The details of world building have the most impact on your story. The big picture stuff is important, sure, but the details are what really tell the reader what they need to know. The key is to strike a balance between enough detail to make the world seem real and overwhelming your actual story.
Why the Details Matter
There are two reasons for going into detail when it comes to world building. One is because this information has a direct impact on an element of the story, and the second is to trigger connections in the reader’s brain to help them form their own vision. If you’re about to get into an explanation about something and it doesn’t accomplish one of those two tasks, it probably isn’t going to serve your story or your reader.
Details that are meant to help your reader draw on their own knowledge and experiences are often delivered without further explanation. For example, if I tell you my character drives a Porsche, you’re going to start to build a picture of that character in your mind. I don’t have to tell you their salary or even their profession for you to have gotten the idea that they’re wealthy. Now, what does your brain tell you about wealthy people? Generally speaking, wealth comes with connotations of snobbery, possibly even untrustworthiness. By adding details to this character, you as the writer can either enhance the reader’s expectations or subvert them. Either way, understanding what the details tell your reader gives you a lot of power.
Details to Consider
Aside from the practical requirements determined by geography and climate, describing the style of architecture in your world is a way to show what’s important to your fictional culture. People who prefer ornate edifices, like Versailles, might be an indication that the society celebrates wealth. But if the buildings are purely functional, then the reader can assume a more utilitarian attitude.
Say the majority of the buildings in your character’s home are fancy, but their home is simple, that will immediately tell the reader that your character isn’t like everyone else. Then they can start to look for signs of how differences are (or aren’t) tolerated in your society.
Religious Symbols and Practices
Because one of the major big picture concepts to think through is religion, you might have a lot to say about this topic. But it’s never interesting for the reader to sit through an info-dump on any topic related to your story. Inserting telling details throughout your story will still get your point across, and still be entertaining for the reader.
An important part of most religions is the symbolism. For example, if your invented religion is based on Christianity, consider using a symbol that resembles the cross and/or involves a trinity. Religions also come with practices and rituals. Some might look familiar to your readers, like prayer, and therefore won’t require much explanation.
In most societies, fashion serves as a visual clue to a person’s social status. Like my example above, if I tell you my character is wearing a designer clothes, you’re going to make assumptions about their wealth. The same will be true of a character wearing off-brand items. What this means within the context of your story will depend on the other details you layer on top.
Overall, the clothing your people wear will probably still be functional within the climate on some level. If it’s not, explain how and why that happened. For example, girls in the ’70s often wore miniskirts even in the cold because that was in fashion.
Consider the role food plays in your society. If there are delicacies only available to a select group, then that will tell the reader the society is stratified. Also, if your character has or doesn’t have access to said delicacy, the reader will understand their social standing. Food, like architecture, can also tell the reader about societal attitudes. A society of foodies will take food very seriously, and the meals will probably be decadent or experimental. However, a utilitarian society would have simple food or possibly develop technology to sustain the population without it.
Can’t tell if your deets are effective?
This list is by no means exhaustive. You have to pay attention to what your story is calling for when it comes to figuring out which details are important and which aren’t. Just remember to make sure your details are serving one of the two major functions and you’ll be on the right track. If you can’t suss it out yourself, however, a developmental editor will definitely be able to tell you if you’ve gone too light or overboard.
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