On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part II — How Much is Enough?


Today, I continue the series of posts on worldbuilding that I began last week.  First, though, I am very pleased to announce that Tor and I have agreed to terms on a contract for two more Thieftaker books.  Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in the Thieftaker sequence, will be coming out next July.  And now I can say with confidence that it will be followed by City of Shades in 2014 and Dead Man’s Reach in 2015.  So, yay!

Okay, so back to worldbuilding.  And let me begin where I left off last week, with what may well be the most important point I made about the process I go through to create the settings for my fantasies.  None of the discreet tasks I mentioned last week (map making, creating relationships, coming up with myths and religions, and building magic systems) is actually discreet; rather, it all happens together, in a chaotic and exhilarating mish-mash of inspiration.  The word I used last week was “synergy,” and that really does describe what happens when my  worldbuilding is going well; the various aspects of the process inform one another so that the creation feels seamless.  This is, of course, a good thing.  As I say, it makes for an exciting burst of creativity.

But there are also dangers in such a heady experience, and they are reflected in so many of the comments and questions that showed up in the comments section below my previous post.  Worldbuilding tends to consume time, not because it is necessarily so time-intensive, but rather because once we start doing it, we’re never sure when to stop.  Many of us find it really fun (God knows I do) and so we don’t necessarily want to stop.  But more to the point, building a world is inherently complex.  No detail seems too small, particularly because so many of the details are so cool.  Hence, we often don’t know when to say, “Okay, enough.  I’ve got as much material as I need.”  And since eventually we need to write the book, this can be a problem.

This is why I usually begin my worldbuilding with a series of questions.  (And by the way, after writing two Thieftaker books, I can tell you that this also works really well for research, which I tend to view as an adjunct of worldbuilding.)  Some of the questions I ask are quite broad:  How does the magic system work?  What is the level of technology in the world?  How many religions are there and what are the relationships among them?  Other questions are smaller, more contained, though no less important:  How did the current ruler of country X come to power?  Where did the name of my main character’s home village come from?  What are the important holidays and milestones in a typical calendar year?

Obviously, the questions are unlimited, and so it may seem that asking questions doesn’t do much to get us closer to making this a finite process.  But for most of us, that worldbuilding synergy also exists within a larger synergistic relationship with plot and character.  And even though worldbuilding is usually done at the very beginning of a project, most of us start our work with at least a general idea of what the book is going to be about, and where the narrative needs to go to get our story started.  Keeping those plot points in mind helps us recognize the contours of the project, and gives us a starting point for determining which questions to ask.

For example, as I was doing my initial worldbuilding and research for Thieftaker, I knew that, among other things, I needed to know when streetlights were first used in Colonial Boston (1774, as it turns out, so the streets Ethan Kaille frequents at night are unlit — important information), how the Congregationalist churches that dominated the New England spiritual landscape of the 18th century referred to their clergy and expressed their faith, and who were the representatives of the Crown living in Boston in 1765.  As I say, there were lots of other things I needed to know, and I had questions written down for just about all of them.  But as you would imagine, I encountered way, WAY more information on a whole host of topics unrelated to my story.  Having my questions prepared allowed me to filter out that informational noise, and focus on the stuff that mattered to my story.  Similarly, when I was worldbuilding for the Forelands and Southlands books, I sometimes found myself making up histories and mythologies that touched on parts of my world that did not bear on the narrative I had outlined.  It took a good deal of will power, but when I realized this, I dropped those histories, figuring that if the story changed and it turned out that I needed them, I could always come back to them.

Which brings me to the other important point I need to make about knowing when to stop:  There is no rule, written or unwritten, that will keep you from going back to your worldbuilding if somehow you find that you haven’t done enough.  I take great pride in my worldbuilding; I’m thorough, I come up with lots of good details, histories, mythologies, etc.  And yet, I would say that fully 25% of the worldbuilding I do comes while I am writing the book.  Because as much as I work on preparing myself with incisive, comprehensive questions, I have never been able to anticipate every worldbuilding need.

