I’m sure many of you are familiar with the idea that creative fiction should be driven by characters, not plot. In my experience this distinction is never as neat as it sounds. Even if characters drive the plot, they should still in their turn be affected by the events of the plot, creating a feedback loop that makes it difficult to distinguish who’s driving what and vice-versa. Meanwhile, there’s a certain third element that tends to get less exposure but is still crucial to most good stories. This would be your setting, and you need to have a firm grasp on it even if you’re writing a memoir. Especially so, in fact. This is where the art of worldbuilding comes into play.
Worldbuilding is a term we usually hear in connection with genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy and so on, and of course it’s of paramount importance there. Readers will be understandably irritated with an author who promises them a new, fascinating world and then describes it as “a place of lush forests and vast plains, also maybe some wizards and Elves, I guess. Hey, look at these empowered women in their skimpy armor!” If you encounter a genre fiction piece that even approximates that format, I suggest you wrap it in paper, mark it ‘For Shame’ and hide it far from the eyes of humankind. Because that would be a crappy excuse for a book, y’see. The pitfalls of poor worldbuilding are somewhat subtler in realistic fiction, but it’s every bit as important there to avoid them.
Consider this: I write up a Fantasy world, my worldbuilding is poor, readers quickly lose interest because it’s unclear why my characters react to things as they do or what the significance of their arduous quest for the Chalice of Generally Considerable Power is. I can say the King of the Shifting Peaks ordered them to get it to cure his son, who was wounded in a battle against the Demon Ronin of the Northern Wastes, but you don’t know what any of these places are or why these factions hate each other so. But maybe this is an in medias res and all these things become clear over the course of the story. You’ll probably be fine with this. It’s a Fantasy world, I was never going to get everything laid out instantly and as long as the characters are good, you’ll probably bear with me a while.
But now let’s suppose I’m writing realistic fiction about a British family on a vacation to India in April 2015. Just based on the date and general geography, you’re already going to expect that Nepal will come up at some point. After all, it’s directly bordering India and about to be hit by a truly awful natural disaster, one terrible and recent enough that I’m a little leery even of using it as a hypothetical . Here’s a list of the many, many reasons worldbuilding is crucial here, precisely because these are places that actually exist:
1. India is one of many countries which were once part of the British Empire. I don’t know if there’s some lingering unease there, but either way I can’t afford to get the answer wrong. Because these are countries, and misrepresenting them in a story is what crosses the line from exploration through literature to cultural appropriation and possibly racism.
2. India and Nepal are proximal to each other, so there will be some cultural similarities, but Britan, France and Germany are all right next to each other and I don’t think most people have trouble figuring out the differences between them. If exhaustive research demonstrates that India and Nepal really are very similar countries, fair enough. Otherwise, I need to demonstrate the differences, because these are real countries and I don’t want to misrepresent them.
3. If this family visits Nepal, they’ll probably be present for the earthquake, in which case I as the author have to get my crap especially straight. This is a humanitarian crisis and a substantial loss of historical and cultural icons, and under no circumstances is it acceptable to even come close to using it just for shock value. I need to represent the parts of Nepal this vacationing family visits as respectfully and completely as practical, both to convey what was lost and to demonstrate proper appreciation that it ever existed.
4. There are more reasons, but this is a good closer. As an American author, I will be depicting a bunch of people almost entirely from nationalities and cultures other than my own. If I have a token American character in there, that’s probably acceptable; it’s an unspoken rule of life and literature than you can poke fun at your own people. Getting anyone or anything else wrong, however, reflects poorly on me as the author and to a smaller extent poorly on the United States as a whole. We’re not exactly a paragon of equality and human brotherhood as is, but one way or the other I don’t want to worsen that impression. I could argue that writing is supposed to be judged independently of the author and the author’s origins, etc., but that’s really only practiced by trained critics and only to a limited extent.
Moving away from such dire examples, conveying a vivid impression of a real-world area is also important simply because it’s a real-world area. People recognize it, people know it, which means that an author writing about the village of Zell am Mosel needs to convey the serenity of the Mosel, the stately pace of a barges, the fact that there was intermittent construction right next to the condo his family stayed in for the entire two weeks, damn it all! Because that’s a personal set of experiences, you see, which is what makes the narrative’s depiction of Zell stand out from the hundreds of others that inevitably surround any town with nice views and a lot of good wine for low prices. Sipping a glass of wine by the riverside is not inherently vivid. Enjoying the town’s particular variant of the regional Schwarzkätz riesling while watching ducks wander within a few feet of a picnicking family and their fellows bob in the wake of a river cruise liner is getting there. Throwing in the contrast between light and dark as the sun sets unevenly through the valley, cleanly separating the two halves of Zell, with that we’re getting specific.
Past this point things start coming down to word choice and the order in which images are presented, which is getting into style. Next time on the topic of Worldbuilding, however, I begin to address my specialty: genre fiction in all its forms. Bring your backpacking A-game, because it’s a long walk through Fantasyland.