If you read my post on writing a fiction novel for beginners, the immediate answer to this question should be obvious: the sensation of a living world in fiction is achieved through a combination of world-building, supporting characters, story, and history. They all come together to form the minor details that make fiction come alive, but world-building is by far the most important contributor.
As with all elements of a novel, world-building is more about how your world is different than how it’s the same. What customs do the people have? What special days do they celebrate? I’m a huge fan of unique holidays—even for novels set in the ‘real world’—because they can fade into the scenery while also giving the impression of depth. For me, one example is Give Back Day, which appears in my novel Ashes to Ashes. It’s a day that the school has set aside for students to participate in charity events, with the goal of bettering their community and encouraging student involvement. That detail makes the world feel a little bit more alive, because it hints at questions that someone actually going to that school might have: Was the idea recommended by a faculty member? Did the high school have low community involvement at one point? When was it implemented?
You don’t have to answer all of these questions—and indeed, I didn’t—but the fact that they can be asked creates many parallels to the real world. The same thing could be said for a bridge missing a single plank. What happened to the plank? Did someone take it? Did it fall off? The idea of living fiction is to sprinkle in minor, memorable details without focusing on them. Linger too long and they change from scenery to part of the plot.
It’s worth mentioning that this can at first seem like a direct violation of the Chekhov’s gun principle (if a character places a gun on the stage someone must fire it). But this is all about the background. It’s like a craftsman spending several hours on the set for a play, such that the audience can notice the most minute aspects and marvel at its complexity; the living world goes on behind the characters, influencing them at times but always existing despite them.
Which is where the supporting characters and story come in. Another technique to make a world seem real is to allow the narrator to see snippets of the struggles of a supporting character at different times in that struggle. It’s even better if the main character has no impact on this story whatsoever. Say the supporting character is trying to become a professional dancer, and the narrator hears about this dream, then notices the supporting character’s broken ankle, and then—much later—sees them in a ballet. The idea left in the reader’s mind is that there is a whole world going on outside of the main story. A living, breathing world.
History comes into the equation as predispositions and backstories influencing a character’s current behavior. Too often characters seems to ‘pop’ into a story as tabula rasas or blank slates, liking no one and hating no one despite ostensibly living with them for decades. People fight, they fall in love; they sort each other into categories based on their similarities and differences. Well-built characters will have these feelings, possibly about the primary characters in the story. And again, the idea left is that this is a setting that would exist regardless of the primary characters’ lives in it.
In essence, that’s the gist of what I’m trying to say. Your goal is to pepper in aspects of the world, characters, and story that leave the reader with the impression of more going on. Often, inexperienced writers will tell everything about their world from the start, leaving no questions in the mind and nothing to the imagination in an attempt to create a living world. Unfortunately, this accomplishes quite the opposite; when readers know everything, they begin to question the realism of a story, because such omniscience is a direct violation of how they know the real world works. So give them some small, seemingly insignificant details. Frustrate their questions. And above all, spend as much time as you can putting these details into the world and into the characters. That’s how you make it real. That’s how you give it life.
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