And so ultimately, the answer to the question that so many of you asked — When do you know that you have enough? — is simple.  You don’t.  You do as much as you can to answer those initial questions, you satisfy your own curiosity about key points, and then you start to write.  Because worldbuilding is not an end in and of itself.  It is a tool.  The goal is to write a book.  And if you find that you need to fill in some worldbuilding blanks along the way, so be it.  That’s actually a good thing.  It means that your story is alive, that it is growing and becoming more complex and interesting as you work on it.

Next time (two weeks from today) I will continue this series with a post about writing your worldbuilding into you book.  I’ll touch on language, themes, data dumps, and other related issues.  But for now, let’s discuss this stuff.  To start, come up with three questions about your new world that you feel you have to answer before you move on to writing.  What is most important to you about your world?

David B. Coe

34 comments to On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part II — How Much is Enough?

  • HarryMarkov

    I have found these posts to be rather interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience with worldbuilding. What I have found about worldbuilding is that it usually branches into two: worlds that we invent from scratch and worlds that we sew into our own (magical realism, urban fantasy etc.). I am currently involved in two projects and so far the big questions have been:

    Urban Fantasy World:
    1) How does using his powers kill the protagonist? AKA what’s the rate and how is it triggered precisely? Because that’s his luck.
    2) How many branches can magic create? This is important cause I tend to complicate everything I do.
    3) How are the people in the city imprisoned never to leave without them ever realizing it?

    Secondary World:
    1) How exactly does the race keep the cities floating in the sky?
    2) How is the role of transgendered characters defined as positive? This is a lot of work as I need to reverse a lot of real world perceptions.
    3) To what extent can gods really interact within the realm of reality?

  • Many, many congrats on the new Thieftaker books! I look forward to adding them to my to-be-read shelf!

  • […] Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, and Kalayna Price, among others.  The post is called “On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part II — How Much is Enough?” and it is essentially what you see in that title:  a discussion of how I limit and make the most […]

  • […] Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, and Kalayna Price, among others.  The post is called “On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part II — How Much is Enough?” and it is essentially what you see in that title:  a discussion of how I limit and make the most […]

  • I tend to do most of my worldbuilding as I write (and, honestly, I should do more before I write–I end up having to revise a lot because I change the world). But mostly I do it when I come up with a problem that needs to be solved, or an instance where the world (physical, political, magical, whatever) will have an immediate impact on the situation. For example, in my new WIP, I realized that magic had two sides, life and death, and each had four main manifestations. I worked out what those were and what were representative of them. (thanks Sarah, for listening to me talk it out and talking to me about it.) Very rarely does one person ever have both, and having both is a big challenge. Of course, my MC does have both, though at the beginning of the story she doesn’t know it. Because, you know, CONFLICT! 🙂

  • Ken

    Here are my top 3 questions for my current WIP:
    1. How far has technology progressed and where is it starting to fray at the edges?
    2. What is the political structure for every major group that appears in the story? I’m not including who, exactly, is in charge in this question because, for me, that fits better in the character creation box.
    3. What is the deepest-seated prejudice among the population in each group?

    As I work through these (and others) I keep a seperate folder for the “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” ideas that sprout.

    Oh, and Congrats on the new Thieftaker books. July eh? Just in time for my birthday. The next time you see Ethan, be sure to pass on my compliments to his timing 🙂

  • Harry, your questions (and the ideas that have prompted them) sound very interesting. I’m particularly intrigued by the Secondary world questions. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    Mindy, thank you so much.

    Emily, I have to admit that I’m a firm believer in getting as much down ahead of time as possible, for the very reason you point out. I hate having to go back and adjust my world and my rules to accommodate stuff that I’ve added in as I write. That’s not to say that I don’t do it sometimes — in some cases there really is no choice. But I don’t like to do it. I love the life-death dichotomy in the magic system and look forward to learning more about it.

    Ken, cool questions, particularly number three, which starts to get at those relationship issues (among large constituencies) that I mentioned in last week’s post. And thank you for the kind wishes. I’m sure Ethan will be honored to help you celebrate your birthday.

  • Squeeeeeeeee on the 2 new books!!!! Yea! Drumroll! 21 gun salute!!!

