Yet another World Building Post. Only not.

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Well, it’s my own fault. I asked for suggestions and someone said World Building so here I am. Building worlds.

Except that I don’t. Not really. Of all the regular contributors to this site I’m probably the one who thinks least about world building, or tries to. The truth is that of all the elements of a book, world building interests me least both as a writer and as a reader. Give me character, give me story, give me an emotional punch, an intellectual treat, a well-turned phrase… I’ll take all of these over the world of the story, no matter how brilliantly it is painted.

So why am I posting on this today?

Well, partly, it’s my opportunity to stand up before the world and say “Hi world, I’m a fantasy writer and I hate world building.”

Partly it’s too articulate my feelings for others who may (if they are ready to admit it) feel similarly.

In Roman Polanski’s great noir thriller, Chinatown, when people ask Jake (the Jack Nicholson character) what he did there, he always says the same thing: “as little as possible.” He doesn’t mean that he was lazy, but that the world of the place was so foreign that the best thing you could do was keep your head down and try not to get involved.

I feel the same about world building. Do what you have to, what you really need to, then get out.

Now I know that for many readers of fantasy and sci-fi the idea of being in another world is a big part of the draw, and that’s fine. But not me. Indeed, one of the reasons that I struggle to think of myself as a fantasy writer is because invented worlds just don’t really excite me in and of themselves. I can admire them: the grand historical sweep of a layered universe like Tolkien’s, say, or the elaborate filigrees constructed by more recent authors who weave all manner of social, cultural, magical, military, architectural and other unusual specifics together to create a tapestry suggesting a real and compelling environment and its culture. But I don’t need it, and when I start to suspect that a book is largely a laying out of that world (imaginative and cleverly wrought though it may be), I’m likely to discard it.

I know we often say here that world building is in the details, that you need to know every aspect of how your culture and its magical system works, and I stand by that as good, solid advice, but I still think a little goes a long way. Just because you’ve figured out exactly how the glass of that curious vase was fashioned doesn’t mean the reader needs to know. Maybe that information goes in your version of your Bible—the rule book for your world—and maybe you don’t need it at all.

Fantasy worlds are, by definition, Other. They exist to be different from our own. But you can have too much of a good thing. If the world feels completely alien to ordinary human experience, or if the efforts you take to bring it into being outweigh its interest value, you have a problem.

Let me say it again: I read books for character, story and sentence level writing. The world of the book is largely back-drop for those things, and if that backdrop starts to muscle in on the stuff I’m really interested in, I’m going to lose patience. Let me go one step further. I want the story of these characters to feel real and approachable, applicable to my own life. The further the setting pushes me from any version of reality I truly believe in, the harder it is going to be for me to make those associations.

Don’t get me wrong. Good writing—particularly in the realizations of characters—can make the most remote world feel absolutely immediate and plausible—but ask yourself whether the quirks of your world building are there because they are cool and interesting and essential to the story, or if they are there merely to remind the reader that they are in a fantasy world. Is your world building supporting the story and its people, or crowding it with unnecessary clutter? In other words, has your world building become an end in itself, or a context for a real story and real characters? This last might be a tough one to answer but it’s important that you are frank with yourself.

Again, not all readers like all things, so stories that depend heavily on extensively thought-through and microscopically rendered worlds will always have a following, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even in fantasy such readers are in the minority. Character and story are king. However much fun you have world building, don’t forget that sometimes the best way to handle it is by doing as little as possible.

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34 comments to Yet another World Building Post. Only not.

  • TwilightHero

    Hmmm. While I am a fan of the fully-realized world…

    I once read a trilogy compilation – three books in one – by a certain prolific young writer who’d built one of the most imaginative worlds I’ve come across, distinctly Asian in feel and full of all sorts of cultural quirks and costumes and creatures. The masked villains were particularly creepy. I stuck with it until the end, but when all was said and done and I looked back on the story as a whole…I didn’t like it. Despite the setting, the plot was average, and except for a few scenes, I couldn’t empathize with the characters at all.

