There are many elements to a good book. I have already talked about the importance of a good antagonist and fleshed-out secondary characters, but none of this will do any good if you haven’t bothered with the world-building.
As authors, we are the absolute gods of the worlds we create, and as such, we NEED to know how those worlds function. We need to know the physics, the magic and religious system, the races and customs of the people we populate our worlds with. Because if your knowledge of this world is patchy, trust me, the reader will know.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to prepare long ancestry lists for all of your characters. The reader doesn’t need to know about your protagonist’s great grand-aunt Bessie, unless she is relevant to the story somehow. But you, as an author, need to know where your characters come from and what they believe in. Your character’s background will help you determine how they will react in different situations. It will also prevent you from making a character act extremely out of character. Trust me, the readers will notice that as well.
If magic exists in your world, you need to know how it works better than the best Magisters in the best Magic Academy. You don’t have to reveal all the rules, you can even mislead your characters (and the reader) about some of them, but you need to know them.
Same goes for different gods and supernatural beings. You need to know their strengths and weaknesses. You need to know how they interact with each other and the humans that inhabit your world (if you have any).
That’s why I consider the world-building to be the most time-consuming process when brainstorming a new story. Creating a character’s backstory is a walk in the park compared to everything you need to take in to account when you start describing the world he or she inhabits. It becomes even more of a headache if your story requires your characters to travel long distances and visit different cultures. Because you can’t just say, “Hey, they are going to cross the Elf Forest. Elves like trees and are extremely arrogant,” and stop at that. Well, you could, but your character’s visit to this Elf Forrest would be extremely shallow and boring. And the readers will notice it.
Even though it’s a time-consuming and demanding job, I really love world-building. I feel like a child in front of an unopened Christmas present – can’t wait to peel off the layers of wrapping and discover what lays underneath. I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process – discovering a brand new world that nobody has ever visited before and setting its boundaries.
Before I wrap this post up and let you all return to your reading or writing, let me leave you with a word of caution though. NEVER break the rules you have created, even if those rules put your characters in a seemingly impossible situation. Readers will know, if you introduce a Deus Ex Machina to save your protagonist at the last possible moment, and they will not like it. If they are anything like me, they will feel cheated and walk away from your book frustrated with the story.