How Realistic Should World Building Be in Fiction?
Books of Note
Believable Detail or Compelling Plot?
Recently, I just finished reading Fever, the second book in the Chemical Garden Trilogy by Lauren Destefano (such a cool last name). Although not as good as the first one, I still enjoyed it and will probably read the next one. Only a week ago, I finished the first book, Wither. Whenever I finish a book that I enjoyed, I usually read reviews to see what other people thought about it. As someone who enjoyed the pacing, the idea, the writing, and the characters, I was surprised when I read a lot of negative reviews. One of the main complaints about the book is that the world building is shoddy and some of the ideas presented in it are untenable. This led me to consider the following question: to what degree should authors go to make the world building believable?
In the Chemical Garden trilogy, a virus has made it so that men die at age 25 and women die at age 20. The book opens with the main character Rhine being kidnapped for the purpose of presenting her as a bride to a wealthy man, Linden. Trapped inside a mansion, she seeks to escape and reunite with her twin brother, Rowan. What I enjoyed about the book included an opening that grips you from page one, pages laden with a suspenseful, ominous tone, characters who present layers of unexpected complexity to the plot and a real sense of danger. The author didn’t shield her characters from harm like some authors do and she didn’t make the action feel gimmicky. The action stemmed from the characters. However, others who read Wither greatly disliked the book and, from what I gathered, their dislike stemmed primarily from the world building.
The Readventurer says the following: “The notion that barely out of teen years young men would be so preoccupied with procreation. Why would they care to make babies? They will be dead in a couple of years! Why would anyone in this world care to have children or place a value on them if they never see them grow, if they never were raised by their own parents?”
Sparrow on Goodreads says a similar statement: “Also, somewhere along the history, somebody destroyed all of the continents exceptNorth America. I’m no scientist – I’m not even a fan of science – but even I could tell you that none of that makes sense. I don’t really want to hear arguments from the peanut gallery about how technically you could destroy all of the continents and not throw the earth off its axis or some shit like that. It just seems weird to me, and the author did not convince me otherwise. And I know there are hints that the continents are not actually destroyed, but what I’m telling you is that this is a serious issue to me, and I would have appreciated it if Lauren DeStefano had spent less time describing bubble baths and party dresses and more time telling me whether in the future there will be continents.”
“The world failed hard. Nothing made sense and everything seemed to exist to serve the plot. DeStefano pushed aside what should have been valuable research for shock value and pretty dresses,” says Donna of Goodreads and give examples from the book showing how the world failed. “See, with dystopian fiction, you can't just insert random catastrophic, shock value events for people to live around without having a thorough understanding of how our society works today and how this current society would potentially break down under such apocalyptic situations. So when I see a statement in the ilk of 'the ice caps were vaporized long ago by warfare' with zero environmental nor humanstic repercussions for such an event, my suspension of disbelief gets punched in the face. It can only take so many hits before it just gives up. DeStefano punched my disbelief in the face. A lot.”
Yet on Amazon, Wither has four and a quarter stars based on 290 customer reviews. So how important is world building? As Wither is in the dystopian genre, should world building be better just for that genre or should all other genres be more attuned to world building? Also, to what extent should authors go to make the world, whether fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopian, believable?
Now take a look at the just released book Partials by Dan Wells. Like the Chemical Garden trilogy, Partials deals with a virus that has wiped out humanity and there are these human-cyburgs, people are struggling to find answers. Many of the readers seem to think that his world building and research is excellent. J. Meegan The Voracious Reader says on Amazon, “The world building is detailed and nicely done...especially the attention to detail surrounding the aftermath of the virus and how everything fell apart.”
Nicholas X. P. Sharp “Fleet Strike 13” says “Partials is grim and colored in shades of gray. Partials delves into the themes of freedom vs security, indefinite detention, torture, medical experimentation and more. Wells does all of this without dumbing down the subject matter. It is believable (dare I say realistic?) and it gives young readers exactly what they want. A tale that is streamlined enough for the audience while maintaining a mature and uncompromising atmosphere.”
Outlaw Poet says, “The world-building is extremely well done and within just a few pages, I was completely transported into Kira's world. In spite of the book's size, this is a quick read - primarily because it's just so interesting. I was dying to find out what happens next and wanted to read this one straight through.”
The problem? Some of the things that work to make the world-building believable also seem to drag the story down (although another common complaint is that the characters feel two-dimensional). Yearning to Read on Amazon says, “I liked the science parts but felt they got too wordy and sometimes confusing (and then I'd move on and realize I didn't even need all that information anyway).”
Jacinda on Amazon says, “Let's talk about what I didn't necessarily like about this book. Military strategy should be expected in a book like this one. Seriously, it was overly done. I could have NOT read any of the talks of covert operations and still understood what was happening. The characters would discuss what to do for pages (seriously, pages!) and then go do it. I feel like we could have had the dialogue between the characters about what to do in a situation or them actually doing it...not both. It was just overdone and was just blah to me.
Who might want to read Partials? If you like books with much military jargon and medical jargon and everything that goes with it, you might really like this one. I guess even if you love books in this genre you should give this one a go...who knows, you may love it!”
To note, some readers did find the world building and plot unrealistic, but they are a much smaller minority than the ones you get with Wither. Whereas the first review on Goodreads deplores Wither for its lack of world building, the first review for Partials says, “Like many other readers, I'm a little tired of the barely-dystopian trend, so it's great to see a very firmly science-oriented book like Partials come along.”
So while Partials and the Chemical Garden trilogy have the same premise, it seems as though Partials is winning in some areas like world building. Readers, then, might prefer a story with better world building. However, take two very successful fantasy stories with vastly different levels of world building: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien and Harry Potter by J.K Rowling.
Both are immensely loved. The Lord of the Rings was voted Book of the Century in England and Germany and book of the millennium on amazon. Yet readers of the two series would note that the world building is vastly different. Whereas Tolkien has histories and languages for all his places and characters, Harry Potter uses world building to serve the plot. For instance, it isn’t until a certain spell becomes important to the plot that Harry learns that spell. Also, why would the wizards use owls to communicate? When do they learn math? What is the point of other players playing in a game where whichever seeker catches the snitch gains 150 points, winning the game most every time?
Yet the lack of logic behind the world building did not deter readers from enjoying the story. But while critics of Harry Potter might fault the lack of world building and logic in the series, critics of Lord of the Rings might just as easily fault the series for including too much detail and world building in the story. Another series that suffers from the same problem is the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. AlthoughJordan has some excellent world building and attention to detail, it’s that same attention to world building that slows down the pace of the book and draws many complaints from readers. So what does it take to maintain a balance between good world building and good pacing? Are you the type of reader that prefers a good plot over good world building, or do you need good world building even if it means slowing the plot down?
In looking back at the reviews of Wither, the Readventurer says “to create a dystopian/post-apocalyptic society that is believable, they need to: 1) understand how our current world works; 2) be able to identify cultural, political, economical trends that can possibly affect humanity in a major way in future; 3) realize that when they set their eyes on extrapolating a certain trend, they need to have their characters react to it in a logical (in terms of human psychology) way.”
Maybe the same could be said to some extent of other fiction. Yet here are two things to consider from Tolkien’s essay Tree and Leaf: “But at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in “real life.” Later, he says, “Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make.”
Perhaps the solution between world-building too much or sacrificing world building for plot is to make the details you include in the story pertaining to the world matter to the plot instead of just having them there for extraneous detail. But that’s just one opinion.
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