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.