On the Subject of Worldbuilding

A whole new wooooooooorld!

Worldbuilding, history, lore… Whatever you want to call it, it all ultimately comes down to the same thing. It’s the setting of your story. It’s where everything is taking place, where the characters live, and what has gone on before the story starts.

This is an important part of any creative work, but a problem I’ve noticed both in myself and other writers is a tendency to get stuck on it. To build out a world more and more as thoughts on how everything connects together comes to us. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this, but the danger is that one can become so caught up in creating societies and history that they never get around to actually writing the stories they want to tell in that world.

In my experience, it’s best to remain focused when worldbuilding. You need to fight against that urge to add “just one more detail” and take a hard look at what’s actually important for what you’re writing. If, for example, you’re creating a tale of grand adventure with a hero gathering allies to fight valiantly against an evil tyrant then you probably don’t need to go into detail about agricultural practices in the various locales they visit. As well, you probably don’t need to go into the detailed history going back centuries of these same places to explain how different cultures ended up the way they did.

I’m sure you can think of exceptions to this in popular series. So can I. Malazan Book of the Fallen from Steven Erikson stands out to me, with the history he weaves into a world that feels old that always seems relevant to what’s happening. Brandon Sanderson’s works are also worth mentioning, with how he explores the impact of different kinds of magic upon the societies he creates.

But even these exceptions lean toward setting being subservient to story. Erikson only brings up extensive worldbuilding in Malazan when it directly ties into the themes and plot of the story, while Sanderson is at his best when he hints at something deeper without actually spending too much time away from the characters. The worldbuilding is in service to fleshing out characters, and thus helping to move stories along rather than being the focus on their own.

Ultimately, I’ve found that the best writing only shows as much of the world that’s needed to tell the story. There are hints of more, of course. These tidbits tease the imagination and help grant the illusion of depth, but I’m pretty certain the works that stand out best to you don’t drag the pacing down by actually explaining said tidbits in detail. They’re just there to help suspend your disbelief that this fictional world isn’t actually real.

So have fun building worlds! Just remember that if you want to do more with them than just fun thought experiments you’ll eventually need to write stories in them. And if you want to do that, you’ll need to pick and choose what’s actually important for what you wish to tell.

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