Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Details... Hooray Details!

Hey all,

Sorry it took so long to update again. I’ve been crazy busy at work and it doesn’t leave much time for my mind to wander to more interesting things (like blogging).

I want to talk briefly about depth when writing, but more specifically depth of background information. It is obviously important to create a generally cohesive world as it relates to the characters and the story being told, but what about going beyond that? Too many books have the central aspects of the world nailed down, but keep changing background information to suit their needs. Continuity errors upset me greatly. I am an auditor and the fine details are what I get paid to scrutinize, so when minor things are changed or omitted I tend to lose connection to the story. There are entire websites devoted to the extensive mistakes made in Harry Potter books. I understand that bigger you make the world the more likely it is for small mistakes to slip through the cracks, and at the end of the day I’m going to focus on the story, not the minor flubs but I still do notice them.

Before I start ranting about all of the continuity errors in my favorite books, I’d like to actually get to the crux of this post. Building a deep world is incredibly time consuming and most of the information you may come up with will likely never be seen by your readers, but that doesn’t make it worthless. Creating extra background information fleshes out the world and even if the reader doesn’t see all of the work that’s gone into making that depth, they will still get the final product which is a better written book. Does the politics of a particular area matter at all to your story? Maybe not, but it will affect how locals act and react to the main characters. Will understanding the need for crop rotation help the characters prevail over evil? Hell no! Does that mean readers like me won’t freak out if a farmer casually mentions that he always plants wheat? Absolutely not. The small things matter even if it is something so small and stupid that it’s potentially a mark of mental imbalance if the reader notices it.

Having a cohesive and deep backdrop does more than just eliminate the minor discrepancies that make me lose my mind. It also allows for more realistic and appropriate encounters and situations. If guards are harassing people on the streets, don’t just have it be because they are assholes. Some part of how they were trained or how they are supervised gives them the flexibility to bully people. Furthermore, if the party was to encounter the captain of the guard and he ended up being a decent person, the guards wouldn’t be doing that unless someone else was pulling the strings. If it’s really not that important to you, just make everyone a bunch of d-bags and call it a day, but it’s not going to have any depth and it’s going to seem like it was just written off.

Having a deep background also allows for more variety in the instances being written on. Too many books focus only on plot-central characters and yet still expect you to be surprised when Johnny Nobody gets offed five pages after he’s introduced. Have the readers get attached to the world they are reading about, and not just the one guy (or girl) who’s going to end up saving everybody. If your readers don’t care about the people around the MC and whether they die or not, then who cares if the MC wins or loses? As far as they are concerned, your hero just saved a bunch of mannequins and stand-ins rather than a living, breathing, vibrant world full of people who deserve to keep living.

One easy way to create depth is to make some history for the people around your MC. Don’t only look at the world timeline as it pertains to your story, but look at how the people around your MC got to where they are. Rather than crafting a separate personality for every single side character, give them a regional personality (with a couple of personal touches added) based on where they are and how they and their family got there. If their family has always been from the same village and never plans on leaving, they are going to react to wandering travelers very differently from someone who just got to town and is trying to start a brand new life. Historical implications are very important when crafting believable dialogue, and knowing where a character has been can and should be a major determinant of where they are going.

Another important way to create depth is to give background characters jobs and other such real-life goings-on. Knowing that someone your MC is talking to is a farmer or an accountant or a cop can give them a lot more depth and realism even if the description of their job is nothing more than a title. It gives you the ability to write from a very specific point of view rather than trying to rationalize their actions without a basis. Knowing what a side character does in their free time can also give you some insight into how they view the world around them. This is really only advisable for important secondary characters who will have enough speaking time that something as minor as a hobby could actually affect their interaction with the MC. Knowing that the barista at the local Starbucks also really loves yoga isn't going to be of particular importance, but you knowing that the chief of police is an avid Republican could help you when deciding how to have him interact with the MC. Him being a Republican doesn't need to come up in the story per se, but you knowing that could give his reactions a bit more substance.

The most important thing to remember when creating any part of the world your MC is in is to not look at it as simply a backdrop for the MC. This will lead to an incomplete world that no one will care about or be interested in reading about. Create the world, not just the character.


  1. Michael beat me to it, this IS great advice. World building does take time and sometimes writers (myself included) get impatient. In our haste to finish the story, we forget the ripple effect these background details can have on the central story line.

  2. I know exactly what you mean. I always say that I wish series writers would read all prequels before doing the sequel. Would make the experience so much better for me.

    Also, I completely agree with you that everything must have a reason.