The Secret to World Building

"Part of the attraction of the Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed."

                               -- J. R. R. Tolkien, Godfather of World Building

The secret to creating a compelling world is to maintain the illusion that there is always more.

The second biggest mistake amateur world-builders make when showing off their world is to explore all of it. The worst is when they let the narrator or the protagonist or, God forbid, some professor character infodump all over the reader about their beautiful world -- all its countries and cultures, its languages and latitudes.

But even those that avoid the infodump -- who take their protagonist through the world so the reader can experience it -- will sometimes make the mistake of showing everything.

As the author, you need to know everything about your world, precisely because of what Tolkien says above. The reader wants hints that the world is much bigger than what they see. And if you always "go there," if you tell them all about it, you destroy the magic.

The Hunger Games still has districts we know nothing about. Mistborn implies the existence of undiscovered metals, with undiscovered powers. Even if you've read everything the Tolkien estate has ever published, there are still places in Middle Earth that you've only heard about. That is what will make your world compelling.

What are your favorite fictional worlds? What parts do you wish you could see more of?


Matthew MacNish said...

Well nothing will ever top Middle Earth. EVER.

But, that being said, I think you're point is most excellently made in the example of A Song of Ice and Fire. For all the times Asshai and the Shadow (and even Southros) is mentioned, we never go there. At least not so far.

Jenilyn Collings said...

I really like this, especially the bit about creating and maintaining an illusion that there's more. I hate feeling overwhelmed by the worldbuilding in a story.

As far as worlds I love, the world in Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy is one of my favorites (although I'd hate to live there). Megan Whalen Turner's are another of my favorites.

Cap'n Heine said...

Discworld is by far my favorite fictional world. I hope at some point they have a book entirely about Uberwald (there are still a few books I haven't read yet, so maybe they already exist?).

Kelly Barnes said...

Great insight on world building. I've never seen the Tolkien quote before. There's a lot to said for trusting the reader's imagination.

My favorite world might be a little obscure, but I really liked The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson.

Heather Zundel said...

I love that you included Mistborn. You've again bumped up a few notches in awesome. :) The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner and The Old Kingdom trilogy by Garth Nix have incredible immersive and fantastic worlds precisely for this reason. They are fully-realized in their own right, but there are hints of MORE you have yet to see. And that is really freaky that I included those two before reading the other comments. Nancy Farmer and Franny Billingsley also have some excellent world building in their stories. Kenneth Oppel, too.

sally said...

Excellent point. I've not thought about this before. It makes perfect sense.

Hepius said...

Another critical aspect to world-building is the willing suspension of disbelief.

When you world-build you create rules for your world. When I start a fantasy or sci-fi novel, I go into it with an open mind willing to accept the unreal. But once created, the author needs to live within the confines of those rules.

Two things pull me right out of a novel:

1) When a character does something that violates the world-rules established by an author. "Wow! When did that character learn how to fly? That would have been useful when...." Star Wars (I know it's a movie) does this a lot.

2) When there are facets to the world itself that I cannot believe in. When I read The Hunger Games I had to put on my YA Filter glasses in order to get past this. Enjoyed the story, but didn't believe in the world.

Exploring new worlds created by authors is one of my favorite parts of being a fantasy reader.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Adam, you and I really are long-lost twins. From a blog post I wrote almost two years ago:

"And therein lies the key to this more complex approach: The writer doesn’t give everything away all at once. When I first read HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, I truly felt as if I were stepping into a world that had never existed before--and only catching those glimpses of it that were vital to my understanding of the present story. A thousand more places and a million more stories existed in that world, but Ms. Rowling whisked me right past them without bothering to explain. And that was how I knew her story world was so full and developed. Because I sensed she could have told me so much more, but, for the story’s sake, didn’t."

Great post. Again.

dolorah said...

A well drawn world that leaves something to the reader imagination will keep me reading even if the plot falls a little short. Harry Potter and Eragon are two worlds I especially loved for the worlds not so much the story. I think David Eddings and Stephen R Donaldson built fantastic worlds, characters, and story plots. And Anne McCaffrey of course. I could go on for days :)


Myrna Foster said...

Love this! Middle Earth will always be my favorite, but C. S. Lewis, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Garth Nix, Kate Constable, Brandon Mull, and Terry Pratchett have also created worlds I revisit.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Ah the mystery. There's nothing more alluring, yes?

Jay Noel said...

I love the world they built in The Avatar series. Just wonderful Asian-influenced world. Much like ours, but yet so very different. Middle Earth will always be my gold standard, though.

Steve MC said...

Excellent insight. The power of suggestion. And, in movies, painted backdrops of distant cities.

Steve MC said...

Excellent insight. The power of suggestion.

And, in movies, the painted backdrop of distant cities.

Tim said...

I'm really waiting for action packed Hunger Games prequels, taken some 75-85 years before current books, when the districts were uprising against the Capital... as long as there's no Jar Jar Binks.