You need to be intense with your worldbuilding, and here’s why: There are more or less two kinds of people who read speculative fiction.
There are the people who don’t care about the world and just want to practice escapism, and maybe a generic world is actually a good thing because they like the formulaic stuff. It’s predictable—this is why dime store romances all hit the same notes and you never hear any complaints from the genre’s fans.
Then there are the people who, like myself, find the biggest draw in speculative fiction to be the new world, because if all they cared about was interesting stories and character development and so on, they could find that in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Flies.
In essence, you have people who don’t care about generic worlds and people who want something really interesting, well-thought out, well-developed. A preliminary and totally non-scientific survey is in the process of bearing this out.
You can’t count on selling to the first group. This is important to keep in mind. You can make the most formulaic dribble possible but let me tell you, there are another ten thousand stories out there that are just as formulaic as that one. You can’t stand out with that sort of strategy. If you become a spec fic success with a crappy world then ultimately it was just because you got lucky (or you had name branding, but that doesn’t come out of nowhere) and then the popularity fed on itself from there.
This means that the only kind of success that you can count on is what comes out of an extraordinarily well-developed world. And it is the problem with, say, Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones.
First, Wheel of Time. I have talked with fans who have raved about the series, and every last one of them has admitted that the world itself is nothing new. If you have read fifty other fantasy novels, then you already know the notes for this world. They recommend it on the basis of well-written characters, &c &c. But I can get that in Mockingbird. If I were a Type 1 reader, who was reading for escapism, then maybe this would be enough for me anyhow, but again, you can’t count on that. Wheel of Time got popular but it could have just as plausibly gone another way.
You can’t count on an underdeveloped world getting runaway success.
Game of Thrones has a similar problem. The way that the seasons work is kind of neat. The Others, and the fact that dragons both exist and were extinct for a good portion of time (this usually doesn’t happen in fantasy, remember) are also respectably interesting. The problem here is that it does not take me very long to read over all of the interesting worldbuilding in Game of Thrones and then… I’m done. My biggest thing about speculative fiction is the world, and I will suffer through a bad plot or two-dimensional characters for an interesting world (Hello, Lovecraft). If I can get the full experience of the world in a wiki binge, though, then I am not going to pay out my time to read twelve books.* If I want cray backstabbing and gritty crap going on in my story then I’ll just check out the historical novels section of my local Amazon webpage and get them for a penny plus shipping and handling.
Contrast this, however, with Discworld. The series has a higher word count than Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time put together, but I am still going to read every single book. Why? It is not just well-written. It does not just have a bunch of great characters. It also has a world that is so deep that to make a fully accurate map of that territory would be to walk the territory itself. This cannot be done with a wiki binge.
This is why I started reading Homestuck. I tried to do the wiki binge, and then I realize that I wasn’t going to be able to get it like I wanted to, not unless I was willing to sacrifice my time to a work that was longer than frikkin War and Peace.
So you need to build the hell out of your world. Metaphorically, anyway. If your world really does need a hell then for goodness’ sake don’t build that out of your world. Keep it in.
But the only way that you can be reasonable confident of success is if you can show the people something they have never seen before. As I said to someone else, do not settle for making your frost giants raiders, and your cloud giants peaceful and mysterious. And do not just make them fantasy Mongols and fantasy Buddhists, either. Take inspiration from those things sure, but do it like the world has never seen it done before.
* This is why, by the way, the world becomes ever more important as the series gets longer. I might be more willing to read Game of Thrones if there were just one book, and not a thousand of them, and each one big enough able to kill a cat.
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