My sister and I talked over the weekend about post-apocalyptic novels we’ve read; 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Handmaiden’s Tale, Hunger Games, & Divergent were the big ones we discussed. We talked mostly whether worlds had to be fully built for a successful novel.
In 1984, we really only see a microcosm of the world. I can’t tell you anything about the culture except fear: nothing about art or entertainment. Do they watch tv? Do they play sports? Do they produce art (it would, of course, have to be state-approved art; but we never know!) – the world is entirely barren to me. I, as another author, couldn’t step in and write in that world. Just to give you an idea; only 400 people have posted fanfiction on fanfiction.net.
You then turn to something like Hunger Games and the world is so clear that there are over 40,000 tales on fanfiction.net. Now, I don’t want to say that getting lots of fanfiction makes a better writer – not at all. Just that it is an indicator of a world that is thoroughly built. It has the structure that other writers want to explore it further. -think how much has spun off around Harry Potter with quidditch and the every-flavor jelly beans and theme parks. I think there is no greater sign of a well-built world when people will pay to have complete immersion like that.
And yet, 1984 has withstood a test of time that speaks highly that world building isn’t the be-all-end-all of novels. It is a novel with almost no world building and yet people read it and love it. 451 is the same way. A little more of a world, but again you, the reader, only see a microcosm of the world and there are big gaps. Oh, we see that they have some kind of entertainment (the TV rooms), but what about the government? Is it still a democracy? A theocracy? dictatorship? Maybe I just don’t remember because it’s been a long time, but as important as the political make-up is to Divergent, it was ignored in 451.
I do think it’s worth noting that all of these are dystopian novels and that may play into this process. By leaving out sweeping information, I would argue Handmaiden’s Tale and 1984 (especially) create a sense of isolation and fear in the world because it is such a claustrophobic world. It is then the strength of the character building which certainly carries the novel.
I know that personally I have had worlds where I understood them completely and sometimes the plot got lost within my own exploration of that world. I’ve also had full characters with very small or simple worlds. I know I want to find the right balance of strength on both of these pieces, even though I don’t tend to write dystopian futures.