World building is typically something we think is the concern of sci-fi and fantasy writers. If you’re going to tell a story set in a world that is either not ours or significantly different from it, you need to define those differences. But the truth is that all writers should be concerned with world building. Writers of all kinds of fiction need to flesh out the world in which their characters exist. Even if it’s the real world, it’s likely a part of it that the reader isn’t familiar with. Even non-fiction writers need to do the same – to build a place for their story to take place in order for it to make sense.
Of course, not everything about the world you’re working in is important for a reader to know. Finding the right level of detail can be hard, since you might send signals to readers that you never intend and actually mess up the world building you’re trying to do.
If you’ve read Gods of the Empire you know that Lady Belwyn has a music room. In an early draft I mentioned in one scene, as Hagan entered the room, that she was playing a “Colebeck etude.” I could have just said “etude” or even just named the instrument she was playing, but I thought throwing a composer’s name in would make it feel more like something from a lived-in world. Plus, it let me give a shoutout to the progressive rock world and name check Julian Colebeck, longtime keyboard player with Steve Hackett. To my knowledge, he’s never written an etude.
“But wait,” you’re saying. “I’ve read Gods of the Empire and I don’t remember anything about Colebeck in it.” You’re right, because I wound up taking it out. To a person, everyone in my writers group seized on the fact that there was a new name thrown at them when they read that scene. They wondered if this Colebeck person was important to the story. Would he come up again? Is this something important to remember for later down the road? Since the answer to all of those questions was “no,” I just decided to take it out. It’s at the point of the book where readers are still finding their feet on Oiwa and in the Unari Empire, so it was more important to remove a distraction.
My mistake, I think, was in introducing a variable that’s completely unknown without definition. If I was writing something in the real world – say, a sequel to Moore Hollow – and I had a similar character, I might have her playing a piece by Mozart or Liszt or Stravinsky. That would provide a nice little detail, but only because those names aren’t variables – they’re real composers who exist in this world. So long as the name is familiar enough for a reader to nod at it, that’s all you need. If you know those three names you can figure out what it’s saying about the character that she plays Stravinsky instead of Mozart.
But sometimes you need a reference to be just as fictional as your characters, even if your story takes place in the real world. In my opinion, it’s more distracting to try and avoid this than it is to take a sentence or two and define your fictional reference. This jumped out at me listening to The Getaway, an Audible Original by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.
It’s about a woman, a press secretary in the wake of a losing campaign, who goes on a yoga retreat where bad things happen. She does so partly because of how this retreat was praised by an unnamed actress she follows on social media.
The first time this person came up the main character just called her “an actress she follows,” which I thought was weird. It’s important enough to mention that this influencer’s praise was part of the reason to go on the retreat, but she doesn’t have a name? All right, it’s a throw away. But the second time it came up it really annoyed me. And the third. And the fourth. This really does seem to be an important detail – nay, it’s critical to the fairly dubious setup! (needless to say I’m not recommending The Getaway) – yet the story doesn’t define it. It could be as simple as a name and that she’s the star of some TV series or movie. No need for more than that, but just something to suggest that this actress is a real person in this world.
As always, it’s a question of balance and where to draw the line. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to building your world, except maybe one: Does this detail serve the story? Does it deepen the reader’s understanding of the world or the characters? Okay, so that’s two questions, but you get the point.