World Building: Insider vs. Outsider

Photo credit: daniel.schiersner on Flickr
So I've been reading a decent amount of Fantasy lately (A Darker Shade of Magic, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (for the fifth time!), Sword and Verse, and The Wrath and the Dawn, to name a few), and it got me thinking about world building. Specifically, about two very different strategies various authors take when building their fantastical worlds.

The first provides a sort of outsider perspective, often (though not always) from a neutral, third-person narration, even if the characters themselves are from the world being built. This perspective explains a lot of background and details, delving into why things are the way they are, how things work, etc. while continuing with the story—almost as if the narrator is aware that someone outside of the world is reading the story and could use background information. This can be a really effective way to give readers a large scope of the world and everything involved. The good and bad, past and present, etc. is woven into the text alongside the story, and readers often walk away with a detailed understanding of what the world is like.

The second is a subtler approach, and provides what I like to think of as an insider perspective. Often, (though again, not always), this is done with a first person perspective, in which the protagonist experiences the world but doesn't necessarily explain every detail. Here, the presumption is that the readers will be able to put the gaps together themselves, because the protagonist, who is part of the world, wouldn't realistically feel a need to explain things that are obvious and natural to them. Instead, cultural tidbits are revealed to the reader as the protagonist experiences them, and are often left for the reader to interpret with minimal explanation.

Both methods require careful balance. With the outsider perspective, background information and explanations can easily become tedious and significantly slow down the plot if the author doesn't balance it with enough action and story. With the insider perspective, the world building can be confusing and incomplete if the author doesn't weave enough information into the book—the key is to give just enough information to immerse readers fully into the story world without going overboard.

In my own writing, I definitely tend toward the insider perspective strategy, though I think both can be exceptionally effective when handled well. Ultimately which strategy you'll use as a writer will depend on preference, but it's another way to think about crafting a world that'll live in your readers' imaginations forever.

Which method do you tend to prefer in your writing or reading? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Struggling with world building? @Ava_Jae shares two strategies for approaching story world creation. (Click to tweet)

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