World-Building vs Characters
Guest post: Sarah Robinson-Hatch
Something I’ve found through my adventures in the bookish community is that there’s two kinds of readers. Readers who can’t begin to understand the world the characters are living in until they fully understand the characters themselves, and readers who won’t be able to connect to the characters until they have a firm grasp of the world they’re in. For me, I’m definitely the latter.
More often than not, the first thing I want to get to know in a story is the world it’s set in. I want to learn the inner workings of the new society and find out about the world’s rules; what kind of people fit in, who the outcasts are. I want to see how this world operates and what its history is. Most usually, I need to have a general idea about all these things before I can feel connected with the characters and become invested in their narratives. It’s not that I value the world-building over the characters necessarily, but it is something I need to feel comfortable with before I can understand the characters and their motivations, and their weaknesses and strengths. Maybe that shows that I find people more complex than the world they’re in a lot of the time.
Until I feel as though I can understand the place these characters are in, they take more of a backseat in the narrative for me. In that way, when the world-building of a novel is lacking or doesn’t go into enough depth, I find it hard to appreciate the novel, regardless of how amazing the other elements are. While world-building isn’t more important than characters, and it’s still necessary to have characters people can connect with and find interesting and three-dimensional, it is a factor that will determine how much a person can enjoy, and become immersed in, a book.
For me, a novel I read recently that I initially had trouble becoming immersed in was Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. As a fantasy novel, it undoubtedly needed a lot of world-building to allow readers to fully understand the world the characters were living in. However, due to the poignant, lyrical style of writing, that information was released slowly, meaning I wasn’t able to connect with the characters until further on in the text. Only when I could understand the world that Lazlo and Sarai were living in did I start to love Strange the Dreamer.
There are the books that I have no trouble getting into straight from the get-go. Usually these are contemporary novels as I don’t have to form a picture of some new world in my mind because, chances are, it’s not much different to my own. While these books might be set in other countries or revolve around characters with lives different to my own, the fact that I can imagine where they are and what kind of society they exist in means I can jump straight into getting to know the characters. Hence, contemporary is one of my favourite genres, if not my favourite. My brain doesn’t need to put on the breaks and go whoa, wait a minute — how does this new society function? It just… exists.
Sometimes, if the author is very, very, talented, I stumble across a novel that introduces the world in such a way that it takes me hardly any time at all to feel ready to get to know the characters. It could even just take the first couple of chapters. It’s these books that I love most because I can just fall into the narrative. Because of the nature of genres such as high fantasy, it’s rare that I’ll come across books like this one too often – books that set out the world seamlessly and in such a way that means I can understand the basics and move on to getting to know the characters. It’s when worlds are closely modelled off of our own or only contain slight variations that I find novels are really easy to become absorbed in; for example, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.
But ultimately, no matter how brilliant the world-building is, if a novel doesn’t have characters I find interesting or can empathise with, I won’t enjoy the novel. I can appreciate certain aspects, but it’s only when the world-building is precise and the characters are intriguing that I can fall in love with a book.
So what about you? Are you someone who gets to know the characters first and the world later, or the other way around? What’s a book that has amazing world-building? I’d love to know!
Sarah Robinson-Hatch is a student who, when not dwelling in fantasy worlds or outer space, resides in Melbourne.
Sarah has won a number of writing awards and hopes to one day have a novel published. Her favourite things to write about are teenagers saving the human race during world-ending cataclysms and death scenes, both of which probably freak her out more than any potential readers.
When she’s not writing, she can be found trying to wrangle fifteen novels onto a bookstore counter, thinking of how she can best make readers cry, or fangirling to the point of hyperventilating over fan-art, movie trailers and authors favouriting her Tweets.