    And now an admission. While I may outline a story to death, I am a total pantser on worldbuilding. I think about it a lot. I let it settle in my mind. I write little down. And then I change it as totally as I write my first draft. (runs and hides from *real* writers who will scoff at my poor methodology)

  • Congrats on the contract, David!

    Like Emily, I also do a lot of worldbuilding as I write. Lately that includes writing the outline, so I can stop in the middle of the outline and worldbuild, but little epiphanies will still come to me as I’m actually writing that. I think this is the most pants-y I get, because I base my decisions on the story, or at least have some vague ideas and need to know my characters before I get to the nitty-gritty.

    So I often take a huge pause in the writing in order to worldbuild. In one case, I didn’t know what needed to be known about the rules for this sci-fi/fantasy until I’d hit on some major plot points, points that range from how the magic arrived on their planet to how exactly one of the very bad guys can cast a “curse” on the world given the scientific origins of the magic in the first place. Unless you count all the writing done to that point to be pre-writing. I’m not sure how to classify it otherwise, because I wouldn’t call myself a pantser.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    First, yay! and congratulations on your book deal! I’m looking forward to delving deeper into the world of Theiftaker.

    This is a fun assignment, especially as choosing only three questions to post can help focus on and highlight what I hope will be the coolest stuff about my projects.

    For my next project that still needs most of its world-building:
    1) To what extent can a shaper shape a person’s mind/loyalties as well as their body -> what form have their monsters taken?
    2) What are the levels of protection that different individuals/groups can have (or don’t have) against shaping?
    3) Why and at what rate are the shapers expanding their territory?

    For my next-manuscript project – book 2 in its story/world:
    1) What are the provisions/accommodations of the slave-run mine and the condition and demographics of its workers?
    2) What kind of poisons are available and how can they be administered and tested?
    3) What are the general path-histories and mind-sets of those Guardsmen loyal to the evil-Queen? or to the King?

  • Thanks, Faith. And I do know other writers who take much the same approach as you do. It just doesn’t work for me, and so I’m offering my way here so that my fellow planners and I can take over the writing world! Bwahahahahahaha!!

    Laura, thank you. As I mentioned in the post, I would say that a full quarter of the worldbuilding I do comes as I write, so I know exactly what you mean. In all seriousness (as opposed to my response to Faith), I just don’t like to interrupt my writing flow for extensive worldbuilding. Once I’m writing, I want to keep the momentum going. But as I have said so many times before, there is no one right way to do any of this.

    Hep, thanks for the congrats. Glad you like the assignment. I like the questions, and am intrigued by the shapers in your new project. Best of luck with it.

  • OakandAsh

    Congratulations on the Thieftaker series!
    And now this pantser is off to hide 🙂

  • Congratulations on the book deal!

    I did quite a bit of worldbuilding for my WIP, but then as the story I was telling morphed into something very different I realized that while I wasn’t really changing the world, the details I needed weren’t the details I’d developed.

    The three questions I’ve been focused on as I rework the worldbuilding”

    1. How much of this planet’s culture is based on historical Earth culture?

    2. What role does the military play in this world? (Along with all the other details about military branches, uniforms, hierarchy, etc.)

    3. What new technology is present is this future world? Or, a better question, what new technology is present in this future world that is necessary for my story?

  • Thanks, Oak! No need to hide; but if you find Faith, let us know . . .

  • sagablessed

    I outline and then, well, writing happens. Things change as I write. Which drives the CDO (OCD) part of my mind crazy. So many question about ccurrent WIP that need to be explored.
    Congrats on the next in your series!!
    Tell Ethan that one finds his loyalty to the Crown commendable, if somewhat misguided.

  • Sisi, thank you. Good questions all. And really, when a story shifts in process the way you describe, there is really nothing to be done but go back and rework the setting. Sounds like you’re off to a good start in that regard. Best of luck with it.

  • I’ll do that, Donald. Though you should know that events in book II call his loyalty into question. That’s all I’m going to say. On the worldbuilding, yes, writing does often spark changes, though I find that having a firm framework for my world helps me to keep my narrative directed. Others take a different approach, though, and that’s fine. Again, no right way to do any of this.