    And now I look at my own writing and realize that, if I ranked character, story, magic and so on in order of emphasis, world-building would probably come in dead last. It certainly wouldn’t be first. I chose a typical medieval-ish setting, nothing too outstanding about it. What does make it stand out, what world-building I have done, revolves around the magic system, the effects magic-users, wars and politics have had on the world, and histories in general; how the present has been shaped by the past. These are the things that interest me. Details such as how that curiously shaped glass vase was made? Not so much. (Though I’d probably have it involve magic in some way, in which case it WOULD interest me, but only because of the magic involved.) Mine is a character-driven yarn; the MCs would – or should – take most of these things for granted anyway. You should be seeing the world through their eyes – not using their eyes to see the world.

    So overall, I agree. World-building is important in SFF, but only if it affects the characters or supports the story in some way. World-building for the sake of world-building might be a draw for some, but probably not for most. It’s not for me.

  • I agree with TwilightHero that world building comes last on the list. Characters come first. However, those different worlds in fantasy or SF bring some nice escapism into one’s life. Obviously, they can also move the plot along, or not, you know with the restrictions that come with any world. Character A can’t rescue character B because their powers are lost to them when the moon is in the 7th house, or something. These things have to be robust, otherwise big gaping plot holes appear. I loved your shout to the world AJ, lol!

  • Twilight,
    yes, of course others will disagree (I await being pilloried for this post) but I’m with you. I think fantasy and sci fi is a great way to explore our world through analogy, but if the invented world takes over the story loses its purpose for me. And yes, I totally respect the idea that the otherness of the world might be defined almost entirely by a carefully worked out magic system. Makes sense in narrative terms.

    Aderyn,
    thanks! Glad I touched a chord. And yes, ensuring your world makes sense according to its own rules is essential.

  • It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with the face that not all fantasy writers like world building. I definitely don’t think you’re alone.

    I’m definitely interested in the connection between the reader-self and the writer-self. As a reader, I’m different from you: I find myself sucked in by character, of course, but the world itself is often just as important. I’ve finished books because I love the world, even if I didn’t like the characters or the story so much. In that same way, as a writer, I spend a lot of time wallowing in my world’s history, fleshing out the legends my characters speak of in passing, determining what kind of textiles/industry will be used in a given area considering it’s climate, etc. I get why that doesn’t appeal to many people.

    Skrybbi and I did something once that I’ll never forget: we came up with a story idea together, and by the next day, I had come up with the supporting elements of the world that were necessary to prop up what we’d come up with, and a couple other questions and characters. Skrybbi had come up with a single scene, which she didn’t want explained, and which she wanted to stand on its own as a short-story.

    This reminds me of that–how two writers who are very different people (and different readers) can take the same idea and go about making it happen in totally different ways. I dove into the world that might explain the motivation and plot; for Skrybbi, the world didn’t matter so much as the idea (or plot) itself.

  • (terms with the FACT. D’oh.)

  • AJ, totally agree. Because, unlike David, who spends a great deal of time putting his worlds together, and unlike Misty who spends a lot of time in her character’s heads even before writing, I am so very lazy and don’t do anything in the novel-writing process that I dont’ have to.

    My Rogue Mage universe is my most well thought out and most fully realized world, but I did *nothing* in terms of creating that world until I needed it *in-story*. Not until I had to answer world-buliding and magic-system-building questions for the RPG designers did I dive deeper, and force myself to answer questions about world history, magic systems, religion, politics, war, weapons, technology … and I admit that I found it exhausting.

    As to character history, once I find a character’s voice, I just start writing and her story and personality unfold before me. I *discover* her, bit by bit. That is the part of writing I most love, that discovery process as it blooms on paper (screen, whatever) like a bruised flower.

    I spend much more time on plot than anything else, and for me that part of writing is nearly mechanical. It is like creating a steel structure on which to build the story, and I might spend weeks on that.

    For a post on something you don’t like to do, you did an amazing job of making me think.

  • I won’t disagree with the notion that the worldbuilding you do should be only what you need to do and no more: it seems like a sound notion, although I think for different writers the answer to how much they need will be different, and may even vary from story to story. It seems like a good general rule since it’s so easy for some of us writers to get lost down a rabbit-hole of bottomless worldbuilding going ever ever deeper.

