My very first “theory post” for this series talked about worldbuilding as a habit of thought — something that runs constantly in the background while you write. I’ve also advocated repeatedly for putting in things like superstitions or details about money even when they aren’t directly load-bearing for the plot.
The intersection of those things is what I think of as “gratuitous worldbuilding.”
That isn’t the best term for it, but I don’t have a better one. “Incidental,” maybe, but I like the connotation of doing a thing just because it pleases you. And while that may seem self-indulgent, I think it genuinely enriches the story — at least the kinds of stories I like to read and write.
When I say “gratuitous worldbuilding,” I think of the kind of thing Sarah Monette does all over the place in her Doctrine of Labyrinths series. In fact, Monette is the author who made me aware of it, and caused me to start pursuing a similar goal in my own work. She’s a master of the little flavorful touches scattered throughout the text that make the world of the story feel real and lived-in, the details that are there just because they would be, not because the story requires it.
A lot of this is a matter of description. Don’t just say your character puts on perfume; give some thought to what the perfume smells like. Don’t just say someone makes a sign against the evil eye; tell us what form that takes. Is the rich clothing your villain is wearing made of silk? Velvet? Linen? Fine wool? When your protagonist is returning from a night on the town, instead of saying they spent time at a tavern, say they were coming home from a play — and mention what kind of play it was.
These kinds of things add descriptive richness to your scene, but it doesn’t end there. Or rather, it doesn’t have to. Maybe in the course of writing some incidental dialogue about the play before assassins ambush your heroine in the street, you decide randomly to take your inspiration from the Takurazuka Revue, with all-female performers and outrageous costumes. The reader’s mental image, which maybe defaulted to Generic Shakespeare, suddenly finds itself taking a different shape — and their impression of your fictional society changes.
Or take that perfume example. Just by specifying that it’s sandalwood, you’ve implicitly told the reader that sandalwood is a) available and b) considered an attractive scent. But what if you add in a word, so that now it’s imported sandalwood perfume? Now you’ve implied trade, and also that your character can either afford to throw money at an expensive import, or else that he thinks his upcoming social encounter is important enough to merit that kind of outlay.
Sure, you can achieve the same effect by other routes, like having the character think about the importance of this evening’s gathering. But you’ve heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell”? This is how you show. And sometimes what you want to do is show and tell, reinforcing the significance of something by weaving it into the background as well as highlighting it in the foreground.
Done badly, that’s a bludgeon. But done well, it makes the explicit statements three-dimensional, demonstrating in subtle ways that what you say is true.
I don’t want to over-emphasize the knock-on consequences of this kind of thing. Half the point of doing it is just because you can, and because your character would. If they’re reading a favorite book of poetry when someone comes to visit, why not name the poet? Think of how often you encounter references to pop culture in your daily life — and how flat a fictional world feels if no one there ever does the same. Your characters have lives outside the plot; they have games they like to play, sports they like to watch. The world has history before the first page, full of villains and heroes, great events and atrocities used as metaphorical descriptions for current people and events. You don’t have to know the full rundown on every such thing to namedrop it in your text; often it’s enough to have a single sentence guiding your words.
Now, some of you reading this are probably already frowning at my words and preparing your rebuttals. Let me save you some effort and admit: yes, it’s entirely possible for this to become a bug rather than a feature, overloading the reader with so many unexplained references that they can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t. If I tell you that Halcura slung her wilkanta into the xi baso like Goffbin at Solleg, you’re going to be lost. Is Halcura playing a game? Fighting someone? Should I be admiring her? Condemning her? Who knows.
So you shouldn’t overdo this, that much is clear. Like so much in writing, it’s a Goldilocks problem: you have to figure out what is neither too much nor too little, but just right. And furthermore, you have to do that in the awareness that not all readers are going to agree on what constitutes “just right” — that some of them would be happy with more, while others think that what you have is already more than enough. It depends on the audience you’re aiming for.
And also where you put it. The very first scene of a story or book is a great place for descriptive touches that don’t require explanation, because they reference objects or ideas from the real world; that will make the setting feel vivid without laying too big of a cognitive burden on the reader (who is already grappling with unfamiliar characters in an unfamiliar situation). Later, once you’ve established certain things as a foundation, you can get away with salting in tidbits that don’t have real-world foundations to give them context. But back off again when you get into a tense scene, because you don’t want your reader to be distracted from the crisis by trying to figure out an unfamiliar word. If you really want to throw in that historical reference or unforgivable insult, find somewhere earlier in the text to establish it, so you can call back to it at a key moment.
Then, when you’ve done all that . . . get beta readers. One or more people who haven’t heard you explain every random setting detail, so they can read through the story and tell you where the worldbuilding comes too fast and thick. With their help you can work out which bits should stay, and which should go.
But don’t toss ’em all out. Like I said, these are the kinds of details that make the world seem real, like music coming through full sensory surround sound rather than a pair of tinny earbuds. Choose wisely, but choose at least a few.