Welcome back world building buddies!
This fortnight’s post we’re doing something a little different.
I wanted to talk about why I think world building is worthwhile.
I have some friends, who are great writers I admire, who absolutely loathe the idea of world building. Likewise, I’ve read plenty of arguments on the internet from those who believe it unnecessary for the majority of fiction, and a niche for fantasy and sci-fi.
As a writer, tabletop gamer and role player, world building is fun for me. I do it because I enjoy it, but I also don’t believe that it only serves a niche. I believe that thinking about the questions we’ve addressed so far in this blog, and the many other questions which come part and parcel with building a world, are important questions for any narrative. I believe a lot of them are even important questions we should ask about the world we live in.
I guess perhaps the devil is in the details. I don’t see world building as any different to story building. Others might find it facetious, but I take the tautological argument to heart. Any story is a world of its own. When I think about world building, I think about building the world my story, or game, needs. I think about the elements that the reader will need to be able to recall, and understand, to infer certain things. Or feel certain ways.
To that end, I’ve decided to compile what I guess I feel are the real sins you can commit when you’re world building, and I guess in some ways, they’re also a rebuttal against those who think world building isn’t a valid or important aspect of shaping a narrative. Or that people who apply principles of world building only produce second-rate fiction.
As long as you’re approaching world building the right way, its only going to improve your skills as a storyteller.
1. Don’t world build more than you write and progress plot
No one wants to read a dry dissertation on anything. (Trust me, I’ve written one.) And that is exactly what you’ll get if you spend too much time building a world and not enough time progressing the story you want to tell in it.
Whether you’re a dungeon master or a writer, I firmly believe you should be spending as much time crafting your story or adventure, as you spend building the world it’s set in. If you spend too much time building the world, it’s easy to become so distracted by the big picture that you lose sight of the way a world is perceived by a person.
Even the best guidebooks and campaign settings of worlds, come from worlds that were already rich with story and characters.
Take my favourite example, The Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It didn’t get its best, most detailed incarnations until the late 90’s, and in my opinon, it’s best version came out in 2001. But Ed Greenwood, R. A. Salvatore and Douglas Niles had been publishing stories set in the world of Faerun since the late 80’s!
I can’t tell you what the magic ratio of world building to actual writing is.
My personal preference is to write more than I world build. I like to world build on the side of my writing. I’ve been keeping a record of a magical language since I started using it so I can find it easily if I want to use a word again or develop a new word.
Sometimes, when I write a scene about a character visiting somewhere for the first time, I get a piece of scrap paper and a pen and draw myself a miniature city map, or building, so I can clearly see the gates or doorways, I want to make use of in my writing. I save all these, and later, I make larger more detailed maps from them. For my own fun, not for any real use in the fantasy stories that I’m working on.
However you’re approaching your world building, as long as you’re not losing sight of the goals of your characters, and the story you want to tell, then there’s no harm in detailing your creation. But remember, you’re building the world to tell a story, and the story should always be your end goal.
2. ‘Real’ and ‘Relatable’ are two different ideas in world building
Maybe this one should go down as the thing that bothers me the most with world building arguments. Realism is not the goal. Relatability is. What is real in the world is whatever the creator decides is real. The goal is creating enough of a semblance of realism that the reader is able to suspend their disbelief and transport themselves to that world.
Someone world building for a piece of realist literature set in the 21st Century has a task is completely different to someone who is writing a novel set in colonial Vietnam. And that person’s task is completely different to the task of the person writing about the year 4325, and life aboard the mobile space colony Odin 5. But every single one of these writers is developing the world of their story, tweaking it, changing it and breathing life into it so that when we turn the pages, we’re sucked into believing how real it is.
My Father was a huge fan of James Clavell, especially his book Shogun and other titles from his Asian Saga. Although I didn’t read the books until after his passing, I understood the draw. Clavell’s version of Feudal Japan is so vivid and detailed it masterfully recreates a feudal Japan that is relatable enough, you feel as if you’re living it. Of course, he’s done what all authors do and taken liberties with his world to tell the best story he possibly can.
Clavell spent his time researching, and theorising, and crafting his own version of that time in our history, to tell an epic story of his imagining.
The end goal shouldn’t ever be some sort of ‘perfect realism’. It should always be setting up the backdrop for your ideas. Making sure you understand them well enough to interpret how they affect your characters and the paths you imagine them taking.
3. You don’t need to know every detail about your world.
That is part of what a world needs, after all. Discovery.
Even some of the most expansive and detailed worlds created by authors have gaps. Tolkien, Pratchett, Roddenberry, Rowling. There’s not a world out there that doesn’t have a few missing pieces of dialect or a passing mention of a place, or event, that isn’t detailed or complete in its canonical lore.
Which is a good thing. People enjoy filling in those gaps. Friends get together and hatch theories, people hash it out on Reddit.
Some people will rail against fan theories. I tend to see it in a different light. Thinking about an imaginary world, and critically and thoughtfully examining it can be as useful and revelatory as critically and thoughtfully examining the world that we live in. It can teach us things about the world we live in, and our ourselves.
As a world builder, my goal is to create places that people care enough about to fill in the gaps. A world is a huge and vast thing. With a million stories in it.
I don’t imagine I could ever do something alone, which the great writers I admire never accomplished themselves. But I want to build a world of fiction which inspires people the same way they have.
Which I guess brings me to my next, and final point, about why world building is a worthwhile tool and exercise for writers of all sorts.
4. Your world is a vehicle for your narrative. But it has the possibility to be home to many narratives.
Why do we build worlds, really? One of the most cited arguments I’ve seen in my travels, is that it’s pointless. You don’t need to build a world to write a good story and plenty of good writers have never done it.
This is true. So I tried to answer the question, at least for myself. Why do we build worlds?
I think it’s so that people will care about everything that encompasses your story. Not just about the characters and whether they succeeded. It won’t just be about your ingenious red herrings and your clever plot twists. They’ll care about the world too. They’ll care about the world, and they’ll want to imagine what it would be like to be one of the characters in that story. That’s what I want from my writing and world building anyway.
Building your world thoroughly is a gift to others, and to my mind, it’s also something of an invitation.
Maybe one of the reasons I love Star Wars and Star Trek so much is because both shows and fandoms have a robust history of fan-created and canonical theories. But these aren’t the only examples of derivative works highlighting the benefits of people thinking deeply, imagining and building upon the worlds they read about.
One of the best books I’ve ever read is Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. I may have mentioned it before because it’s a wonderful piece of writing. But Rhys could never have written this book if Charlotte Bronte had never written Jane Eyre. In her postmodern prequel, Rhys gives voice to a voiceless character, but she also builds a deeper and more relatable picture of a world from humanity’s past, and sheds light on uncomfortable and important questions about what humanity has been, and what it should become.
That’s the beauty of creating a world of any sort. Even a world that might seem grounded in realism, like the world of the characters in Jane Eyre.
By making that world real-enough for its audience to take an interest, you open the door to learning more about it yourself.
I hope these tips help you, either by inspiring you to continue building your world, or reminding you when to put the tools down and get back down to the micro of your story.
But I also hope they help silence any doubts you might have, that world building isn’t a valuable exercise for writers. I hope I’ve helped remind you how interwoven world building and story building are. So interwoven they’re part of the same fabric. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, I might have even turned you into a world building convert!
Until next time frens!