World building. It’s a thing that pretty much all creators of fiction have to do, even those of us based in the real world. I mean, I grant you that my version of the real world requires a bit more building than, say, a contemporary romance author, but still. If you’re basing your story in fiction at all, you need to make sure that every one of your readers understands the rules of the world they’re visiting.
And man, it’s tricky. It is so, so, so easy to just info-dump all your world rules all at once. I’m sure that you’ve come across more than one example of an author who sits there for pages just rolling out detail after tiny detail of historical background for the character, their family, their homeland, and the political situation that tangles them all up just so that the reader is excruciatingly aware of why that character is reacting a certain way. (*coughTolkiencough*). It is close to impossible to keep up interest for that long. (That said, I loved the LotR books. I’m just being honest that the guy did not mess around with this stuff.)
I understand that there are people who seriously get off on world-building, and I don’t intend to denigrate those folks at all. If you love to while away the hours with books like the Silmarillion, then I am in awe of your dedication, to be frank. I can’t do it. I need the world to make sense and behave according to its own rules, but I can’t wade through endless lectures about what those rules are.
On the other hand, without any context at all, we’d have no idea why Benji the Broom-headed can’t just go straight to the Council of Mops and tell them that the Scrubbybrushers are planning an invasion. I mean, dude. Draft a freaking email and there you go. No, we need to know that there’s all this history behind the caste system in Cleanlandia, and that poor Benji is right smack at the bottom of it all.
It’s something I know I need to work on, and I think I’m getting better. But I was reminded of how well it can be done the other day when I read an opening paragraph about the main character walking down a portrait hallway, reflecting on how few portraits represented people like himself and how badly he wanted to have his own portrait join them. It set up the entire book so that we could understand his interactions with the rest of the cast and with the social structures he runs up against, and I’m willing to bed that most readers didn’t even notice.
The world was built using his own struggle against that world in a very real way. We can all, these days, understand how representation matters, and in this fantasy world we were given a view of how the society worked without spending pages and pages detailing how oppressed and demeaned an entire segment of the population was. And it did double duty as character introduction! All this from a few musing comments on some portraits.
I’m not that slick, but maybe if I keep practicing I’ll get there. What’s your favorite (or most loathed) example?