We can say an element works differently in different pieces without depriving ourselves of a shared vocabulary to talk about that element, though — and all while acknowledging what I’d call Wittgensteinian “family resemblances” between the ways that element can work across different aesthetics and genres.
To take your example of character, for instance: we agree that when we talk about “character,” we’re talking about the people (or personified non-human actors) in a story. Tolkien’s work has characters. Updike’s work has characters. Coover’s work has characters. Some characters are flat, some are round; some have an arc, some become fragmented and unknowable by the end of a text. Still, when we talk about character, we know that we’re talking about the element that directly or indirectly answers the question, “Who is this story about?”
But you’re not giving the same mileage to either the term “world-building” or the term “world-conjuring.” You’re using these terms as dividers — some books “build,” others “conjure.” And I think that allows you to ignore the question of what world-building/-conjuring does, what it’s for, and why it works or doesn’t work for you in specific situations.
Let’s imagine two people in a workshop talking about the characters in a story. One reader says, “I thought the character of the stepmom was too flat. The actions she took were completely evil, and her motive was never explained. That’s not realistic.” A second reader replies, “I also thought this character was flat, but I thought that choice worked since it matched other fairy-tale elements in the text. Fairy tales have flat characters too.” In this situation, the second reader might convince the first to see the story differently and change her mind. Or they might agree to disagree. But aesthetic arguments for and against could be advanced and supported because of a shared vocabulary and understanding of what character is and does (and how character relates to other story elements).
Now let’s imagine two people in a workshop discussing world-building in a story, using the approach you lay out in these essays. One reader says, “I loved the world-building in this story. I learned so much about the world!” The second reader replies, “90% of the time, I don’t like world-building. It’s boring and seems fake. What I like is world-conjuring. It’s a completely different technique that’s usually not from this genre.” The point isn’t that one of these people is right. The point is that neither of these two readers will enable the other to see something new in the story, b/c neither makes a case for how world-building is working (or not) *specifically in this story.*
But if we acknowledge that, across genres, world-building directly or indirectly answers the question, “What’s possible here — where can characters go, and what can they do?”, aesthetic arguments can be advanced and supported on both sides. Reader one: “I loved the long explanation about the line of royal succession, since it helped establish a reason for the tensions between the princess and the duchess. They both have power but only one can rule.” Reader two: “Yes, but for the purpose of this chapter, we only need to know that the princess is next in line. We don’t need all eight pages.” Reader one: “All those later tiers of succession suggest to me that it’s possible a lot of these characters will die or murder each other over the coming chapters, though, throwing the kingdom into chaos each time. And that’s going to be INSANE.” Again, one reader might convince the other to see something new in the story, or she might not. The point still isn’t who’s right. But they can each advance and support meaningful aesthetic arguments because of a shared vocabulary and understanding of what world-building is and does.
I also think this is really important in thinking about more surreal texts. Let’s imagine this time that two people are in a workshop discussing a piece that features “world-conjuring.” Here’s the nightmare version. Reader one: “I hated this story. It was gross and made no sense. Random things happened. I like stories where things are explained.” Reader two: “And that’s the difference between you and me, bucko!”
But now imagine that both readers approach this story thinking in terms of world-building, asking themselves, “What’s possible here?” Reader one: “If I gave birth to a child with no skin, I’d go to the hospital. I wouldn’t weave a skin for the child to wear. How is this kid alive anyway?” Reader two: “But on page one, she talks about the bolts of fabric ‘breathing’ and ‘perspiring.’ This isn’t ordinary cloth. The possibility that it can be used differently by the character gets suggested right away.”
As I’m sure you’ll agree, all writers — including both traditional SF writers and weird/surreal writers — need to challenge their unexamined assumptions about their work to push in the most interesting directions, rather than retreating to their separate corners and their most self-indulgent excesses. And a shared vocabulary is one tool that can be used in achieving that.