I used to be a pretty hardcore World of Warcraft player. WoW is incredibly immersive universe (which is a nice way of saying that it will suck you in and never let you go), and during the years that I played it, I developed a second, highly specialized vocabulary. Not only did I learn the lore of the game, which tells the story of the Alliance and the Horde as they battle it out in the fantasy world of Azeroth, but I also had to understand the mechanics of gameplay and memorize the peculiar lingo of gamers: aggro, pwn, nerf, buff, woot, noob, and gratz.
If that looks like gibberish, then you’ve never played an MMO. (And if you don’t know what an MMO is, it’s a Massively Multiplayer Online game.) Anywho, the point is that the learning curve is ridiculously high for WoW players, requiring dedicated study and practice on par with earning a college degree–or working an unpaid part-time job for several years. I mention this not to bash MMOs or their dedicated players, but to segue into a discussion of world-building in genre fiction. To the uninitiated, World of Warcraft can be an intimidatingly unfamiliar place, populated by elves and orcs and twelve-year-old kids screaming esoteric acronyms and racial epithets at each other. For many casual readers, genre fiction can be just as inaccessible. Ask yourself this question: Is your fantasy or science fiction novel intimidating potential readers?
Last week, I read Kate Locke’s God Save the Queen, which is set in a steampunkish modern-day London where the aristocracy are all monsters (in more ways than one) and everyone still parties like it’s 1899. Locke clearly spent a lot of time crafting her alternate-history world, but I didn’t feel that it always served her story. She constantly applied the breaks during narration and dialogue to explain things, and each time she did so, the story lost momentum. This was especially unfortunate since we didn’t need to know most of it in order to follow the plot.
Intricate fantasy worlds are kind of like ships in bottles–self-contained little universes which took countless hours to build. And to most people, unless they happen to be model ship enthusiasts, your perfect replica of a three-masted, square-rigged clipper is just a boat in a bottle. I struggled with this idea while writing Grey Magic. I spent a lot time thinking about the language, politics, and social customs of Isenland, and while some readers may appreciate my world-building efforts, most won’t even notice. That’s not to say my effort was wasted, but for the majority of readers, the characters and plot are significantly more important than setting.
How many terms does your reader need to know in order to follow your story? To me, it comes down to this: unfamiliar terms are like passwords the reader must memorize in order to gain access to your book. The more passwords you make them remember, and the more complicated or arcane the language, the more likely it is that they’ll get frustrated and give up.
Consider Star Wars. To access the original films, we need to know only a handful of passwords: Force, Jedi, Empire, and Republic. Everything else–your wookies and ewoks, your forest moon of Endor and ice planet of Hoth–are just window-dressing. Fans can get into the more esoteric details, but it essential to appreciate the story of a magical orphan who saves the universe. In the more recent films, we suddenly had to memorize unfamiliar terms like “midichlorians” and “Sith” in order to understand the plot. Of course, the jargon wasn’t the only reason that the prequels paled in comparison to the originals (let us not speak of JarJar Binks or the thrilling saga of intergalactic trade relations), but it didn’t help.
You could argue that the prequels assumed viewers would already have basic knowledge of the Star Wars universe, and that going deeper into the world isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You could also argue that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is all the better for its rich mythology and unique languages. However, to the casual reader, the Lord of the Rings books are locked up tighter than the Doors of Durin. Reading high fantasy or hard sci-fi always makes me feel like Ash in Army of Darkness.
Here are some things to consider as you build your world:
Who is your audience? Are you writing for dedicated fans of the genre, or do you hope to appeal to a wider audience? High fantasy enthusiasts expect made-up languages with lots of apostrophes, but a casual reader will likely be intimidated or confused if your novel comes with its own dictionary.
Consider easing the reader into your world. JK Rowling doesn’t come out swinging with muggles and horcruxes; she begins with wizards and magic, which are already familiar to most readers. Once the foundation is laid, she builds her world brick by brick–before you know it, you’re completely, gloriously walled in.
Use a viewpoint character. One of the other reasons that Harry Potter is so accessible is that we see the wizarding world through Harry’s eyes. At the beginning of the series, he is an ordinary, if neglected, boy, and we share his wonder as the secrets of the hidden magical world are revealed.
Don’t reinvent the vampire. Even the most casual readers have a working knowledge of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, elves, spaceships, aliens, lasers, etc. You can use most of them right out of the box. On the other hand, if you’re going to radically alter the mythology, consider changing the name. In Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, he never mentions the word “zombie,” even though the heroine battles reanimated corpses. He simply calls them “the dead,” allowing him to build his world without dragging the baggage of an already-familiar term into it.
Only pause to define essentials. I’m a huge fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. The first book is set in a parallel universe where science, religion, and society have taken different paths. Pullman offers no primer; he simply tells Lyra’s story and expects the readers to keep up. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence, and don’t kill your story’s momentum by explaining all the little quirks of your world. They’ll either figure it out on their own or ignore it altogether.