One of the things that varies between the Primary and Secondary World-Building (PWB/SWB) tasks I described earlier is the importance of details. This is due to the way in which we experience reality ourselves: in those details.
You absolutely do need to paint in the big picture of continents and kings, militaries and mega-corps, especially so that you’ve got your own head round the main themes and how everything fits together. However, when it comes to someone experiencing your fictional world, one of the primary goals is to make them believe in it. Never mind the scope or theme of your creation, the period or genre; if your audience don’t believe in it then you’re in trouble.
But that’s not all. Believing isn’t enough. You also want them to feel empathy and to be emotionally engaged. Ideally you want to create something so powerful that your audience misses meals as they can’t tear themselves away from what you’ve built. First things first though.
This level of engagement is very hard to do with the large-scale stuff as that’s not what most people engage with in their own reality. This is most obvious when you look at the characters who inhabit your world.
The people who your audience can most easily identify with are the ones most like themselves: probably not dragon-wrestling demi-gods. Assuming that most of us live relatively ordinary lives for our cultures, then the more dramatic, wealthy, heroic and amazing you make your heroes and heroines, the harder they are for your audience to empathise with, and the less suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement you’re likely to get from them. You need to bring these high-flying characters down to Earth. One way is to ensure that even your most heroic heroes have some mundane traits that anyone can understand: they sing in the shower, can’t resist a cake, or never miss an episode of their favourite cheesy soap. Or perhaps they are arrogant, take advantage of their friends, or are dangerously impulsive. You’ll know real people who show some or all of these behaviours and so will your audience. By including these facets and flaws in your fictional people you’ll give your real readers a solid reference to relate to, and make it much easier for them to believe in the rest of your tale too.
But it’s not just the characters in your world who have this issue: the world does too. Even the real world suffers from this problem of scale. Unless you’ve had personal experience of mountains or the sea, the scale is just too big to readily grasp, but everyone can understand a village pond, a hill, or a tavern, which is perhaps one of the reasons many fantasy games (especially RPGs) and novels include alehouses so prominently. They offer a ready location in which to give the reader a place to start their adventures. It’s somewhere they can empathise with, and feel at home in. It’s cosy. Familiar. Then, once you have your audience’s attention, you can branch out. Take it steadily though. Guide them through increasingly odd elements a step at a time. Allow them to learn your world in easily digestible pieces that won’t jar and break the immersion. Soon enough you will be able to retain their attention with flaming dragons and multi-dimensional alien worlds that would have been very hard to engage with from page 1.
By all means build yourself a vast and sweeping world to play in. Remember though, it’s the small details that sell the big picture.