Worldbuilding for Realistic Fiction
I am proud to admit I write in many genres. I’ve been known to write light-hearted fantasy, speculative/science fiction, lite horror, a little supernatural, period realistic fiction, and contemporary fiction. People seem surprised when I say I use worldbuilding techniques on ALL of these genres. The last two are the ones that get raised eyebrows. Yes, I worldbuild for realistic fiction.
No, it is not “doing research” exclusively. Every fictional world operates on core structures, and these are psychological constructs limited to the effect/story you want to tell. I recently read a short story (an idea story, a genre/element you can learn more about from Writing Excuses) titled Funes, The Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s about a young man who comprehends everything, remembering every detail, and processing them all in memory without the loss of a single bit of information. Through this story, the author postulates that forgetting or dismissing large amounts of information is fundamental to our ability to live and function.
We leave things out of the stories we tell for the same reason. When you tell a family story, there may be “history” connected to it, and dozens of facts, but the way you experienced it is different than any other participant in the event. You have your own set of concerns, your own blind spots, and your own context for the conflicts. When you tell it, especially when you’re telling it to an audience with a short attention span, you omit the majority of the details and select only the information necessary for the desired effect, and you assemble what you do tell in an order that enhances your point or punch line.
When you tell a story to someone you heard or read somewhere, you know what you want your listener to experience, and so you emphasize those details that created that experience for you. That’s the essence of storytelling, and also the essence of worldbuilding. Though you may spend dozens of hours playing God for this fantasy world, the purpose of worldbuilding is to create functional elements to make your story possible and engaging. That means selecting certain elements out of millions of options that fit the project best.
Because of all the limits on a written work, much of the worldbuilding in realistic fiction occurs in developing character backstories and selecting setting elements that feed the overall effect of the story. It’s crucial to survey the details available in cultures of the time, contextual forces, narrowed setting constraints, and a million other small decisions that BUILD the unique lens of your MADE UP version of the world.
Yes, realistic fiction writing requires worldbuilding skills, if only in the ability to see (and effort made to use) the many pressures already present at the point in history where you set your story.