Indulging in a touch of Terragenesis in your spare time? Here are five things I personally like in world building as a reader, that not everyone agrees with me on.
Sink or swim – nothing’s as immersive as, well, immersion. Shove my head under the waters of your imaginary world and hold it there until I stop thrashing. Let me hear it, smell it, breathe it. ‘Show don’t tell’ is as irritating a vacuity as ever gets passed off as writing advice, managing somehow to miss the fact that, as words written on paper, it’s all telling, but even so, nothing takes the magic out of magic like explaining your magic system. I want to see the fireballs fly and intuit she needs a ceramic-skin potion, not read up on it like it’s a fourth grade physics text book. Unless you’re actually writing a fourth grade science text book for your imaginary world, which y’know, would be kinda awesome, but I want a a friendly streetwise bright red dragon called Crispy to explain basic thaumaturgy to me please.
Less is more – A gap in a map does not mean your world is crap. Terra incognita and unexplored spaces (a) leave space for the reader to play with their own imagination in your own world, which is only polite and (b) makes your world feel more real, not less. What is true here in physical space goes a gazillion fold for conceptual space. If you have science, there should be uncertainties with it, people should be wrong about things. Also, 99 times out of a hundred it is better to avoid having a single character do all of the exposition on your world, as it makes it seem like Captain Exposition here has read all there is to know about your universe off a laminated beer mat over his morning cornflakes. Uncertainty is a feature of the real world and you should cleave as closely to the real world as possible.
More is More – Get as far away from the real world as possible! Seriously, go nuts. Dragons? Fine. Robots? Cool! A Vampiric Dragon Robot as your protagonist? Bring it. Wanna make a Killer Tomato her housemate? Now I’m listening. Their adversaries are the deadly and ancient order of the Teaspoon-throwing Ninja donkey Cavalry? HAVE AT ME YOU SEXY FIEND. The point is this: you can make it as big or small as you like, but it’s only ink and paper and there are no limitations, so it would be a crying shame not to use the full-scale potential for pantsless crazy if you were so inclined.
Don’t just import real-world prejudices and injustice into your world without thinking about it. – It’s lazy, and boring and depressing, and finally:
Have fun. If the five chapter description of the whiskey-glass painting ceremony genuinely excites you, by all means tell it to me. If, by any chance, you’re pulling your own teeth out in boredom while you’re writing it, but you’re including it anyway because you’re under the impression that more detail = better world building, skip to something else. It is impossible to itemize an entire universe* on a page, and any universe will contain countless things of legendary awesomeness. Give me the fun stuff.
N.B. This shit is all really hard, and while I look for it as reader, and strive for it as a writer, that doesn’t mean I succeed. Them’s the breaks.
*Except like this: Item 1. – a universe.