A Question of Depth
A single, detailed world provides a richer, more diverse, immersive experience for an audience, but we must remember that they want a story, even in gaming. World building is always subservient to this, and yet when we spend many hours doing it, we’re tempted to include more of what we’ve created than is required for our story. We’re too close to our work. It can be prudent to take breaks from world building and remember that it isn’t the ultimate goal.
Audiences don’t want stories about our world building. They want stories about people and conflicts. These should be layered within our setting, not used as an excuse to show off what we’ve invented. There are ways to achieve this.
For example, when I created the Coiryn Riders, a group of military horsemen distinct from knights, I went overboard. I ended up with a fifteen-thousand-word file of details on their ranks, advancement, training, usages, equipment, and more. I could never get all this across in an average novel even if I wanted to (and I don’t). But there are many ways I can use them.
I could have a lead character become a Coiryn Rider and show his rise through the ranks over the course of a novel series, revealing many details about the horsemen and what it’s like to be one. As minor characters, they also serve as heralds, so one might be tasked with traveling alone through hostile lands. They are supposed to be given safe passage, which provides an opportunity for a King’s Herald to be killed by an enemy power, inciting war. One might use his military skills as part of an adventuring group I’m featuring. I can have my main characters encounter a group of Coiryn Riders on nearing a city, revealing that the riders routinely patrol perimeters, or in their role as heralds, deliver warnings of nearby threats. They are also cavalry in army war scenes.
That’s several possible uses. I wouldn’t want to try jamming all of this into one story. Instead, I can spread it out across many tales over the course of my career. By having worked out so many details in advance, I run little risk of contradicting myself with later works set on Llurien, a problem that inventing/publishing piece by piece exposes us to.
The Coiryn Riders were not invented for a specific tale. They were invented for their own sake as something that exists on Llurien, filling a role or need. When I’m assembling a cast or story idea, I include them if they can help me achieve my story goals. And when there’s no use for them, they don’t get a mention. I’m not tempted to include extraneous world building. I know I’m going to write many stories in my career and sooner or later I’ll show many facets of these horsemen, collectively painting both a broad and a detailed picture. Doing so arguably creates the greatest depth of all. And it prevents me from walloping my audience with a ton of unnecessary info at any given time.
When we create a world to tell a single story, we don’t have that option. We might be more tempted to ramble on about our world building. Or we don’t invent those things at all because we won’t be using them, which predisposes our world to lack depth. But we need to have a well-realized world (just not go too far), for the same reason we invent character backstory—it helps flesh out our depiction of the world, and helps our readers to understand it.