I’m starting a new novel, so world-building is on my mind.
I’ve picked out images for what all my major characters look like. I’ve imagined their ethnic origins and the histories of their families and where they’re from. I’ve done lots of research on where it’s set ~ I’ve been there, but I need all the information I can get. I’ve even done research on things I know implicitly but would like to be more explicit about, such as regional dialects of Wyoming.
I think some people consider world-building something only science fiction writers do. After all, they’re creating worlds and hence naturally doing a whole lot of world-building. You can kind of see historical fiction writers having to as well ~ the past is also another planet. Certainly these writers do, but they’re not the only ones who need to indepthly imagine their setting and culture and characters.
The last AWP Chronicle has a great piece by a professor ("Cather's World & the Future of Narrative" by Douglas Bauer) talking about his literature class on Willa Cather and her imagining her world. He worries that the present generation, head down to their iphones as they walk along, will not have attention nor the raw material to effectively depict setting. They won’t be able to create worlds because they don’t notice their own. I’m a little more optimistic than this, but still.
All writers need to create worlds. If you’re writing a romance or a literary novel or a mystery, you also need to deeply imagine your worlds. You need to think certainly about plot ~ what happens in what order, cause and effect ~ but you also need to think about characters and their motives, the setting as an influencing character in its own right, the history of everything that contributes, what things look like, and so on.
If you don’t imagine these things, they won’t show up on the page, and your book will be like one of those minimalist plays where the background is nonexistent, props are minimal, and costumes are often outlandish. I’m thinking of a particular Richard III adaptation where Richard sits on a bed talking on the phone while two gay lovers make out behind him.
Your world is a very strong character in your book. It should equal all of your other characters. It shouldn’t overwhelm everything, but it shouldn’t be nonexistent.
Think about the Harry Potter series. Wow, what a world. That’s because J.K. Rowling so deeply imagined it. But also think of Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. The setting shines through. Many noir mysteries are this way. Think of Westerns ~ of course the setting plays a role. Think of Gone with the Wind, Let the Great World Spin, anything by Mark Twain (who was not writing historical fiction, of course, but contemporary fiction). They all have love affairs with their settings.
So how does a writer so deeply imagine a place? Well, a lot of it is grunt work, asking yourself, why, why, why? Doing a whole bunch of research. Revising and reimagining over and over again. The novels I’ve written I’ve done major rewrites from scratch, and each time I do the world gets deeper and richer. Finally, I would take tips from science fiction and historical fiction writers. (Here’s a blog summary of a great AWP panel on historical fiction. Especially pay attention to the tips by Ron Hansen.)
Make a conscious decision to treat your world as a character and give him or her proper due.