“So many things go into writing a novel, it's easy to forget that with every word you write, you are making a decision”
As the quote suggests, it’s important not to oversimplify word-building. Everything you write has greater implications than even you intend. If your main character enters a nightclub wearing a red dress, rather than a blue dress, this has a score of implications - intentional or not. That said, while the smallest details can’t always be planned, I’m a solid believer in careful, elegant world-creation prior to the writing of the first word. There are two parts to this article, the choices and their implications, and what you need to do to make your world strong.
Real Or Fictional World
A real world is often considered more limiting, but this isn’t necessarily true. For something to be set in the“real world”, it only needs the heart of its universe to function in essentially the same way. Technically, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set in the real world; despite there being hordes of vampires, demons and other paranormal entities, beneath the layers of story, we are still on planet earth and our international system of government functions in more or less the same way. By this definition, the world of The Walking Dead is not real, despite it being located on planet earth.
Both have distinct advantages. In the beginning of a story, a real world is more easily relatable. It is also far easier to develop complex characters in a world that doesn’t require quite as much explaining as a fully fictional creation. On the other hand, a fully fiction world, if done correctly, is more immersive and easier for readers to remember (as it is different than what they are used to). Because stories revolve around Ideas or Characters, many stories can work in either setting - it’s just about choosing the one that accentuates your characters or theme the best.
Choosing A Date (Or Level Of Technology)
Even if your story doesn’t take place in the real world, you are essentially always choosing a date. If there are no combustion engines, railroads or electronics, you can be on Xilibrith 2 in the year 7346 - but that’s still essentially the early 1800s.
Choose your date based on how you want your characters to interact. By necessity, most stories with early dates are either character driven or involve an event of a grand scale (typically war or the spreading of a disease). Again, if your date is simple and doesn’t need to be explained very much, it’s easier to focus on characters right away.
Napoleon was long credited with the phrase, “Geography is destiny”. As a bit of a historian myself, I couldn’t actually find any reference to this phrase in the early 19th century. Personally, I think this quote is attributed to Napoleon because geography played an incredible role in his life. Believe it or not, our modern world is completely different than it would have been if what is now modern day Belgium weren’t a rainy country. In the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon had planned for his attack to begin in the morning, but decided to wait until the evening because it rained; this gave the Prussians time to arrive and stop Napoleon’s army. Think about that for a second. If it hadn’t rained on June 18th, 1815, France might be the largest country on earth today. Russia might not be a super power. Our global governmental system would be completely different… all because of the absence of a few raindrops.
Geography can have as big of a role on your story as you want it to, but I’ll give this warning: don’t wait until you need geography to bring it into the story! If you have a story that doesn’t mention geography for 200 pages, and then suddenly a tornado comes into town and wipes everything away, your audience will cry foul play! If you need a tornado, then fine, have Peggy talk about a tornado she saw as a child in chapter 3 - that way when chapter 33 comes around, the audience believes you.
Small Village Or Megacity
This one ties directly into your main character’s personality. There aren’t a lot of positives or negatives either way here. A megacity is a little more convenient for events on a global scale, and a small village or city might be more convenient when it comes to bringing in lifelong familial figures - but this is far from the primary reason to choose one over the other. I’ll get to that in a bit…
Now that I’ve gone over the different choices, it’s time for some advice--
Choose The World That Creates The Most Conflict!
If your character is a compulsive explorer, put him in a tiny village. If your character wants to settle down in his family home by the lake, put him in a rocketship a million miles from earth! Figure out what type of story you want to tell, and after that, choose the world that makes things the most interesting.
Realize That People Will Not Give You The Benefit Of The Doubt
If you don’t already have a trusting fan base, you need to realize that people will automatically assume that you don't know what you’re doing. This is why Peggy needs to mention the tornado in chapter 3 - to show that you’ve done your homework. If something is important in the story, it needs to be introduced, even if it’s in a very subtle way. (See: Chekhov's gun.)
Don’t Use The “Ignorant Character Motif” Too Often
In many fantasy stories, there just so happens to be a character that knows absolutely nothing about the world he or she is in, so they walk around asking questions and getting explanations through pages and pages of dialogue. Again, if this information needs to come out, do it in an elegant way.
Don’t Over-Explain Things
This ties directly into my post, On Over-Description. Here are two snippets from that post that speak for themselves:
1) If it doesn’t come across naturally, don’t include it.
2) The more you analyze something, the more you invite readers to look for errors …
If your story is filled with asides, it will be frustrating to read! For instance, if your characters are playing a game in the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, why should you take time away from this interesting scene to explain the rules? If you want to, you can always explain the rules in the appendix of the book!
Communicate Necessary Things Through Their EFFECTS
If we’re walking through the land of Albareth, and we need to know about the devastation caused from a great war between elves and dwarves, the easiest and most elegant way to do this might be through the effects of the war.
I don’t mean that Grills, the hero, should walk through charred land and then have Algernon, his elvish companion explain what happened. That’s just a disguised ignorant character motif! What I mean is that Grills should walk past trees that are cut down and not say a word; that his elvish companion should run into a dwarf who, without specifically saying why, treats him horribly; that dwarf children should run away from Algernon who, upon questioning, remarks, “It’s just a sign of the times”.
Do you see how, without actually mentioning a feud between elves and dwarves, we as the readers are completely aware of it? That is precisely what you should be going for, especially if you are writing in Third Person Limited!
Understand The Difference Between Complexity And Hidden Complexity
In many cases, knowing that complexity is present is a lot better than having to hear about it. Ideally, especially when creating a fantasy world, you want people to feel like there is so much information one couldn't possibly include it all. Feel free to make reference to events that you never explain or to use words that are explained contextually. Hidden complexity almost always makes a world stronger. Typical complexity can actually harm your story!