So, I appeared at an event at the San Marcos Library on Sunday where I’d been asked to give a talk about research. During the question and answer section, someone asked me why I would go to all the trouble of setting a fantasy in the real world? “Why do that when you can just make stuff up? That’s easier, after all. It’s a short cut!”
Yeah. Um. Not so much. First, writing isn’t easy, nor is making up stuff. Worldbuilding is hard work — very difficult, detailed work. If you’re not thinking about the worldbuilding aspects of your story that much, then what you’re doing is probably derivative, and that’s not good. It’s far easier to work with environments with which the reader is already familiar than it is to make up a foreign world and make it plausible. There are certain cues that keep readers anchored in the imaginary, and it’s important to know what those are. There are thousands of details in everyday life, with years and years of history behind each little thing that people take for granted. Let me give you an example:
Okay. If you think that creating thousands of new words, including grammar construction for a fictional language, is a short cut, I hate to see what you’d call the long road. Oh, sure. You don’t have to do that. I know I’m not for the current work in progress. The main reason I’m not is because I’m dyslexic, and I’m very, very much not a linguist. However, language is an important part of a world setting. If you don’t have something in place giving the impression of a unique language, your imaginary world is less likely to feel foreign. There are ways of getting around that, of course. Some people string together a few syllables and call it done. That’s a valid solution. However, it does have it’s pitfalls. (You could accidently come up with a real foreign word that is rather rude, for one.) Now, I chose to borrow words from (for example) Latin and Finnish and warping them a little bit. It’s cheating, but it helps me, and SF/F has a long history of doing such things. Still, I have to be careful about what I borrow and how I borrow it. See how complex this is? And language is just one detail.
There are many other aspects of worldbuilding that are every bit as important to making an imaginary world feel realistic: economics, politics, government, geology, technology, ecology, biology, history, climate, culture, literature, energy, medicine, architecture, entertainment, fashion, music, art, food, religion, transportation, national exports and imports… not all those subjects are going to be of interest to the writer, and not all are going to feature as a mainstay of the plot, but they will affect the story in subtle ways, and they are interconnected. People living in sub-zero temperatures aren’t going to wear thin silk loin cloths. If they wear fur, then where are the animals from which the fur is derived? If it’s winter all the time, what do they eat? Is it logical for a river to run through a desert area? People living in a medieval monarchy aren’t going to have the same rights we take for granted — even those who live in a modern constitutional monarchy. Yes, the likelihood of a reader knowing the science behind all these details is pretty low, but if you make too many of those mistakes it will become noticeable on a subconcious level. This will eventually kick the reader out of your story.
To make this simpler, let’s compare the story’s world-setting to a house. Every house has rooms. Those rooms can feel homey and comfortable — lived in. They can also be made to feel empty and soulless. In addition, each room serves a different function. For example, a house without a bathroom isn’t functional. Even if the bathroom doesn’t serve an important role in the story, if it’s missing, your reader will notice. Worldbuilding very much follows the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule. If you visited a friend who claimed to be an artist, you’d think it very strange if there was no art on the walls and no evidence of an art studio, art supplies, or art in progress. Here’s a visual comparison of two classic SF scenes. One is from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the other is from Bladerunner.
Both are office settings, but which one feels more real, more comfortable? See that lampshade in the background? The one behind the policeman’s head? It’s comprised of black and white images from an actual buffalo hunt. They’re filled with dead, skinned carcasses. The characters have been calling replicants “skin jobs” since the start of the story. That lamp was chosen specifically by the production designer because of what it says about the scene, and thus, the story. You only see that lampshade for a few seconds. There isn’t even a close up of it. And yet it adds so much depth to the setting without once being referenced by any of the characters. It creates a sense of place and history. It makes the office feel lived in. It makes a commentary about what is happening. (Decker is being assigned to a hunt.) Mind you, not all worlds need to be as cluttered. You can do every bit as much with a few powerful strokes of the word-brush. The spare, anticeptic office setting in 2001 serves a purpose every bit as important as the crowded one in Bladerunner does. The point is, each was done for a reason, and that reason is to serve the story. It isn’t laziness.
——————————— Finnish is the language upon which JRR Tolkien patterned Elvish, after all.  Those are the writer’s choices, by the way. There are perfectly sound reasons to leave a world blank, but blank makes us feel uncomfortable, uneasy. Ray Bradbury uses this to good effect in Fahrenheit 451.