No character exists in a vacuum (not even the cold, cold vacuum of spaaaaace). The setting for a story has a powerful effect on the reader, and on what you’re able to do with the characters. This doesn’t mean your characters are constrained by the setting. Indeed, many stories derive their strength and energy by taking a character out of their comfort zone and dropping them smack bang in the middle of a foreign land. It’s as old as the Illiad, if not older, and also saves you a lot of artificial-looking exposition by making the understanding of a milieu a belivable part of the journey of a character.
(Unless you’re Neal Stephenson, of course, who has made a tidy career by including fifteen pages of infodump on things like Sumerian linguistics or MMORPGs in the middle of your work. However, I digress… )
However, believability is crucial. People will suck up the details of your setting, but if they disbelieve the world you’ve placed your characters in, then it breaks them from their immersion and therefore, from your story.
This short video ostensibly relates to a videogame, but has some important points which relate especially to writing and speculative fiction.
The alphabet soup surrounding your narrative is something that needs to work, even if your reader only glimpses it in the distance. Although no one is expected to be a polymath who can work out thread counts on the tunics of the slaves in the opening scene of your work, it pays to ask “What do they eat?” and the concomitant questions “Who grows the food? How much do they charge for it? What are the social relations like between the growers and the consumers? Where do they get their water from? Do they OWN that land, or is there some sort of feudal relationship going on?” and the like should at least cross your mind whilst you’re creating your work.
Part of this, of course, is writer’s vanity. I’ve created (or at least conceptualised) a lot of surrounding material that will never make it into the story, both in terms of characters, technology and culture. Some that I can never see any motive for actually using or revealing. But because it’s my world, I get to ask really obscure questions and then make up my own absolutely definitive answers. These answers make that world work for me and make the actions of the characters make sense. Dumbledore being gay never made it into Harry Potter, but Rowling’s understanding of this made sense of a lot of the dynamics of his interactions with other characters.
As the video above makes clear, the important thing is not breaking immersion in the story. Since you’re the one who has to be most immersed in the story (since you’re writing it) you need to not have things nagging at you that don’t feel real, or relying on writer’s fiat to carry the day and write yourself out of holes. Any sufficiently poor plotting or worldbuilding is indistinguishable from magic… by a BAD magician. A badly thought through world can make your writing inconsistent and lumpy by making you write yourself out of holes created when you were mining gold nuggets at the beginning of the writing process.
With this in mind, I’m going to be writing a series of posts on worldbuilding (as distinct from tone, plot and character), and how to make a world work for you in writing a compelling, believable, consistent story that won’t need massive amounts of spadework to embed in your setting and characters.