Whether you write fiction or stay in reality, you are in charge of the world. The entire freaking world. That’s a lot of responsibility, and even more demanding when you realize you have to bring that world to life for the reader. Then you realize that everything from the sky to the ground and all points in between can only be created with words. That’s a pretty big grocery list.
Before you panic, keep something in mind. The biggest mistake you could make is to create an entire world before you know what part is important. This goes for fiction and non-fiction alike. If your story is about a child growing up in the Midwest during the Seventies, you first need to know what is important and what can be left behind. Will the Vietnam War play a role? Sino-US relations? Nuclear power? Disco? These were all actual Seventies things, but if they do not fold into the narrative or at least give the world some real texture, there’s no need to remind the readers about them (especially disco).
Let’s take a deeper look into non-fiction world-building. The first danger is that when we write true-to-life stories, we already know the world around us, which makes it easier to leave it out of the writing. However, this is the world we need to bring to life for the reader. The reader needs to walk those streets with the characters, to invest themselves in this story, especially because it’s non-fiction. A true story better feel true-to-life, or it misses the point.
There are plenty of details I could offer about where I grew up. I had a Jones family on either side of my house. The rolling easement by our house was perfect for playing football, save for the railroad spikes lying around from when a spur track ran through there. Most every house had a fence save for ours and the house up the hill behind ours, which made the two properties into one long sledding run – save for one brutal phone pole right in the middle. High-voltage power lines crossed over the field across the street, their dull electrical hum like droning bees. Everyone insisted the lines were not a health hazard, but the dandelions in those fields constantly fused into mutated seven-headed abominations. Ah, childhood.
Those pieces of information created a nice feel for the area, but at this point, are any of them important to the story? Should I focus on the sledding? Not important for a summer story. Is the power-line situation worth anything? Well, probably not, unless I mention how the Jones family’s chickens constantly laid eggs with soft, rubbery shells. There’s a lot of information about this neighborhood, but most of it is distraction. I would rather stick to the details that fill in the story.
It’s also important to note that in a longer narrative, any detail that comes into play will bring with them an expectation of importance. The author Anton Chekov had a simple rule: If there is a gun over the fireplace in the first act, the gun gets fired by the third act. This applies to most any detail. If I talk about the easement space ripe for football, the reader will expect football. Otherwise, the reader feels like something was left out of the story. They feel disappointed.
Now, in the world of fiction, the further away your world is from reality, the more you have to infuse your narrative with that new world. Not just the parts critical to the plot, but the parts that keep the world unique and original, and that justify this different reality. As opposed to reality writing, the new world is entirely unfamiliar to the reader, so elements can have purpose even without being crucial to the plot.
A common failure of futuristic science fiction is when the author focuses on some element important to the story – space travel, for example – but does not offer anything sci-fi into everyday life. The reader will not be drawn to the world as a great new experience. In the future, fashions, hobbies, and even the simplest of things should at least have an exotic feel to them. Think of futuristic movies where a character orders a drink… and it’s blue. Blue! Is it important to the plot? No. Does the blue represent some critical change in the character? Not likely. The blue drink, however, reminds us that this is a different world where many things are possible, and the simplest thing can be blue. In this regard, our fictional world needs its fair share of blue drinks.
My preferred method of world-building in fiction-fantasy is to start shaping out the world as I write the story, then challenge myself to understand how it ties together. If the story is in a sword-and-sorcery world, but it involves a child on a farm who meets a magical creature in the woods, I should focus on the immediate issues: the creature, the woods, the magic around that meeting. At this point, I am not worried about whether they live under a merciless king, a dragon threatens their land, or the forces of darkness are preparing to wage the final battle of good versus evil. I think about the farms, the woods, and the creature.
As the world grows and the adventure expands, those other issues might come into play. However, I can still sprinkle my little world with fantasy elements to keep the reader invested in the fantasy. Maybe the farm grows a hearty corn used in making the breads preferred by dwarves rather than humans. Or maybe they grow tangleberries – a tasty fruit but the vines are very difficult to navigate. Does the child have a horse? Maybe just a pony? Perhaps the family is poor and can only afford to get a pet snark for the kids to ride (snarks do not eat a lot but they are very slow and smell like spoiled stumpfish). Life on the farm now has a fantasy element even if it’s not big and flashy – it’s different, and the reader pays attention.
For any story, world-building is a crucial part. Setting the stage – especially in genre-specific stories – provides the reader with the chance to walk through the character’s world, to invest their time and interest in the environment, and get a feel for it beyond the words. They will know that world. They will understand that world.
If it’s done particularly well, the reader might even wish they had a pet snark.