Discussion in World Building – Community, Society and History

Over the past few months, I had been struggling with progressing book 3’s story. I thought I had everything planned out and set to write this sequel without issue. However, similar to book 1 and 2, as I wrote, I started to notice other characters and story elements were developing far more than I had initially intended. But not only that, but I also realized that traits in my more planned characters felt lacking and hampering their character development. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t built up the world properly for these characters to grow and progress the story. The world the characters inhabit is just as integral to the story as the characters themselves.

For a story to feel real, the world it takes place in has to feel just as real. One of the most integral parts of a living, breathing world is the people who inhabit that world. A lot of questions arise when creating a country, a culture if you will, that the characters have to interact within their day-to-day lives. Do they oppose the commonly held social norms? Are they afraid to go against the grain and make enemies? What are the ramifications of going against the society? There’s so many questions that require careful consideration and planning to have the world be believable. In a sense, at the very least, a framework of a community you would see in real life needs to be present.

But how does an author create a society that feels believable? In a fictional world where anything is possible, not everything is immediately reasonable. There’s a limit to the suspension of disbelief someone can have when engaging with a story. The rules of the world and laws of nature, especially in fantasy or sci-fi settings, can be almost anything as long as it’s carefully explained and thought out. This is often done by establishing the history that has taken place and how society grew from that. A lot of our own societal norms, both the good and the bad, come from events and traditions in history that evolve over time.  

While the laws of nature and reality can be whatever the writer wants, human nature will typically remain a key constant. One of the major criticisms often levied against character interactions is the lack of logic or unrealistic responses. While this can often be the case, it can be justified if the character in question has a tendency or habit to respond in that way. But there are common traits in human nature that are far more believable and there’s a very real issue that writer’s only have so much time to justify a character’s personality to justify later actions. In the same way, there’s only so much time that can be given to justify certain societal norms or beliefs. If there’s a certain theme or belief in how a particular society functions, there needs to be a reason behind it.

What was funny to me was how I came to realize this. It didn’t occur to me as I was trying to brute force the plot of my third book but rather when I was progressing through Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where it’s very clear the modern society we know today has collapsed. The world-building helps to create an immersive world outside of just the design of the overworld as you explore. I didn’t realize this until I played a side quest regarding foiling an assassination attempt. There was so much depth to the two societies involved and history that the hatred and animosity was believable and I genuinely felt bad for the antagonist. But the key to why it was so good, I feel, was the fact that the information was delivered quickly and efficiently without walls of text or lengthy explanations. Because it relied on common traits of human nature, things that we can easily understand, there was very little need for suspension of disbelief and I could just enjoy the story for what it is.

Worldbuilding is so critical to a story, especially fantasy and sci-fi stories, that it requires a lot of time and care to develop. While not necessarily to the same degree as developing characters, the more detail and focus given to the setting only helps to improve the story. But it’s a delicate balance not to give too much or too little explanation. I know for my own book, I’m planning to re-write what I’ve done so far to make the world feel more alive and impactful to the story.

Hope this helps!

– Raphael

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