When one reads a science fiction or fantasy novel or series, what makes or breaks it is the world the characters inhabit. Is it real? Is it part of the story? Does it draw the reader in and make the characters come alive?
The reason Star Wars and Star Trek and Game of Thrones are so successful is that we know these worlds. The rules develop over time, and we know what can and cannot happen there. Or if the rules are violated, it’s to change the game.
What makes a fictional world so real is the level of detail. It’s as much what’s revealed as what’s held back. We need to have a sense that there’s more to the time and place than we are seeing. If the author knows more than you, then he or she can slip in little details that subtly give the illusion of reality.
Consider the book and movie The Martian. The details of a Mars expedition that has never happened were so realistic that some people asked when Mark Watney had actually been rescued. The movie exceeded Apollo 13 (a gold standard in dramatizing space exploration) in its realism. Credit author Andy Weir, who wrote the novel as an excuse to indulge his space science geekery.
Little things like street names. Not just the names of the streets but where they come from, why they are named what they are named, imply a history. Geography, laws of physics to explain things we don’t know yet, politics. Anything that suggests details of everyday life in a setting are what make it real.
There are two ways to go about this. One is the build the world ahead of the story, sometimes in hopes of generating a story or stories. The trick to this method is to avoid info dumps. It’s enough the writer knows a great deal about the world the characters inhabit. The reader just needs to know that there’s more lurking in the background, even if it never appears.
The other, suggested by John Scalzi, is to make sure parts of a world are “three questions deep.” If anything about the setting can be explained in three questions, about what a reader will ask if they question it, then the writer has done their job. This has the effect of adding those same details that make a setting realistic.
When worldbuilding does not work is when the fictional world is either cloned from something the writer already read or is a roman a clef of a real city. The writer is straining hard to force fit someone else’s vision or a real place into their own ideas. It seldom works. I say seldom because Ed McBain fictionalized New York City to great effect, even lifting details of the real New York City as a template for that of his Isola. And never mind that New York exists in the 87th Precinct series.
Among crime and thriller authors, they say setting is a character. LA and New York in the PI novels are as much a character as the people in the story. In spec fic, setting is even more important. The more fantastical the story, the more real the world needs to be.
But never get too obsessed with it. The Internets are littered with the corpses of aborted novels and series whose authors spent so much time world building that they never wrote a story to justify their work.
Kind of like Lisa Simpson and Equalia…