    But LScribeHarris said something that I think is worth repeating, too, about how worldbuilding can play an important role in a story.

    For myself, worldbuilding is important because it provides context for characters, and context for the motivations, for their views of the world, and everything else. How characters act can only make sense in the context of the worlds they live in. One thing I’ve heard and often repeated myself is that the world is a character in the story. And so I give the worldbuilding the same diligence that I’d give a character – albeit a character with a backstory that can stretch hundreds or even thousands of years instead of a mere few decades.

    I recently started on the first draft of my latest novel, but this came after roughly 50,000 words worth of worldbuilding and character development (I don’t distinguish the two in my process). As a consequence of all that prep-work, the world feels real to me as a writer, and the characters more real, too. This has helped me feel more immersed in my prose and more in touch with the characters and story.

  • bee_co

    (long time reader _finally_ commenting)

    AJ, I love what you said about reading a story for character, plot, and sentence writing. A strong character, and a twisty plot will make up for a lot of other not-so-good stuff for me as a reader.

    I enjoy world building (maybe more so than dealing with plot at the moment), and I’m glad of the reminder to make sure the story elements are not overwhelmed by the set stage.

  • And Faith’s comment reminds me of another maxim, too: the one about the differences between pantsers and planners, or discovery writers and outliners, or whatever twin terms you want to use. Some of us need to “discover” all that stuff before we sit down and write the first draft. Some have to do the discovery in situ, during the process of drafting and writing. Different strokes for different folks…

  • Gorby

    As a reader, I’m not one who needs much world building; but then, I don’t really *need* well crafted sentences or intriguing plot, either. There are four elements that I care about: Characters, Plot, Prose, World Building. None of these can hold the story alone, and none is singularly essential for me—tis the mix that matters. If a story has three, it’s readable, but to be a masterpiece I think it has to have all four.

    But that’s the reader me. As a writer, I guess I’m most often like Skrybbi: I focus on the plot and don’t do more world building than necessary. However, there are some projects where I find I can’t do that, where I have to come up with pages upon pages of backstory and background details before I can even begin putting the actual story to paper.

  • Scribe,
    yes, this is one of those To Each His/Her Own deals, I guess, but I stand by my call for moderation on the world building thing. I’ve read too much fantasy where it feels like the imaginative convolutions feel like they are supposed to be their own reward, and it just kills the story dead for me. I get that environment and the logic of its rules can be essential to plot and character, and I’m fine with that, but when it gets intrusive, I find I just don’t care. I remember reading Jack Vance’s Lyonesse and getting completely bogged down in large scale dynastic histories and deciding that no narrative pay off was worth reading something I found so uninteresting… Guess I’m with Skrybbi on this one.

    Faith,
    that’s interesting that you had to spell stuff out for yourself for the game more than the book. Makes sense. Also, you are right to suggest that at least part of my antipathy to world building is laziness :)

    Stephen,
    you’ll get no disagreement about the importance of world building as context for character and story. My grievance is one of degree, not kind.

    Gorby,
    I take your point about the intersection of all 4 factors, but I dispute the notion that world building is essential to masterpieces except in the loosest terms. I think fantasy/scifi writers worry about this too much. It’s less of an essential component in most other genres and I think it gets in our way sometimes. That’s all I’m saying.

  • sagablessed

    I think while world building is imporatant, if I don’t like the characters, I put the book away. And building believable characters who the reader can connect to is the hardest thing for me. Other than using the crutch of “And” to start a sentence, lol.

  • AJ: I agree that a too much worldbuilding in the story itself, especially when it diverges from the story at hand, is distracting and off-putting. I think Stephen said it better:

    “worldbuilding is important because it provides context for characters, and context for the motivations, for their views of the world, and everything else. How characters act can only make sense in the context of the worlds they live in.” <–I completely agree with this.

