Last time I talked about good worldbuilding: What it is and, more importantly, what it isn’t. Today I’m going to expand on my third point: Worldbuilding that doesn’t actually make it into the story.
Have you ever read a book where the world feels vague and spare, only to discover that the author had actually put a huge amount of work and detail into constructing that world? If you’re like me, you might feel the need to walk back your opinion of the book because the world really was well-developed, you just didn’t know it. But you shouldn’t. A book should be judged by—surprise!—the actual content of the book, not by whatever the author thought of but didn’t include. A world that’s complex and well-developed, but the reader doesn’t know it, is in fact indistinguishable from a world that isn’t complex and well-developed.
As an example, I’ll use the only person I can fairly pick on: Myself. Here’s another detail from my first novel, the same one that included Continent Not-Appearing-In-This-Book.
I’m sure my 18-year-old self found the expansion of acceptable color combinations in Kalandaz heraldry incredibly fascinating, but I’m equally sure that my readers, if I’d had any, would not have agreed. More to the point, how much of this do you think actually made it into the story? Essentially nothing, of course.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t bothered to work out much in the way of climate, customs, class structure, architecture, clothing, cuisine, how people spend their free time, or just about anything else that the characters were likely to encounter during the story. The actual story felt like any other generic Tolkienesque fantasy world. So I’d managed to simultaneously put a lot of work into worldbuilding and give the readers the impression that I’d put no work into it.
As a writer, the way to avoid this is to simply be honest with yourself about whether you’re developing details that really affect the story or whether you’re just noodling about for fun. Since heraldry was my hobby at the time, it’s pretty obvious in my case. Aimless noodling is perfectly allowable, but don’t entertain the illusion that it makes your book better.
The other aspect is that some types of worldbuilding tend to affect the story more directly than others. Unless I wrote a book about actual heralds, my heraldry system would never have been more than an occasional bit of window dressing. There are certain types of worldbuilding—history, geography, languages, various logistical details—that authors love but that just tend not to affect the actual characters and their lives that much. Compare that to, for instance, food. Everyone interacts with food on a daily basis and it’s a great way to flesh out the world. Something as simple as a bowl of apples on a table versus a bowl of dates versus a bowl of mangoes immediately speaks volumes about the setting.
The above example suggests a corollary rule: The more unusual the setting, the more fleshed out it will feel. A reader might not even notice the bowl of apples, for instance, but the bowl of mangoes would jump out. In fantasy, no matter how much work you put into worldbuilding, if your world is just like medieval Europe, it will seem like you put almost no effort in. Conversely, if you put the exact same amount of effort into a setting based on prehistoric Polynesia, it will feel much more developed because nearly every detail will be something readers haven’t seen before.
Happily for everyone involved (ie, me and me), my epic Kalandaz trilogy (80,000 words total) never saw the light of day, and I’ve moved on to an era of, hopefully, more sensible worldbuilding. So far, it hasn’t involved heraldry.