  • Nathan Elberg

    Consistency is key. It’s jarring to read something that isn’t consistent with the world, even if it’s not a contradiction.
    Build a framework, then live in the world, and you’ll understand it. You’ll be able to fill in the details as a resident, exploring as you write.
    Keep in mind that the words “abra cadabra” are (according to many) Aramaic for “I create as I speak.” While few of us will be as efficient as God, creating a world with ten simple utterances (cf. Genesis), it’s possible for our writing to come up with something rich, fascinating and violent/magical/amusing…

  • Your conclusion was basically the same as my own when I started working on my current WIP. I had a lot of questions and things I wanted to explore about the world. But there were really two things that I considered critical to complete before I could write the story: (1) how does the magic work? and (2) How did the apocalypse happen (i.e. what was the history that resulted in that apocalypse)? (Answering the two questions, it turns out, was very related). Once I’d answered those two questions, I started the writing work (beginning with an outline). But that left a ton of as-yet unanswered questions about the world. That’s stuff I intend to explore as I go. It’s nice-to-know, but less critical than the immediately relevant details.

    Also, congrats on getting a couple new books picked up!

  • Congrats on the book deal!

    The actual writing plays a key role in the world building processes for me. One area tends to be me forgetting something in the planning process and coming up with what’s needed during writing.

    As for my three questions (Second World Epic Fantasy setting):
    1) How does the construct of the soul (light or dark) impact a person’s loyalties?
    2) How does a technological breakthrough impact a ongoing war?
    3) How does the rise of monarchies impact the world.

    There are many more important questions to answer but those 3 are needed to continue writing.

  • I’ll add my congrats and I can’t wait for more Ethan. 😀

    On the question front, I think I’ll get back to you tomorrow because I’m working on so many things at the same time that I’ll have to choose, and at the end of the day, I’m kind of a cross between you and Faith in this regard (and I’m not going to add the love child reference…oh poo, I just did 😉 ). I do work some in the initial brainstorm with some basic questions that roll around in my head, which sort of looks much like a question and answer session, which I think I might have mentioned before. What’s the magic like? Who are the main characters? Who’s the love interest? Who’s the antagonist? Why do they want what they want? What’s the main theme? Are there other lands, are they/will they be in the conflict? If so, who are they? But a lot also gets glossed over until I’m writing. Until I actually delve into the work, I don’t fully know who some people/cxultures/communities are until I get to explore their psyche a bit and their lands. Quite frequently, a land will evolve based on a character the MC’s meet and interact with. Ah, it’s a crazy life skirting the edge between free form and structure. 😉

  • Nathan, I agree that keeping facts, rules, etc. consistent is key to good worldbuilding. And to the extent that a writer can transport him/herself to the world in the writing process, yes, that will make for more compelling descriptions and creativity. Thanks for the comment.

    Stephen, thanks. Answering those big questions often leads to a lot of information — connections, interrelationships; the synergy I mention in the post. It seems that a lot of folks leave many details for the writing phase, which is fine. It may be that I’m the oddball, and more of you are like Faith.

    CE, thank you. Those are big, important questions. Good luck with the worldbuilding. And yes, I’m like you. A lot of my during-the-writing worldbuilding results from stuff I forgot to figure out before hand.

    Thank you, Daniel. I’m going to slide right past the love child thing and just say that the writing process does afford us a unique opportunity to blend plotting and character arc with our worldbuilding, which can be a good thing. Still, I like to answer as much as I can ahead of time.

  • …the writing process does afford us a unique opportunity to blend plotting and character arc with our worldbuilding, which can be a good thing. Still, I like to answer as much as I can ahead of time.

    Hehe! Oh, I really should too, honestly. It’s part of the reason I have to suddenly put on the brakes and do research halfway through a work. 😉

  • Thanks, David. These are great questions. I’m trying my first epic fantasy and I find that a lot of my world building happens by trying to spin one idea out as far as it will go. My MC is an acolyte in a monotheistic, goddess based religion – figuring out the economic and social implications of a world like that has been fun and unexpected.

