Wednesday, April 28, 2010

World Building is not just a Genre Issue

My husband just finished reading a book last night: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He loved it, and he thought the translation was wonderful, and he was telling me how impressed he was that they didn't try to explain everything, but actually let things like the name of the supermarket just slip in naturally to the flow of narrative.

I blinked at him a little and said, "Why would they try to explain it?" Everybody who has been around my blog for awhile knows how I feel about infodumping.

It did bring something to my attention, though - something which has been growing in my consciousness for some time now. It is this:

World Building is not just a Genre Issue.

Look at The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It takes place in Sweden. The author was Swedish - makes perfect sense. But it has had enormous, worldwide success. For people outside of Sweden, Sweden is another world. This book would not have taken off as it did had it not had terrific, low-key worldbuilding of the Swedish environment. Without a solid setting, you feel lost. Okay, so the author was writing his own familiar environment, but from the perspective of many of his readers, he's creating an entirely new world. And he's doing it marvelously.

If you want to have a really wonderful book, the setting can't be generic. It has to be an integral part of the story, and it has to have meaning, depth and life. This is true no matter where or when it is: historical contexts, fantasy contexts, alien worlds, or around the kitchen table. And if you can think through your worldbuilding systematically and make it really strong, then that will help the story transcend the audience that would be most familiar with the environment you're working with. Some might guess that a story that takes place in Sweden would appeal only to the Swedish - but obviously not so.

There are a lot of elements that go into making a successful story that can reach a worldwide audience. But I would argue that richness of world is a vital element on that list. And I'll conclude by saying it again:

World building is not just a genre issue.


  1. I've been saying this forever, and it's good to see I won't be alone anymore. Okay, I was never "alone", but it was something that people laughed at when I brought it up for the most part.

    Even a story set in your own home environment needs a good setting.

  2. This is so true. World building has to be done unobtrusively, but it still has to be done. A lot of novel drafts that I see lack the everyday details that ground you in the reality of the setting. Of course you don't want to describe things that are so mundane that they are dull to read about, but a novel needs a tangible setting as much as it needs tangible characters. And sometimes, as you say, the setting is a character in itself.