    I will also add that descriptions of history aren't generally interesting when presented flat out. I skipped over large chunks of worldbuilding in Sunshine, because I didn't think it was necessary to understand what was going on. But when something in plot or character hinges on that bit of information–like how it's important to know the history between Gondor and Rohan to truly understand King Theoden's dilemma–it interests me.

    Out of curiosity, AJ, what are some of your favorite fantasy books (especially in terms of worldbuilind)?

  • Saga
    yes, I think part of the the appeal of world building for some is that people sometimes assume it can be done with assembling lots of stuff, whereas characters and sentence-level writing requires a more delicate and instinctual touch. Of course, I think the same is true of world building.

    Scribe,
    again, no disagreement that history within the world can be important, though–as you suggest–I want that history to come across organically as part of the characters’ story not as exposition/info dump somehow justified by the genre. I think the world building in The Wizard of Earthsea is masterful: logical, consistent, rich with detail and never overwhelming. It helps that the world LeGuin creates feels real to me and isn’t a confection of Otherness.

  • Okay, so I’ll emerge from the shadows for once and actually say something…

    As far as this topic is concerned, I prefer to think of myself as a “best of both worlds” kind of person. No pun intended. When it comes to stumbling upon a new idea and molding thoughts and concepts into what could potentially be a new story, I believe I fall into Scribe’s camp for World-Build-the-Ever-Living-Goo-Out-of-It. I love worlds; they are my proverbial castles in the sky, wonderlands through the looking glass, and kingdoms beyond the wardrobe. But most importantly, the Pictures In My Head. When I have a new world in mind, it’s difficult to avoid thinking about all the eight billion cogs and screws and how they all might fall into place to make my new world tick. In “real” life, I am fascinated by the languages, cultures, and geographies of Earth. Every new tidbit of information I learn makes me stand in awe of just how much there is to know and how much more there is to discover. So it’s hard, really hard, not to want to build the same kind of complexity and richness into a world of my own–even an imaginary one.

    Now, that being said. When it comes to actually writing a story. I do agree with you, AJ. If there’s a curious vase in my world, you’d better believe I know exactly how it’s made, which glass-blower made it, the chemical (or magical) structure of the molecules of “not-silicon” in it’s composition, and the glass-blower’s nephew’s favorite fruit. But would I bother to show all this information to my reader? Yikes. Heck no.

    John Green, YA author and notorious vlogger, said that once a story is written, it no longer belongs to the writer but the reader. Especially in the case of fantasy, I whole-heartedly agree with him. As long as my neurons are able to fire off electrical impulses, I will build worlds to the umpteenth degree in my head. But once the world is on paper, my job is done, and it’ll be up to my reader (poor soul) to decide what kind of soil conditions are necessary to grow the glass-blower’s nephew’s favorite fruit.

  • Raven
    delighted to have lured you out of the shadows. Your make your point beautifully, and I think you are right that the best part of good world building is the visuals it facilitates, and I do feel that when I do it right, I’m painting with words. And yes, it’s important to distinguish between what you as the author knows about the world and what you decide to actually articulate in the book. I agree with Green too: the meaning of a book is finally a collaboration between author and reader (which is what makes it so different from film).

    This glass vase is starting to develop a backstory all its own :)

  • Megan B.

    AJ, it was refreshing to read your post. World-building in fantasy is often treated as such a big deal, that I worry I haven’t done enough of it in my WIP. Yet I built a world that supports my characters and plot, and did not want to force in more just for the sake of making the world richer. Thank you for confirming that my instinct is probably right.

    Ironically, the novel I more recently started really hinges on world building, and I’ve had to think hard about what kinds of food and materials would be available, the history of the world, etc. It’s been interesting and fun.

    This post also got me thinking about fantasy stories I like that have strong world-building. My first thought was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. There is no place quite like Ankh-Morpork!

  • Thanks, Megan. That you find your books have different needs in terms of world building probably means you are getting it right, that you are letting story dictate what you need rather than designing a set and then stuffing it with characters to set off the furniture. I love Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, but I have to say that part of what I like about it is that the author seems to me to let the city evolve as he needs it too, and–most importantly–that it’s clearly a satirical analogy of a modern city (London, say). Geography, finance, magic, culture are all finally fluid and in support of the story he’s trying to tell so that for all the accumulated richness of the place qua place, story always rises above it.

