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Worldbuilding and Its Perils

January 4, 2012

Dear readers, today I would like to talk about a subject that is both a boon and a bane to writers. Some would call it an important skill set to be honed and a craft to be nurtured. Some would call it a necessity of writing speculative fiction, be it fantasy, science fiction, alternate history or horror. I agree with those descriptions, but I would also have to call it a double-edged sword, even, an addiction.

No, I’m not talking about alcohol, but where writers are concerned that’s usually an appropriate guess. No, I’m not talking about pornography either. I am talking about a psychological affliction that I too have suffered from in the past, and even today I sometimes find myself dabbling with old habits that border on madness. No damnit, I already said I’m not talking about booze or porn!

What I am talking about is the craft of worldbuilding. Just so we’re clear on a definition, worldbuilding is the creation of the setting that your characters exist in, whatever type of fiction you’re creating. The “worlds” we create do not need to be the size and scope of a planet. It could be the broom closet where the entire story takes place, or an interplanar empire that encompasses the entirety of the space-time continuum. A world in this sense is wherever stuff happens in your story (or game, if you’re into those types of games), or places that are mentioned in connection with the stuff that happens, even if characters don’t actually visit those places.

So why is worldbuilding so potentially dangerous? If you’re one of those creative types (and if you bother to read this, I can only assume you are), it can very easily become an obsession unto itself. Chances are that if you’ve ever tried writing a novel set in a place that doesn’t exist, and especially if you’ve ever tried running a tabletop RPG, you probably have at least some idea of what I mean. I speak from experience here. Follow along with me here as I briefly chart the course of my fascination with made-up worlds.

It was probably around age 4 when it began with maps. To this day, I love maps in general. At that time, it was treasure maps. Or really, maps of the adventures my friends and I could have when we played ‘let’s pretend’. Somewhere along the line I figured out that I could draw these little maps before my friends came over to play, and I could even decorate them with little warnings of the various monsters or erupting volcanoes we would have to be wary of. To me this was even more enjoyable than making those crayon drawings of fruit and dinosaurs on the underside of my mom’s coffee table. (I still don’t understand why she was so surprised to find those drawings years later when she moved that table. I made a lot of those drawings when she was sitting right there on the couch.)

I wasn’t much older when I next discovered certain video games. You know, the type of game where mapping the world you’re playing in isn’t just encouraged, it’s actually a necessity, unless you were using a hint book. I’m talking about games like Legend of Zelda, and especially the Sierra adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. (Also Leisure Suit Larry, but I wouldn’t be old enough to buy or play those for quite a few more years.) Suddenly the  creation of imaginary worlds became a very tangible concept all on its own, though at the time I was still thinking of using my made-up settings in a video game someday. Sure I was into fantasy and sci-fi books at the time- cartoons too- but the need or desire to create my own settings for stories hadn’t quite clicked yet. I was however inspired to create more detailed settings in the form of board games. For probably a year or so I used up every spare piece of cardboard in the house creating, and endless recreating game boards and misshapen cards to play with. Never quite got all the rules worked out though.

I was eight years-old when I first read The Hobbit and nine when I read Lord of the Rings. (Is this starting to sound familiar to anyone else?) Here were stories that took place in a fictional world with a mythical geography like that of the Greek and Roman myths I had been reading about in school. And they had some pretty sweet maps to go with them. Suddenly, I wanted my own fictional worlds for my own stories and my own characters. The birth of my inner writer came hand in hand with the formation of my worldbuilding habit.  I could spend hours, even a sleepless night or two, drawing (and redrawing) maps, and making notes of the monsters, heroes, villains, kings and gods to be found in my various worlds.

I was nine when I discovered that Dungeons and Dragons was a game you played with people and not just a cartoon show. (Tabletop RPG’s might get a post of their own here at some point.) The fact that the game encourages (practically requires) the creation of imaginary settings was just fuel on the already fully stoked fire.

So what’s the downside to constantly creating fictional settings? If you write fantasy and sci-fi, doesn’t this supply you with endlessly useful amounts of setting material?

Glad you asked. (Well, you’re still reading this, so let’s just pretend you asked anyway.)

For writers, the first problem with endlessly creating, remaking and tinkering with your settings is that it can end up distracting you from the more important parts of your story. You know, like characters, conflict, and oh yeah, the plot. There’s just only so much setting detail you need in any story. In fact, you really only need the parts of a setting that are going to affect your characters and just enough background information to make the conflicts understandable.

It might be interesting to have a continent in your made-up world where warring wizards-kings are constantly fighting one another in battles that warp the terrain, but if none of your characters are from that place, or ever visit that place, then what does it matter? If your story is about two spacefaring races at war, do you need to create a dozen other spacefaring races to populate your galaxy? And if you do use that extra stuff, are you including it because your story genuinely calls for it, or are you changing your story to fit the setting you created?

That’s the second major problem. The tendency of writers, especially we amateurs, to mold a story to fit a fantastical setting, rather than the other way around. What one usually ends up writing in that case is essentially just fan fiction. Usually bad fan fiction. Yes, some people can be fans of their own fantasy worlds. (Including some published writers who I won’t name here.)

I came to realize some time ago that the Tolkien model of worldbuilding is not the model any writer should deliberately try to follow. The good professor originally began creating Middle Earth as in exercise in keeping his sanity in the trenches of World War I. (Though granted he did start work on his Elvish languages while he was still in school before the war.) There’s good reason it took him five to six years to finish writing and publish The Hobbit alone. It’s far better to write only the bare minimum setting background, if any at all, before you begin telling your future readers about your characters and what happens to them.

In attempting to reform my ways, I’ve begun to ask myself a couple of simple worldbuilding questions about setting when sketching out a story. Firstly, does the story need to be set anywhere that isn’t on Earth? Afterall, what made-up world could really be as weird, as scary, as humorous, as dangerous, and as well-known all at once as our own world? If my story is about a mutant cyborg fighting a demon-summoning sorcerer for the love of a werewolf, would it be more interesting to have their big fight scene take place on some alien planet, or in the middle of the Sunset Strip in Hollywood? For one thing, I think it would be much easier to get my readers to buy into a setting they’re familiar with. (And Hollywood is alien enough to some people.)

Secondly, how prominently do I think events in the world at large will figure into the plot? If the answer is not very prominently, or if I don’t know the answer, I can just flesh out the world as I go and not worry about it until it becomes important. That’s the approach I took to setting when I wrote Westreach, and I think it worked out pretty well in terms of finishing that first draft. (I’m certain my trouble revising the draft is not related to how I approached the setting.)

The best examples of a create-as-you-go world that I have ever read are undoubtedly Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels. Told in a picaresque fashion, the setting of the Dying Earth becomes a different character unto itself from story to story and chapter to chapter. I think it works out so well precisely because the reader rarely gets more than a glimpse of the world as a whole. I definitely recommend the Tales of the Dying Earth compilation for any writer who’s looking to break the cycle of worldbuilding compulsion.

I’m hardly cured of my bad worldbuilding habits, but at least I’ve learned to manage them. I still find myself fiddling around with maps sometimes without any story being involved, just for the heck of it. But I guess some compulsions have their uses.

Made with AutoRealm. Spiffy, no?

(By the way, the hex map at the top was made with Hexographer. It’s free, and it runs in your browser. If you also suffer from a worldbuilding addiction, whatever you do, don’t check it out. Seriously, it waaay too convenient and easy to use.)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nintendo 3DS XL permalink
    August 8, 2015 1:34 pm

    Great post. I’m dealing with some of these issues as well..



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