08 Mar 2008
This is something that has been sort of brewing in my mind for the last couple of months, but didn’t actually burst to the forefront until I started reading the comic series Doktor Sleepless by Warren Ellis this past week (which is brilliant, by the way). Other than that, I just read Selling Out, by Justina Robson (the excellent sequel to Keeping it Real). Before that, I read Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch (the sequel to Lies of Locke Lamora, which you really need to read). These three pieces of work have something in common, and that is depth.
When I say depth, I don’t mean that the characters are three dimensional, or that there are multiple levels of meaning in the plot, although those things are true as well. Rather, what I am talking about is a level of sophistication in the worldbuilding itself. In Doktor Sleepless, Ellis has created an entire mythological backdrop for the story. In Selling out, the connections between the various worlds are so complex as to render them unmappable. In Red Seas Under Red Skies, there is an angle to everything.
Why is this important? Because it makes the reader guess, trying to figure out the motivations behind things, the meanings of events. This invests them in the world, and if you can get a reader to invest themselves in the world that you create, you have them. At that point, they are no longer passive observers of a foreign land, but residents there, and people hate to leave a place where they live.
This may seem to go against what many have said about the dangers of worldbuilding, but I do not think that it does. The reason is that the depth is effective because it consists mostly of things mentioned only in passing, or hinted at. If you, as a writer, explicitly state something, it can have the effect of making it seem less real, artificial even, than something that is taken for granted by the characters. A possible reason for this is that when a character shows that something is common knowledge, the part of your brain that doesn’t want to be left out of the loop immediately tries to fit it in with your worldview, making it seem normal.
This all leads to several suggestions for writers. First off, know your worlds well. The better you know the backdrop the more effectively you will be able to drop references. Second, make random references. There is no rule that says everything has to be explained, chances are, if its really interesting, readers will come up with an explanation on their own. Third, make sure that everyone has more than one motivation. Think about it, everyone in real life is acting upon multiple motivations (some of them conflicting) at any given time, you characters should be no different, although this will require you to think about what their environment is more than you might otherwise.