  • I’m not fond of world building because while I’m pretty much a plotter, that part of the story seems to come more organically. I’ll have the basic idea while plotting, but I’ll develop it more when actually writing it. Which is why I don’t use bibles, either (though a part of me thinks it couldn’t hurt!) But yes, I agree with not sharing all the info. The best analogy I’ve heard is the iceberg: we may know its full size, but we should only show the tip.

  • Thank you!!! Finally a sff writer who understands. I love being in other worlds, but I dislike most elements of worldbuilding. People give me such strange looks when I say that.

  • Laura,
    ah yes, the trusty iceberg. Just be sure your reader doesn’t turn into the Titanic :)

    Colette,
    say it after me: I am Not Alone.

  • As probably the most committed worldbuilder among the folks who maintain this site, I feel a need to chime in. (I’m still on the road, in Washington tonight; my daughter and I visited Georgetown and GW today — fun stuff.) Yes, I spend a great deal of time and energy on my worldbuilding, precisely BECAUSE I don’t want my world intruding too forcefully on my story. I try to make my worlds believable and detailed and all those good things. But I want my world to be as realistic as possible, which means that I want my worldbuilding to be virtually invisible.

    Huh?

    Think about it: Living in our world, we almost never think about the fundamental details of how that world works. We take those details for granted, only noticing them when the world acts upon our lives in a direct tangible way. So it should be with a fictional world, in my view. If you’re constantly explaining your world to your readers, then it’s NOT realistic. The world should simply be; it should provide a believable setting for all that your characters do and feel and think, without being overly intrusive on your narrative.

    Just my opinion, of course, but after worldbuilding for four published (or soon to be published) series and a couple of others that are still in the works, I feel pretty comfortable on this ground.

  • My larger point (I sort of lost the thread of where I was going there) is that the more work I do on my world, the better I understand it, the more I convey with small, unobtrusive references. It’s when I don’t know my world well enough that I start to tell my readers too much. Okay, done now.

  • I’m going to approach this topic from a different angle: the things about poor world building that bother me.

    First, a disclaimer. I tend to fall into Raven’s camp in that I have to fully understand my world before I write in it. The reader doesn’t need all that detail, though. The characters live in that world so it isn’t Oh So Cool and Unusual to them. They aren’t going to talk about it.

    Now – back to what I started with. Bad world-building. When someone tosses another moon into the sky, but that moon doesn’t affect tides, or the orbit of the other moon, well, bounce me out. If there’s snow in winter, don’t have tropical vegetation in summer. Don’t climb 12,000 feet up the side of a mountain without suffering the effects of oxygen deprivation UNLESS you can give me a reason why the atmosphere hasn’t thinned. The physics and biology of a world MUST WORK.
    The most fully realized characters caught up in a complex plot, populating a story told in perfect voice will lose me if I realize they’re actors on a stage with cheap props.

  • Heh. David and I cross-posted, and almost echo each other. [waves] Hi, David!

  • David,
    absolutely fair point. And yes, I think a lot of what bothers me about the kind of world building which feels to me overly conspicuous is really about it being handled poorly and resulting in exposition or info dump. But I’m also aware that this is a matter of taste.

    Lyn
    I think you are saying something related to David’s point about good world building being in some ways unobtrusive, though you are adding logical and in accord with the laws of the physical universe. Again, no disagreement from me.

  • Razziecat

    I once listened to an interview with Lois McMaster Bujold, who stated that, in her case, “the world comes into being as the story passes through it.” I thought that was a beautifully concise way of describing the way she creates a world. For myself, I’m drawn to characters and story, less so to the world they take place in. A well-crafted world is not obtrusive or distracting; it’s part of the background, and some elements of it may be very important to the story, but if the characters and/or the story become lost in it, I get bored. I’ve struggled with this a bit, trying to make my own created worlds a little different from our own without overdoing it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    So, with the disclaimer that I’m not nearly as good at world building as I’d like to be, I’ll say that as a reader the world is often a really big draw for me. That said, I think what I love best is fairly high-concept world-building, something with a central, significant thing from which everything else flows naturally. I completely agree with your comment that the Earthsea books are an example of world-building just as it should be. Dune is another example of exactly the kind of world-building that I like, and I read further in that series than I would have for plot and characters alone because the world is just so cool. However, even the most awesome world definitely cannot stand on its own. But I’m with Gorby, the masterpiece of SFF according to my preferences will have awesome worldbuilding on top of everything else, though there are a lot of ways that might manifest.

