World, Character, and Adventure Building

I constantly struggle with balancing or favoring the three basic components of sci-fi/fantasy that drive a story and pull readers in—world building, character building, and adventure building. All three are absolute musts for any sci-fi/fantasy story, but even the masters have their preferences on what to favor and how much.

Tolkien’s who usually comes to mind for me (and I’m sure many others) when thinking of world building. Middle-earth has an entire world history, and even goes beyond that to an entire cosmology. Anyone who has read the books can tell you of Gondor, the Mark, the Shire, and many other places in Middle-earth. They could tell you of the rise of Sauron and the history of all those previously mentioned lands up to the War of the Ring. Tolkien spent decades perfecting the world that his characters enjoy their adventure in and the text absolutely drips with that meticulous and long-thought out effort at world building.

On the other hand, there’s Bradbury. To me, Bradbury was one of the penultimate character builders. While his worlds are memorable, I think most people that read Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles would be hard pressed to name you 2-3 countries in those mythical lands. And his works largely don’t concern themselves with epic moments of daring do—whether martial, athletic, or romantic. For Bradbury, it’s all about driving his characters through a funhouse of oddities and mystery to watch what they do and how they react.

And then there’s Edgar Rice Burroughs. His worlds like Barsoom are fantastic and well-built. And certainly, Tarzan is a household name as a character. But can you really tell anyone how John Carter or Tarzan grow as people over the course of their books? Could you name many of the cities on Barsoom beyond Helium? Burroughs’ focus is on adventure! His characters fight like you want to fight, look like how you want to look, and frak like you want to frak! He tells ripping yarns about dizzying feats of daring do and romantic and martial conquest.

All three of these masters had a preference, and yet also tried to strike a balance between these elements. What do you think? Which is the most important? What do you favor in your own writing or reading?

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