In a comment to my post last week one of our readers (Thanks Alan!) asked about the level of detail we put into our worldbuilding. The question, I think, was prompted by my description of the details I put into my character development, and in many ways I consider the background work I do for my characters, and the work I do for my worlds to be very similar.
I was trained as a historian — I’ve got the Ph.D, to prove it. And I believe that if my academic background has done nothing else for me, it has at least given me an appreciation of the complexity and richness of the human past and its influence on today’s world. People — characters — are, at least in part, the product of where they come from: their family background, their upbringing, their past experiences. Nations — or kingdoms, if we’re in an epic fantasy setting — are, at least in part, the product of their histories: wars they’ve won or lost, political movements and their aftermath, great men and women who shaped cultural trends. A person’s religious background can play a role in defining her outlook on life; a nation’s religious heritage can do the same for its society. Someone can be influenced by the books he reads or the music he hears or the art he loves; a society can be influenced by its artistic, literary, and musical luminaries. The similarities are unmistakable.
When I do my worldbuilding, I try to take all these elements, and others, into account. Just as I develop detailed backgrounds for my characters, I create histories and cultures for my worlds. I usually start with a map, and I spare no detail. My historical work was in environmental history, and so I’m quite conscious not only of how human activity has impacted the earth, but also how climate and terrain shape human behavior — patterns of settlement, economic activity, even cultural expression. I then work out political histories, focusing on relations between kingdoms or nations (wars, treaties, etc.) and, at least for the most important of my countries, internal events (successions of kings, or changes in forms of government — that sort of thing). I work out economic issues — if one country is located along the coast and another is up against a mountain range and a third is in a desert, they’re going to have different economic specialties and needs, right? What does this mean for trade and relative wealth? I develop religious traditions, often several. How do peoples and institutions tied to the various faiths get along with one another? Was religious tension the cause of the aforementioned wars, or did it have more to do with trade or territorial concerns?
And then there is some of the nitty-gritty detail that can make the difference between a world that seems flat and boring, and one that comes alive for the reader. What kinds of musical, artistic, literary, and dramatic cultural traditions does each nation have? A lot of this worldbuilding happens not in those early days when I’m doing background work for the book or books, but as I’m writing, when I discover a need. For instance, in Rules of Ascension, the first book of my Winds of the Forelands series, I have an important character, an assassin, actually, who sings both for his daily bread and as a way of concealing his true profession. Creating the music that he and his partner sang was tremendous fun. I believe that it also enhanced the other aspects of my worldbuilding, giving the world another dimension that readers might not have missed had it not been there, but which they appreciated nevertheless. In my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, I mention a literary figure from the world’s past who, I think, serves a similar purpose. I’ve also used small historical events — things that really have no bearing on the main narrative, but that add to the richness of the world — to do much the same thing.
And really, that’s the point. Take a look at the books of Guy Gavriel Kay, or of Frank Herbert, or of Tolkien, or J.K. Rowling. Part of what makes their worldbuilding so strong is the extensive background work they do before they begin writing their tales. But part of it is also the stray detail that gets thrown in, seemingly as an afterthought. Those details hint at a larger, richer, more complex world. They can make the difference between a world being merely the setting for a story and it being a place that readers feel they visit each time they open your book. So when you’re doing your worldbuilding, don’t limit yourself to just the big events and trends. Take a little time, either beforehand or as you write, to include smaller, more subtle stuff. These details may not change the trajectory of your story; they don’t have to. If they make your readers feel that your world is a living, breathing place, they will have served their purpose.