  • “the world comes into being as the story passes through it.”

    That’s kind of how it works for me. The world evolves as I write. I guess it’s sort of like Laura mentioned. I plot the actual story elements and characters, but the world evolves through the eyes, minds, and interactions of the characters. I draw a map, fill it with the places I need, the important locations, etc, and sort of flesh them out as the characters walk through them. If the characters have some fond memory about an aspect of the world, I put more thought into it.

    Sometimes a vase is just a vase. Strange looking or not, if it is not going to play a role in the story other than being on some lord’s mantle, I don’t need to know that it came from the third dynasty of the Teklan Empire, crafted by the great mystic glass blower Mugra Theel who infused a piece of his essence into every one of his pieces until he died, making each vase unique and rare. If that vase isn’t going to play into the story at all, I don’t give it a second’s thought as to how it was made or where it came from. If a character has an interest in it, or asks about it, or maybe is an up and coming glass blower who recognizes the work, or perhaps the vase somehow plays some important role later, Only then will I put thought into it.

    I guess I use a Chekhov’s Gun approach to my world building. If the knowledge or history of a piece of the world isn’t going to somehow play a role later in the story, I don’t give much thought to it. It isn’t that I don’t think world building is important, it is and there are some pretty rich settings out there (some a bit too rich, IMO), but even I, the Creator, don’t need to know everything if it never plays into the story.

  • Course, if someone ever wants to make an RPG of my novels I’ll be screwed. 😉

  • Razzie,
    I like the idea of the world coming into being as the story passes through it. Nice. And a good suggestion of priorities.

    Hep,
    yes, I’m a fan of the high concept world too: Gaiman’s disused tube stations in Neverwhere for instance. Very cool.

    Daniel,
    the vase lives on. Maybe I should have asked for comments that built stories around it :) And yes, I like your sense of the world serving the story.

  • This reminds me of Orwell. In 1984 we learn that the clocks have 13 hours on them instead of twelve. That tiny details says boatloads about how the world has changed. Orwell never goes into how the change was made, why it was made or when, but we get it and it creates the right effect – longer days of drudgery and a government that thinks it can control time itself. I don’t know what Orwell’s process was, whether he got there before he laid out the story, or during, or after, but it works brilliantly. All the more so, I think, because he doesn’t explain it – the detail is just a reality of the world. Even though I increasingly favor plotting my novels, I can’t seem to world build the way some writer’s do. I have to discover the world as I write it; I generally have a broad concept of the world the characters live in – a few dimly glimpsed pictures as it were, but the details always get worked out in response to character and plot as I go. I don’t know how efficient this is, but I can’t seem to do it otherwise.

  • JJerome

    Sarah – The 1984 reference was critical for the following point. Details of the world must serve the story, plot, and characters. Now, I realize that many authors love world-building (I am not one of them. It’s more of a chore for me). But, I do love the details that make the world come to life, which brings me to the next point. As authors, don’t we always build worlds, no matter what the genre? Even the seemingly mundane trip to the corner convenience store could be littered with details, so long as it serves the story. Yes, I realize that fantasy worlds are different than our own world, a fact that distinguishes the genre from others. Readers of SF and Fantasy strive to escape to new places, but isn’t this true of other genres as well? Don’t readers of genre fiction wish to escape? I totally agree with AJ (by the way, great discussion topic!) that world-building serves a higher purpose. When I was a kid, I did not read Fritz Leiber because Lankhmar was meticulously designed. I read it because I loved Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Same goes for the Dark Tower series, which was, with a few exceptions, not impressively built. But the characters and story? Oh yes!

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