In any story, you have to set up the situation. Whether it is a political thriller, a whodunit, or a fantasy; the stage needs to be set. For most genres the concern is accuracy. A lot of readers won’t be lawyers, but anyone who has seen an episode of Law and Order will have at least a small idea of what to expect.
Speculative fiction has the benefit and burden of a whole new set of rules. Depending on the story these rules can be large or small. This leaves the writer with two responsibilities (and probably like a thousand I haven’t thought of).
First, making sure it’s believable. There needs to be a structure, a continuity that gives the reader a framework of what to expect and believe. This is subjective and everyone does it differently. But consistency is important, because more than likely there will be major plot points that often involve one or two of your worlds.
Second, you have to explain it all. Bad exposition is like having a character grab you by the head, stare you in the eye, and talk down to you like you’re a five year old. Good exposition is something you don’t even realize. Harry Potter for example. I generally always knew the rules or this and that, but rarely was it just forced upon me.
That brings me to my final thought on world building.
A lot of people like to bring up examples like Tolkien or Terry Brooks when it comes to world building. Good examples, but I am going to pull from a whole different medium. Video games!
Imagine a whole city built underwater, where the only thing the citizens care about is excellence. The pursuit of greatness is the culture and it is seen in science, industry, art; every possible medium. Religion and government carry a stigma as the yoke that those on the surface must carry, a yoke that stifles man’s inventiveness and creativity. This lack of restraint, coupled with the several powerful personalities, is the downfall of this city. Before long it is a wasteland of seabottom scyscrapers, filled with those whose minds have fallen apart under the influence of recreational genetic modification.
Welcome to Rapture. This is the world of BioShock, and if you have never played it, do so. If you like games or stories, you need to take a look at this. It’s on PC, PS3, and 360, and you can get it used or as a download for next to nothing. The second one is more about gameplay, but that’s another post.
Rapture sets the tone for the whole story. It takes advantage of the politics and philosophies of the past fifty years as well as some of the most basic ideas we have on biology and science and comes up with a fascinating world. And your education on this world is very organic. The art, the music, the enemies, the weapons, everywhere you look there are hints to what this world is supposed to mean and what happened to bring it to its ruin. You are just another piece of this world and there is a very definite sense that even if you’re not there, the whole rest of the city continues to run while you’re gone.
The reason I bring it up though is because of what the developer had to say about their development of Rapture. They said that they treated the city, their world, as just another character in the story. And in this case it was really the leading role. That’s the key, seeing the world as a character. Just like any other character it has a past that haunts it and will go through a progression as it develops. This character will influence all the others in the story and is a very powerful tool for expressing the theme and tone of the story.