The ability to make a work of fiction feel like it takes place in a complete world is much admired, and rightly so. I’d like to think I’m developing a skill with it, although the true art of immersion is probably well beyond me at this point in my life. Perhaps at any point in my life. You hear of J.K. Rowling’s vast hoard of information about characters that never made it into the books, and I think, “Well, I could do that, but why would I?” I have actually practiced coming up with useless side information. I once wrote a lengthy note on the organization of the Church of Pelor for a D&D campaign I ran for a semester. It basically looked like the Roman Catholic church, but with the names of the ranks changed, and four popes.
I ended up using almost none of that information, and although I saved it, I’m not planning to put it on my blog because it’s boring. Coming up with vast backgrounds is an honor I reserve only for very important characters or circumstances; all else is improvised. I do like coming up with names, or mini backgrounds, that I just have floating around my head and can reuse as needed. The idea of a church with four popes, for example, or that I can use the word Pontifex in a fantasy story to make clear that “This guy is the pope,” and “He’s nothing like the real Pope, so don’t get excited.” Apart from those little tidbits, though, I come up with stuff as I need it.
My theory is that, if I save enough of the stuff I come up with as I need it, and then eventually mash it together, I’ll have a Rowling-like compendium of little details that I can put all together into a complex, well thought out world. I’m kind of trying to do that with my epic, although progress is slowed by the fact that I keep changing things around.
On the other hand, merely having a well planned out world is no guarantee of success, as a recent article in The Onion points out.