Worldbuilding is the bedrock of science fiction and fantasy. We obsess about it constantly, because characters and plots are often only as compelling as the worlds they inhabit. We've decried bad worldbuilding before — but what makes worldbuilding great? Here's one key factor.
So I've been obsessing about worldbuilding a lot lately, and trying to figure out what the difference is between good, decent, craftspersonlike worldbuilding — and great worldbuilding. And here's what I decided:
Good worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.
Great worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters don't see, either because they take it for granted, or because they've trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.
Especially if you're writing in first person or tight third person, your descriptions of physical surroundings are going to be filtered through a character's perceptions. (And not just in long blocks of scene-setting but also in actions and brief hits, like "I was late for work, so I hopped in an air-taxi and told the driver to pull out all the rods." Sometimes the best worldbuilding is throwaway references and brief descriptions of action.)
But a lot of energy, in fiction, comes from the gap between what someone sees, and what he or she perceives. Especially given the current vogue for tight third person narration (which follows a single character's perspective, as opposed to omniscient narration), we need to get a sense of the stuff the viewpoint character isn't aware of.
It's no coincidence that George R.R. Martin is held up as the current reigning champion of worldbuilding, and as a master of the unreliable narrator. Martin is very deft at letting the reader see what his viewpoint characters are overlooking — so that when an event comes as a surprise to the characters, the reader can feel as though he or she saw it coming.
And that plot-based scenario, in which the reader sees something sneaking up on the viewpoint character, but the POV character misses the signs, is one way that a story can get narrative energy from the disconnect between what a character observes, versus what we'd see if that character were wearing Google glasses.
Because when it comes to a rich, complicated world, a lot of the most important or telling details are going to be the things that people overlook.
Privilege, pain, ideology and technical ignorance
You, of course, are a veritable Sherlock Holmes, paying keen attention to all the details in your midst. Nothing escapes your notice, and your powers of observation are legend. But chances are, your protagonists are not quite so perspicacious.
And there are a few reasons I can think of, offhand, that your characters might be looking right at something and fail to see it.
Privilege is partly about not having to see stuff. A big part of the perks of being in a position of power is that you're insulated from having to face certain unpleasant realities. You get to eat the fancy dishes, but you don't have to see how they're prepared, much less visit the slaughterhouse. You can use your chamberpot, and someone else worries about disposing of it. Heroes of genre books are disproportionately in positions of power and privilege, which doesn't mean they won't witness the unpleasant stuff that other people have to deal with — it just means they won't dwell on it, or have to think about it that much. Most of us are also used to stepping over homeless people in the street without dwelling too much on the reality of their lives.
As for pain, people tend to avert their gaze after a while from painful topics. If something has unpleasant enough associations, it's easy enough to be in denial about it. Your character might instinctively look away every time he or she sees a reminder of a horrible event that he or she is trying not to think about.
Ideology is a great way of making people ignore what's right in front of their faces. If you have an ideology that says all robots are loud and dirty and give off clouds of pollution, then you'll only see the loud, dirty, polluting robots. People mostly see what they expect to, and whether you're liberal or conservative, your ideology is helping to prime your expectations (and thus defining what you won't be aware of.)
And finally, technical ignorance is a big reason why people don't notice stuff. You don't know how your computer works, so you probably don't notice a lot of the technical indicators that it gives off. People tend not to notice what they don't understand — even if they visually register something that they don't really take in.
Part of the point of all this is that what your characters don't consciously notice is sort of the dark matter of your worldbuilding — it makes up a lot of your world, but the characters don't perceive it. But also, this is a way of telling us something about your characters. Often, the things that they tune out are also the things that define their weakness or deficiencies — their blind spots, in fact.
How to help your readers see what your characters do not
There's no easy way to do this — and in fact, I personally suck at doing this. As is often the case with these "writing advice" articles, I'm geeking out about this in part because I am trying to figure out how to do this better.
At the same time, this is clearly one area where subtlety is key. Better to risk going over some readers' heads than to be sledgehammery — the whole point here is that your view point character isn't consciously noticing something in his or her environment, and so you have to go for a "seeing out of the corner of one eye" kind of thing.
Think about the way you talk, in real life, about things you consider inconsequential or extraneous — and then magnify that. People tend to mention the things they're screening out in passing, in the middle of describing more important stuff. Maybe in the middle of a laundry list of items, or just as something to be pushed past on the way to what matters.
But also, people tend to register these sorts of things most often, when they're suddenly a source of annoyance or intrude on your awareness for a moment. When you can't just overlook them, because they're briefly right in front of you. Even then, it might just be a throway reference in the middle of something else.
The other thing that comes to mind is, even if you're not paying attention to the machines whose technical function you don't grasp, someone else is. And those things will come up whenever that person is mentioned — the person who tends the machines, or the person who deals with the plumbing, will get a mention here and there, and in connection with that person, the areas they deal with will also get mentioned.
And finally, the things you don't notice or pay no account to can come out in the middle of a long, self-centered monologue, in which all of the unwelcome bits of information come trickling in through the cracks. Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," that great exploration of the things people choose not to see, is structured like a great long monologue partly because this cements the feeling of self-justification and willful ignorance.
Final thought: It's also helpful to think of worldbuilding as "the stuff your characters can't just ignore completely." You can't walk through walls, or just wander out into traffic without nearly getting run over. And in a good story, the worldbuilding provides some of the obstacles that keep your characters from just going and doing whatever they want. But it's also the props and settings that allow your characters to do excellent and terrible things. A great world does both those things, but also lets you glimpse that there are things outside your characters' frame of reference, too.