I may as well say right at the outset that whilst quality world-building is a great thing, you can have too much of it.
A number of years ago, I bought and read a fantasy series by a new author. An Australian imprint was looking for someone to spearhead their fantasy publishing down under and had found someone to publish. This was before the rise of ebooks, note. It is probably just as well I don’t remember the author’s name because the books were atrocious. My enduring memory was how little characterisation there was. Like most epic fantasy works, there was a great deal of magic, adventuring and gods dabbling in the affairs of men.
But the story was dry as dust. The world was interesting, the magic system fairly original, but everyone was a cardboard cutout of a cliched idea. It was difficult to discern anyone’s motives and most of the action was mechanical.
In other words, characterisation was sacrificed for world-building.
You wouldn’t be surprised to know I’ve long since gotten rid of those books.
More recently, I started reading another epic fantasy novel by a much more well-known author. Like most in the genre, there was a prologue filled with characters that I did not expect to see again and narrating events I would expect to be only referenced in legend in the rest of the story. So far, so good. The first real chapter started with some action – a somewhat mysterious assassin was at work, fighting off mooks as he sought his target in a place he didn’t really know. Completely tropish scene, clashes of culture driving action and interaction, plenty of opportunity for small info-dumps about the world. Which the author took. The assassin has a few magical skills unusual in the culture of his quarry and us readers were treated to quite detailed descriptions of how it worked.
There was a warning there, I think. Because it turned out it was a second prologue.
The next “chapter” was with another set of characters in a third location. And more world-building. The chapter after that did it again! But this time – finally – there was one character in common. His circumstances were vastly different, however, and I nearly didn’t recognise him. But then it happened all over again with the next chapter!
This novel has a lot of world-building. A lot. Maybe too much. Arguably too much to throw at the reader at this point in the novel. It’s all quite interesting, but I’d much rather have characters I can get to know instead of introducing them and then putting them on a shelf for a little while. It makes for a read that doesn’t engage me as well as it could.
And no, the novel I am describing is not A Game Of Thrones, although that work has also been accused of the same problem. The book I am referring to is The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve seen other authors do the same: as well as George R. R. Martin, Peter F. Hamilton comes to mind. His space opera The Night’s Dawn Trilogy does the same thing: multiple interleaving threads, scads of major characters and an immense amount of world-building.
But Hamilton makes it work. The characterisation he lends his characters is a match for the world-building and the action moves at a solid pace. I don’t feel Sanderson is giving his characters enough room. However, it is early in the novel and this problem may sort itself out.
But I still maintain that world-building can crowd out characterisation. It’s not a good idea to let that happen.