High Resolution: Worldbuilding and the Small Details
There is a school of thought within fiction-writing that says your job as a writer, first and foremost, is to notice things. This is what I was taught. It’s the same school of thought that stresses concrete details in every line of your writing, so that every dimension of your story is vivid, tactile, textured, and beautifully, truthfully rendered. All those candy wrappers and weeds poking through the sidewalk are your material as a writer, because they evoke the realness of everyday life. And that’s your job as a writer: to render life as realistically as possible. And you learn to do that by noticing the small details.
If you read American Psycho, 30% of the book is taken up in a meticulous catalog of the colors, cuts, and brands of every character’s suit, tie, shoe, dress, cuff link, and handkerchief. In fact, much of Patrick Bateman’s life seems to be taken up in the pursuit of an encyclopedic knowledge of style, fashion, and taste. This isn’t just because Patrick is a psychopath. It’s because all that matters in his social circles is the minutiae: the length of your coat sleeves, what you order at restaurants, and what kind of stereo you have. As you read, you begin to learn the language of affluence as if it’s a foreign culture, with Patrick as your guide. You get immersed in his world, his mindset, through the small details.
This kind of writing is based around the ideal of ‘verisimilitude,’ which is the appearance or quality of being real and believable. It’s what allows us to become immersed in a story, and, for a while, believe that it is real. Many writers today do this by mining everyday life for those small, concrete details: smells, sights, textures. Those details immerse the reader in the story, and allow the illusion of fiction to happen.
So imagine you’re telling a story in a time, place, and universe that doesn’t exist. Imagine you’re writing second-world fantasy.
Maybe now you can understand how screwed you are. You don’t get to immediately pull from a shared pool of experiences. You don’t get to see your world laid out in front of you every waking minute, in all its minute detail. No, instead you have to steal, jury-rig, and cut from whole cloth the sights, sounds, and textures that will immerse your readers.
Watch a weather forecast, look at a street map of your town, or pick up an English-to-French Dictionary, and you’ll realize how hard it is to make up a world from scratch. But the real world is a good jumping-off point. Learn about Zoroaster, the Zen poet Basho, and the economic collapse of Detroit. Then begin to work your way down to the feeling of varnished wood on your fingertips as you run your hand over the ribs of a suit of samurai armor, which is called the do. Find out what the little recycling number is on your box of cereal, and what that means about its composition. Stay up all night and watch the sunrise alone, and remember how it felt.
Koyaanisqatsi is always a good reminder of the many, many facets of life.
I think to make a good secondary world you have to be a whole universe boiled into one person, but if you do it right, you’ll never stop learning. About the stars, about music, about human history—fantasy is about bringing back stories from the bounds of imagination, and writing it is your excuse to explore it. What you’ll find, I think, is that you will begin noticing the small details around you, the pay phones and manhole covers, and admiring them as works of art, just as much as Beowulf is. There’s beauty in the small details.
Still, people will ask why you spend so much time building worlds, cultures, and metaphysics for worlds that don’t exist. What’s the use of these stories, or of fantasy? There’s a scene in Wizard of Earthsea, when Ged picks up a plant called fourfoil, and asks the mage Ogion what its use is. Ogion replies:
“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed then you may learn its true name, knowing its being; which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? Or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?”
I imagine kneeling down on a sidewalk in New York and picking up a sprig of fourfoil growing out of the seam between the cement and a building. There is no use for fourfoil, but in that moment, with fifty-story buildings looming all around me and planes flying overhead and dozens of people walking by me to get to a bar or Grand Central, I see a spark of another time, another place in its tiny leaves.
If you can immerse people in a story, what is the use of reality?