When it comes to worldbuilding for authors, there is a line with too little worldbuilding at one end and excessive infodumping at the other. A manuscript needs only as much worldbuilding as is necessary to engage the reader by placing the POV character(s) in the setting. Most stories don’t require a lot of worldbuilding (not counting epic fantasy, of course!), but understanding that leaves many authors wondering how much is too much worldbuilding or too little.
In the beginning of a manuscript, authors need to seat their POV character(s) in the setting within a few seconds of reading. In the opening lines of that first page, an author needs to let readers know what’s around, what a character is doing, and what the most important characteristic of the setting is to know first.
Worldbuilding in your notes can cover the full history of a planet (or well-researched history of a contemporary or historical setting here on Earth). Even if your story takes place on our one and only planet, you still need to include enough setting details for readers to know where and when the story takes place.
Focus Your Worldbuilding
It’s important to focus your worldbuilding on the details that matter most to your story. If you think of the world’s single biggest intellectual property, Star Wars, you can probably list the six most notable characteristics of the Star Wars universe, even as a casual fan. The first things that come to mind for me are as follows: 1) Lightsabers, 2) Jedi, 3) Empire, 4) Rebellion, 5) the Force, and 6) spaceships.
What are the five or six most notable characteristics of your setting? These are things your reader must know in order to tell your space opera (or contemporary romance or epic fantasy) from every other manuscript in the same genre.
Once you have your list, explain each in 1 sentence.
1) Lightsabers–These energy swords are weapons of legendary power, capable of cutting through just about anything but other lightsabers.
2) Jedi–These Force-users see themselves as guardians of the galaxy, guided by their religion.
3) Empire–The Empire is the dominant force in the universe (depending on which film in the series we’re talking about), guided by their political ambitions, with a ruthless bent for power.
4) Rebellion–The rebellion is the ‘good guys,’ using whatever tactics they can to disrupt the ‘evil’ Empire.
5) The Force–This invisible power flows through all things, giving good and evil force-users access to incredible powers while doubling as mysticism to some, a religion to many.
6) Spaceships–both sides in the intergalactic conflict use spaceships for travel and combat.
With your main characteristics in mind, you can give enough setting details in your pages for characters to seem like they fit in your world.
If you’re going to use jargon, be consistent, but don’t overwhelm your readers. Context the first few times will help your reader glean the meaning of your phrases.
Be careful using slang. Make sure it’s organic to your setting. Buy/find a slang dictionary to learn how to do it effectively.
Just know that you don’t need jargon or slang in large amounts to establish your world for readers. Think of it as peppering your manuscript with either or both in places throughout your story. Be certain you never use setting-specific jargon or slang the first time without context. You don’t want your readers to be confused while they’re supposed to be enjoying your story.
Avoid Lazy Worldbuilding
It’s best to avoid lazy worldbuilding, which consists of copying cultures and races from our world to use in yours. Lazy worldbuilding also includes writing a story with only the knowledge of a time/place in Earth history as learned through stereotypes or on television.
If you’re taking the time to tell a story, to send a character along a complete arc from inciting incident, through rising action, past the climax, and into denouement, don’t skimp on the setting just to save time. Do your research, make the time. Think of the setting in your story as a character unto itself, with its own growth arc. Think about how the setting changes from beginning to end based on the actions of the main character(s).
Beware Worldbuilding Pitfalls
Authors can avoid worldbuilding pitfalls/traps by doing their research and taking the time to flesh out cultures of their own creation. Lazy worldbuilding comes in the use of problematic tropes. It’s incumbent upon authors to tell the story they want in a responsible way, even with respect to the American convention of our freedom of speech.
Below are the three problematic tropes I’ve come across most this year–with sources pulled from TV Tropes. Best advice: familiarize yourself with what these are, and don’t use them in your writing.
1) Mighty Whitey a.k.a. White Savior
With minorities making up less than a third of the United States population, a 63% majority of American authors are non-Hispanic Whites. We can’t help what ethnicity/race we’re born with or the culture(s) we’re raised in, but we can work to ensure our stories don’t perpetuate problematic storytelling, particularly by avoiding the use of historically problematic tropes like this one. In the so-called Mighty Whitey trope, the white majority savior typically comes in to rescue a marginalized community in a story. While historically accurate in many ways, because it truly happened in the real world, modern worldbuilding needs to guard against this by ensuring all cultures in a story are diverse and fairly represented, regardless of who the protagonist is.
The term “Magical Negro” was popularized by Spike Lee during a lecture denouncing this trope. You’ll recognize this trope as a normally marginalized race represented by a token minority to help the main character of a story-typically a white person. This trope codifies problematic representation, and I encourage all authors to examine their supporting cast to ensure they aren’t writing with this trope in their story.
This trope entails the tendency to write all people within a given culture as the same. The tvtropes article explores this in great detail while providing examples of how it has been used in stories throughout history and across all media. Even we, the human race, are painted with the same brush in some stories, defining humans as a plucky or aggressive race. People are all different, all unique. It’s important for authors to make sure our worldbuilding includes diverse cultures made up of many different personalities, outlooks, political leanings, and religious beliefs.
There are many other problematic tropes, but they’re all easy to avoid with responsible, thoughtful worldbuilding. The keys to ensuring your manuscript doesn’t get ripped apart for the use of tropes is to ensure your worldbuilding has context and voice and that the treatment of real-world cultures is respectful and representative. That said, authors are only human. We will get it wrong. At some point, we are going to seriously screw up some aspect of representation in our writing, and it’s important we listen to the voices pointing out the problems.