When worldbuilding doesn’t feel quite “right”

Worldbuilding can be a tricky thing to get right. There are so many things to take into consideration, from the details of the technology available to the social repercussions of cultural attitudes. It’s such a pervasive part of a story, however, that it can really make or break a book. Good worldbuilding draws you into the tale, creating a lush atmosphere that makes it impossible to put the book down. Bad worldbuilding makes the story confusing and hampers our ability to connect with the characters and the narrative. But what about those stories that fall somewhere in between, where the world is generally cohesive and well-considered, but some things just don’t feel quite right?

Obviously, if the worldbuilding in a book is just rubbish I’ll DNF that sucker and never look back. And sometimes it takes time to overcome my own preconceptions to settle into a secondary world (I was kind of thrown by the post-technological aspects of the world in Gates of Thread and Stone, for instance, but that was all on me for expecting a pre-industrial fantasyland).

Rather, what I’m talking about are engaging stories with well-developed characters, gripping plots, and an absorbing setting, but there are inconsistencies that mean the story doesn’t feel quite right. For instance, I’ve been reading Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series recently. It’s set in the same world as the Finishing School series, and I loved that quartet’s interpretation of Victorian England which, even though it had supernatural beings and dirigibles, still felt quintessentially Victorian, echoing the social mores and culture of the era.

The first book of the Parasol Protectorate series continues in this tradition, and in addition to a wonderful rendition of Victorian London features just about everything I love in a book – brilliant protagonist, snarky humour, clever plot – except Lord Maccon, a werewolf from the Highlands, occasionally slips into a kind of weird Scots-flavoured speech that made me cringe. Which makes no sense, because Scots is the language of the Lowlands, by the time Lord Maccon was even born it was only really spoken by the working classes, and, uh, he doesn’t sound like anyone I’ve ever heard in real life. Still, he mostly speaks English, so it didn’t bother me too much.

Until book 2, which takes us to his former pack in the Highlands. And suddenly those little inconsistencies become great honking questions. Why are they calling Lord Maccon ‘laird’ when he’s an earl? Why does Sidheag mix up ‘nae’ and ‘no’? Why is she using a word like ‘nae’ in the first place when she’s an English-educated Victorian noblewoman from the Highlands? Why does everyone assume characters eloping FROM the Highlands are going to Gretna Green rather than, you know, the nearest church? In the grand scheme of the story, they’re all pretty minor gripes, but they all kind of throw me out of the story a little bit.

If this were the first book in the series, or if I expected further books to be set in Scotland, it’d be enough to make me stop reading, even though I did, on the whole, enjoy the book. However, I adored the first book and the next book is set in London and Italy, so I’m hoping it just won’t be an issue for the rest of the series. Still, it makes the worldbuilding all feel a little bit sloppy, when such care has obviously been taken to integrate werewolves and crystalline valves into Victorian London.

What do you think? Does this kind of thing drive you batty, too? Or should I just get over myself and focus on all the things I DID love about the book?

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7 thoughts on “When worldbuilding doesn’t feel quite “right”

  1. Oh oh I agree that world building is SO important. Gahhh, I hate it when books skimp on the world-building. It’s so confusing and really detracts from the story. I just read a book, actually, where the world-building was pitiful. Like they were all about protecting this WALL from…something. Shouldn’t that, um, have entered the story!?! *growls at book*
    Anyway, I completely understand being frustrated/annoyed over world building failures!

    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

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    1. Hahaha, the book you mention sounds a little like Stardust, but I think that book makes it pretty clear why the wall is being guarded XD

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  2. This is the reason I’m struggling so much in the book I’m planning! These world building things seem so tiny, like insignificant details, but they can really throw you out of a story and make or break it, as you said.

    I recently read a book that took place in I guess technically not our world but basically it was, and it was clearly historical, yet occasionally someone would use a word that felt too modern, and at one point the character had some sort of retractable fishing pole or something? And that threw me off because I felt like they were probably tying strings to sticks at that point, so how did he get some fancy retractable or folding thing? And then the worst part was, he didn’t even use it, he used his hands, so why was it even mentioned? But in cases like that, where it’s some isolated things, I can often brush it off and not let it affect my enjoyment. If it’s more pervasive though, it definitely becomes harder to overlook.

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    1. That sounds kind of weird 😉 I’m generally okay with things that feel out of place if there’s some kind of reason for it, especially if it’s clearly a relevant part of the story (in the example you gave, if fishing with a retractable line or a general influx of new technology was somehow important to the plot); sometimes I find it easier to overlook if there’s a big, overarching reason than if it’s just a one-sentence thing, because then it’s easier to justify as deliberate rather than lazy, if that makes sense.

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  3. It’s so hard not to let those little details throw you when it comes to a story like this. Ideally, the author would not only research Scotland but also have the help of an editor who is familiar with stories in this setting – of course, that’s asking a lot!

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    1. It is a lot of work, and honestly in a comedic steampunk setting like this I’m willing to let some details slide; it’s not like it’s claiming to be a work of serious historical fiction. Still, a little bit of research – or even just *not* using words and phrases you haven’t researched – goes a long way 🙂

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