I’m often asked about “world building,” the term for creating the environment for fantasy novels. Most tend to be much more elaborate than mine, which may be one reason why my books are so much shorter. I usually respond with some variation of, “I’m more interested in people building,” which is true but can understandably sound a bit facile.
Still, I can't deny I’m far more interested in the details of character than in aspects of society that don’t impinge on the story. So I cast about for another example of that approach, and found it in one of my favorite movies, Howard Hawks’ classic western Rio Bravo starring John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson.
The setting is as generic a Western town as you can imagine: it's nameless (although it's assumed to be "Rio Bravo," no one ever actually says so), isolated, and the only institutions shown are the jail, the hotel and the saloon. Contrast this to the unique, incredibly detailed sets of The Wild Bunch or the specific geographical settings of The Searchers. At the time (1959) television was filled with Western series the way we now have reality shows, and nothing about Rio Bravo's setting is substantially different from the backlot towns people saw every week for free on Bonanza, Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel. So what did the movie have to make them pay to see it?
Characters. Archetypal to be sure, but developed with detail and skill, played by actors at the top of their games and laced through with humor. In other words, the exact opposite of world-building. People-building. And if I have to err, that's the direction I'd rather go. I can live with an underdeveloped or generic setting, as long as it's populated by compelling and interesting characters.
What do you think? How much setting is enough, and how much is too much?
Admit it: this picture really makes you want to see the movie, doesn't it?