In any story, you have to introduce your readers to two things: the characters, and the world.
Visual media like movies can do this fairly easily. The opening minutes of Star Wars are classic. Even without the brief screen-crawl of A New Hope, we see the tiny ship fleeing the Star Destroyer, the terrified Alderaanian crew, the invading Stormtroopers, the capture of Princess Leia and the droids’ escape. Established: SF setting, desperate rebellion, a princess in distress who’s been fighting a shadow war by espionage, the terrifying Darth Vader, and our plucky metal duo. Extremely effective.
…Very hard to pull off in a verbal medium.
Granted, some books make a good stab at it. “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault,” gives you solid clues as to the kind of person Harry Dresden is (walking disaster zone) and the next few pages of fighting off flying monkey demons to rescue a litter of temple dog puppies sets up “this is a version of our world with magic and a Masquerade to hide it”. Plus, puppies. Any fluff-rescuer can’t be all bad.
Part of the difference is in what primary sense is involved to convey the information about your world and characters. The visual medium is faster. You see, you analyze, you react. You can get in a lot of information in a few seconds. Which is how we big-brained primates are primed to react: take in the scene, quickly pick out allies, enemies, threats, and resources, and make a decision before a threat or enemy gets too close. (It also means you can miss things, and rewatching can be surprisingly rewarding.)
The verbal medium is slower. Yes, a regular book is visual in that you see the words, but most readers build the meaning verbally, word by word. Good writers make “voices in your head” by word choice, turns of phrase, descriptions of movement. The details come more slowly, but can be studied more finely. Your brain is shaped for that, too; picking up sensory data from a distance with hearing means you usually get more time to digest it.
This, BTW, is how blind people who echolocate navigate. They “paint a sound picture” of their surroundings by echoes, bit by bit. It takes longer than sight, but it can be more effective. A sighted person in a hurry might miss an open manhole cover. Someone echolocating will hear the void.
Next time: How does introducing your characters to your reader differ from introducing your world?
11 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Meeting Characters vs. Meeting Worlds Part 1”
‘Will hear the void’ is an interesting image.
Blind could-be mage finds out his status the hard way, by hearing something he shouldn’t have been able to- and going the other way at high speed.
Listen, he may not have known what he was hearing, but he knew trouble when he heard it.
…Partially because he couldn’t recognize what he was hearing.
Unfortunately, seeing a blind man with a cane do an about-face and make tracks at high speed and without hesitation, just before an eldrich portal pops up, is definitely attention getting to those trying to piece things together after the fact.
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One of the folks who doesn’t stand out so much, but “got a really bad feeling all of a sudden,” can go to him because he had the same reaction as the really-bad-feeling person. And is noticeable.
On a slight tangent, my sister gave me a book for Christmas, At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon. It is stereotypically ‘female’ to a painful degree, with lavish description that slows the story down to what can’t even be described as a crawl. What’s supposed to be the tension of the story (I think), the minister having a crisis of faith from being emotionally drained after a decade of ministry, is lost in all the slice of life stuff that keeps interrupting. I, an otherwise avid reader, am finding it a difficult read. And I read through Lord of the Rings for the first time in 4th grade.
So there’s such as thing as ‘too much showing’, at least for this lout of a male.
I read the Lord of the Rings a bit later in High School, looking to see what the fuss was about.
I wasn’t impressed, possibly because I had too high expectations.
I remember thinking “A picture may be equal to a thousand words… but that’s not supposed to be a guideline!”
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I’ll admit that I had a hard time getting through the travelogue parts at the age of 10. But the actual story parts of the Trilogy are some of the most compelling storytelling in the English language.
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I agree, the story is epic.
The problem was that it was an epic story in a fantasy setting rather than being an epic fantasy story.
This is especially odd because he definitely went to an exceptional effort to create a deep fantasy world, but then he carefully brushed all those elements to the edges to make way for the epic story.
“I discovered magic! And created a magical smartphone!”
“Wow! I can only imagine the amazing things you could make that do!”
“Yeah, so I carefully made it look and act exactly like a normal smartphone, so nobody will suspect it’s magical.”
“…you could make it a little magical, couldn’t you?”
Um… first off, it’s not an epic fantasy. It’s not even a fantasy setting, strictly speaking. It’s an alternate version of Earth’s past, with alternate technology/arts/crafts, and with supernatural angels and demons, and longaevi earth spirits of various kinds.
Second — the man says right out that his goals were 1) worldbuilding as an excuse for language-building, and 2) adapting the saga format to modern novels. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, and exactly what you’d expect from a guy hired to teach Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon literature.
Now, if you wanted to ask, “Why did the epic fantasy genre imitate some parts of Tolkien but not other parts?” or “Why doesn’t anybody remember A. Merritt as the real father of epic fantasy?”, those would be good questions.
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The other thing you have to remember is that Tolkien was a Victorian/Edwardian writer. He’s not wordy at all, when compared to Trollope or Dumas.
If you have trouble reading Tolkien, then listen to an unabridged audiobook of Tolkien (I would suggest Inglis as the narrator). Tolkien’s actually very sparing in description. A lot of what looks like description is actually hints and clues.
Probably the biggest thing that happens through descriptions is almost the entire narrative regarding what Saruman is up to, when he is meddling all the way from Orthanc to Hollian; and the various meddlings of Valar, Maiar, and their evil counterparts. It’s a really really nice trick, and is much more subtly done than by any other epic writer I know of, all the way back to Homer. The trick owes a lot to the mystery genre, where a lot of the Golden Age trickery of the reader’s attention was done by description.
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I second this motion.
My general rules of thumb are: 1) Is this description/detail necessary? Knowing where the engine is on a jet plane just before the airport fight breaks out could be crucial for building suspense as someone gets closer to it with risk of crispy fried hero. 2) If it’s just for flavor, make it an important flavor. In a fic I’m working on, color is important and a lot of characters have an associated color. I tend to pick out pieces of their description that involve said color and mostly leave the rest to the reader. 3) Whether it’s crucial or for flavor, work it into the action as much as possible. A character tugging on a blue shirt sleeve when he’s nervous during a conversation. A fighter absently tapping the red pommel of her sword while facing a dilemma. Someone staring into the distance like the ranks of snow-capped mountains ahead aren’t even there. Squinting into the morning sun as they mount their horse.
I should reread LotR… It’s been a long time…
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Fanfiction has the advantage of using pre-existing characters, so they don’t have to introduce them.
That can make OC problematic in comparison because the story is paced to skip over character introductions.
If they stop too abruptly to describe the OC in excruciating detail, it can be cringy, but if they forget to show important traits, it can confusing when those traits make them act in unexpected ways.
Then the author has to look at their notes and think “what parts are going to be important and what parts can I leave out?”
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Which is good practice for “what is the expectation of My Reader”?
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