  • Thank you, David. Fair enough. I’ve been thinking more about this and I realized that all of my major projects have been going on for some time, so it’s hard to say which came first or how I approached them. But I have been doing more outlining before actually writing for newer stuff. And my questions are, “Who is the character and situation?”, “Who is the bad guy?”, and “What happens?/How does this end?” Answering those big basic points leads to the next level of detail, and then the next, and at some point I’m too fired up and have to write the story. And then I refine the worldbuilding as the story demands.

    Of course, that doesn’t stop me from getting really detailed about certain points before I start. Ask Daniel about how I asked him all about woodsmoke, or Rhonda about Florida. 😉

  • Razziecat

    Late to the party again…*sigh* But hey, congratulations on your new contract, David! I’m eagerly looking forward to the next Thieftaker book and it’s great to hear there will be even more. And maybe a few more short stories, too…? 😉

    Re: You’re so right when you say that you can’t anticipate everything in worldbuilding. I did a lot of it for my WIP and I still keep finding more questions. Three things I had to find answers to before my characters could were: Why is it a bad thing to have an ancient god return to their world? How can they stop it? And how will their world change if they do?

    I have another new thing simmering on the back burners with even more fundamental questions. Mostly what I have so far are two characters that I find interesting. My questions: Who are these people and why are they in my head? No, wait…:) Well, who are they? What are their individual histories? (I have hints of some very bad things in their past) and third, what nasty thing happens to get them involved with each other? Actually, let’s add a fourth: Where do they live? I still have no idea what kind of world they live in.

  • Sarah, that sounds like an interesting project. Good luck with it.

    Laura, I tend to ask those sorts of questions, too, though usually when I’m working on building a narrative and working on character sketches and thinking about character arc. And then, of course, we can talk about a whole other level of synergy, because worldbuilding and character and narrative all work together as well. Writing really is an organic process.

    Razz, thanks for the comment and good wishes. (Yes, there will be more Thieftaker short stories coming in 2013.) I think part of my next post (or the one after) will be on blending character work with worldbuilding as we turn from prep work to actually writing. There is more to this topic than I thought!

  • @David: I only left so many details to the writing phase because I was terrified of contracting “Worldbuilder’s Disease” and I was eager to get to my story. As it was, just focusing on the stuff I thought was important for the background, I had some 50,000 words worth of material before I started writing the first draft.

  • Cindy

    Congratulations on the Thieftaker contract! Just don’t murder any more dogs please.

  • Stephen, understood.

    Cindy, thanks. And I won’t, but please avoid the spoilers, okay? 😉

  • quillet

    Super late here, ack, busy week.

    I just wanted to say that I’m thrilled about your book deal, though mainly for my own selfish reasons. More Ethan for me to read, yay!

    …Oh, but I’m happy for you too, of course. 😉

  • Thanks, Quillet. Much appreciated.

  • Megan B.

    Congrats on your new book deal! (I’m a bit late to the party, I know)

    Looking at this post and its comments again, something suddenly hit me. I did no world-building for my current WIP before I started, and I have suffered for it. I’ve been making it up as I go, and the result is sort of… undefined. I’ve created a world that is somewhat medieval, but in certain ways more modern. I have never really defined it for myself beyond what felt right in my mind. I fear it will not work for some readers, but I’m not even sure what to do about it. The world in this book is just a backdrop for the story, but it needs to make sense, and I don’t know if readers will have a problem with it. (So far beta readers have pointed out a word here or an object there that felt out of place, and I fixed those things, but there may be a wealth of others that haven’t come up yet).

    I’m just thinking out loud, I suppose. By now I’ve developed a pretty firm idea of what the world of my story is like. The real issue is how to present it in a way that will be accepted. Otherwise readers who take it for medieval will feel something is amiss when I mention pencils and neckties.

  • Megan, thank you. You didn’t ask for advice on your world and WIP, so forgive me for offering some anyway. I would suggest that you jot down some notes on your world that help you get a firm sense of the rules and contours as they have developed through your writing, and that you then go back through the story to look for and fix inconsistencies and issues that might trip up more seasoned readers (i.e. editors and agents). Internal inconsistencies can doom a book as it’s being considered for publication or representation, and you want the book to draw the positive attention of the market. Yes, it might take you some time to do this (although probably not much more than a week or two), but it will be well worth the time. Best of luck with it.