Character.
A Narrative Character is a character whose experiences can help the reader better understand the world. It may be someone new to a setting or someone knowledgeable who explains things to others. In their dialogue (or internal dialogue if it’s first-person), the reader can learn about the world as that learning is part of the story.
It can get very tempting to insert Narrative Characters or overdo them. Don’t. It then becomes another tool, and then an obvious tool, and then your reader realizes they’re reading a story.
If you find you must use Narrative Characters (and at times as a writer, we have to make compromises), ask what situations occur in real life that would be some kind of exposition/explanation. One or two of those may do a world of good.
MY SOLUTION #3: Visceral Elements
One of the best ways to communicate how things work in your world is to ensure that you write elements that are very visceral in the proper levels of details and address them properly.
Your reader may better understand a world if you are careful, in your writings, to address issues anyone can understand and relate to, such as:
Love and Marriage
Now these elements are likely to pop up in your stories. These elements are also likely to be illustrative of how your world works and how your characters and your culture work. Showing a complicated marital ritual (or even a memory of how one went) can show a culture is highly organized. Characters having little to eat communicates a harsh environment.
If you’re careful, tiny sentences, little moments, and many things that just happen to be in your stories can communicate the world to your readers. This is probably the most invisible way of doing things – and the way least likely to make the reader feel lectured too.
In helping people understand your world, you may have to be writer and worldbuilder at the same time – but there are ways to communicate your world effectively.
A German translation is in the works at Christian Spliess’s Page
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.