Kathleen Dalton Woodbury suggested I repost a response I made in the character interviews section here under the title "Character Development vs. World Building". I've reworked those remarks here to clarify my points and to make it clear that the issues I'm raising aren't specific to rjgraff's story; they're practically universal in the early fantasy novel drafts I've seen. That includes one that went on to win a multi-book contract for its author from a major publisher. That result didn't surprise me, because that was one of those rare instances where the author made every successive draft stronger and more creatively balanced.
World building is obviously very important to fantasy; arguably it's the defining characteristic of fantasy. Certainly one of the things that keeps us readers of fantasy returning to the genre is the charm of visiting worlds whose rules are different from ours but whose history is a counterpoint to our own.
So naturally when we set out to write a fantasy, most of us start with world building. We work out the rules, logic, history even in some cases politics and natural history of the story world. The result is a narrative imbalance that often leaves an early draft sounding like a dry treatise rather than an exciting adventure. To gain and hold our interest, a story needs to strike a creative balance between world building, character development and plot. Achieving that balance is especially challenging in opening chapters.
How is it that the very thing we as readers look for in a fantasy story is so often what makes us want to put that story down? I think that happens because at the outset of a story we value world building details for their usefulness, not for their own sake.
The equation works like this: the world's details are crucial to the protagonist; we are interested in the protagonist and his problems; therefore we are interested in the details of the world. Later on that interest in the world itself may take on a life of its own. A small minority of world building aficionados and gamers might be interested right from the start in the mechanics of spell casting or the trade relations between the Empire and the tin miners of Ultima Thule. Those people are a minority.
Most fantasy stories can be summarized roughly as follows: the world is broken in some way, but through the action of a hero the world is repaired. Characterization is a kind of hinge by which world building and plot are articulated. If you weld the plot directly to world building in a way that doesn't hinge on character, the details of the world are uninteresting and the movement of the plot seems forced. All the coincidences of the plot stand out without a credible protagonist to move the action forward.
Consider two versions of the same turning point in a story. In one, the hero is conveniently out in the woods when the forces of evil kill everyone in his village. In the other, the hero is defying the order of the village elders not to visit the magic forest pool; when he returns to the village it has been wiped out by the forces of evil. Either way it's the same coincidence, but in the latter case it is not only masked by the character's actions, we get a bonus action motivator. This is an essential element of heroism: heroes have *moral agency*. They make things happen, or at the very least are doing something when things happen, something that shapes the rest of the story.
A fantasy hero often receives crucial magical assistance or advice. If you know your fairy tales, you know that the hero isn't singled out by mere coincidence; the help is offered to others (canonically there will be two failed predecessors), but the hero *chooses differently*. This gets to the very heart of what it means for a fantasy hero to be "credible". Fantasy credibility isn't about the hero falling into the plausible range established by the mass of humanity, but rather the opposite. The hero thinks, chooses, acts and reacts in ways that *set him apart*, and those differences mark him for his special role. The sooner that is established, the faster the story really takes off, and with it our need for more information.
Let's look at a well known example to see how this works. The following questions arose in discussions here about some preliminary characterization work, but applying them to the Harry Potter stories demonstrates how Rowling uses characterization to draw us into her elaborate wizarding universe.
1) What are the imitations on the protagonist's knowledge, and how do they set him apart?
Harry doesn't understand the wizarding world initially; he doesn't learn Dumbledore's plan for him until near the end of the last book. Harry must operate largely on faith and hope.
2) How do the differences in a character's background make him present himself differently from his peers?
Harry has great notoriety in the wizarding world, but although he is talented, his sheer magical prowess cannot possibly hope to match the magnitude his fame; not on a day to day basis. He is also is one of the least informed of his peers about the facts of the magical world (giving JKR an excuse to explain them). Harry handles this by being modest. He is consistently self-effacing, *unless challenged*.
3) How do the character's motivations and attitudes set him apart from his peers?
Harry starts out longing for a place where he truly belongs, but when he finds it, he is forced again and again prove he deserves his position there. His status is constantly wobbling toward "outsider". The response of *evil* characters to such insecurity is to toady up to the powerful and throw the outsiders under the bus, but Harry's problems only reinforce his sympathy for the downtrodden. Harry is therefor the most anti-authoritarian of his peers by far. His stance toward authority runs from indifference to its commands (e.g., toward the well-meaning Professor McGonagall) to open contempt and hostility.
4) How does the protagonist's decision making style set his choices apart from those of his peers?
While generally modest, Harry is always eager to prove himself. He never turns down a challenge, never backs down, never turns aside in the face of danger, and never compromises where the welfare of the expendable people is concerned. His stubbornness in these matters often leads him into trouble.
This is all tangential to the choices of world-building details in the Harry Potter universe, yet at the same time crucial to making those details significant to readers. Millions of people around the world somehow know exactly what Quidditch match looks like. It obviously would have made no difference had Rowling chosen to have two goal rings rather than three, but if the movie makers had left one of the goal rings out it would have been instantly noticed. How is that possible?
I've made a particular study of the scene where Rowling explains Quidditch to the reader, and it would be the stuff of readers' nightmares, but for a simple equation. Harry needs to know this stuff in order to prove himself; we identify with Harry; therefore this stuff really matters to us. Because we identify with Harry, we soak in the details just as attentively has he does. This leaves the author free to construct her castles in the air knowing she'll have an appreciative audience.
But ... it's simplistic to say "build the character first and the world second." We're interested in Harry Potter precisely *because* he's trying to win his place in the wizarding world, but we really can't understand what that means until we absorb a little bit of world building. Kindling interest is a delicate operation.
I wish I could say that Rowling provides a superb model for doing this, but that's questionable. *Philosopher's Stone* is probably her weakest effort. Rowling opens her story with two chapters amount to about eight thousand words of prologue. That's an interesting decision that flies in the face conventional wisdom, which says get to the meat of the story as early as possible, dispensing with backstories and prologues. *The Philosopher's Stone*'s early pacing clearly suffers from this digression, but in it's favor, this approach leaves the reader who makes it to chapter three well primed to study anything bearing on Harry's fate.
What lesson should we take away from that? Gosh I wish I could boil it down to a formula for success, but I don't think I can. The only lesson I can draw from it is that opening chapters are hard, require taking a few risks, and sometimes work despite their imperfections.
The one thing I can say from critiquing more fantasy manuscripts than I can remember is that their weakest part is invariably the first chapter. The most common culprit in weak first chapters is having too much world building to process before we have any reason to care about those details. Action-packed openings tend to fare a bit better, but even those can also founder because we don't know enough about the world to understand what's going on, or fail to tie in with the rest of the story. It's a Catch-22: you need world building to understand the importance of the hero and the significance of his actions.
I'd say that successful openings almost always engage us with the character or characters, often by giving them something to do that is understandable without an extensive background briefing. They tend to be spare with explanatory detail, except where it might engage us with the POV character. This might be another area where first person narration is a tiny bit easier, because it is natural for the narrator to introduce himself, making a bid for reader attention and sympathy with any means at his disposal. He can do many things that an omniscient narrator can't, like dropping melodramatic hints, mentioning scraps of backstory that may or may not be relevant, or making humorous observations.