Is it something you plan out meticulously ahead of time, or is it something you just work out as you go? What's your approach to worldbuilding when you're telling a story?
Is it something you plan out meticulously ahead of time, or is it something you just work out as you go? What's your approach to worldbuilding when you're telling a story?
I have something of a habit of replying to people on this subject in the /r/writing subsection of Reddit.
Worldbuilding is seductive, but it's not writing. Some people get confused on that front.
There are a lot of writers who will detail a world down to every last section and subsection, in history, geography, characters, they depict the entire world in bullet form and short tracts. But then they sit down to write... and they can't.
This is really, really common.
How much you worldbuild varies depending on your nature and personality. Some are architects, and some are gardeners, after all. There's no hard answer. But, and I stress this, there's a point where anyone has to cut themselves off.
It's good to have a sense of how things work, but personally, my preference is to worldbuild in snippets. Switch characters, go to different places, but worldbuild by showing scenes that incorporate what you have in mind. I've recommended people just cut themselves off from bullet points entirely. The amazing thing that happens when you do this is that characters come to life, and elements pop into being, that you never would have come up with if you'd just stuck to the reams of documents and files.
The more detailed the world I build the harder it is for me to write a story in it. The current world I am working with started off with a power system and I just wrote from there, doing my best not to start contradicting myself. It is going ok certainly better than my other false starts. I have only been at this a couple of weeks so I can't say for certain if it will keep working in the long run. But for now I just go with the interesting options.
My approach isn't really much of one. I decided what I wanted to do in very vague terms, picked a name and a gender for my character and just went with it. All sorts of things grew out of it. Things that impact the character then spin off in questions. If this is like this, then this has to be like this. Things like that.
Planning would bore me senseless. I can't even out line more than a vague end.
I'm also like Taulsn, just started.
World building SUCKS. I decided to do an alt-history book, and I got the world down, but even with a basis in reality, it is still the worst part of it. I know everybody else seems to love it, but I hate it with a burning passion (which may be part of why my first serial seemed like a more serious version of a South Park episode).
In my defense, though, I kinda started with a character (she is awesome, a total bad-ass crazy bitch, think Joker mixed with Batman mixed with Lisbeth Salanser mixed with Veronica Mars mixed with Catwoman) and after deciding on how she was gonna fight the baddies, I tried to make that make some sense. Then, I realized that her backstory wouldn't work out at all, so I changed history so that it did, and I kinda just went with it.
Mine is a haphazard approach. The best advice I got in this respect is this: build your characters first, then build the world. I'm not reading the saga of Skullcrusher the Stabber (a fantasy book I just came up with) for the intricate and realistic discourse of the local underground dwarven economy and its relations to the surface people. I'm reading to see him crush skulls first, the world building comes second, when it's relevant.
So basically, listen to Tempest. That's the way I do it too. Planning can be helpful though, to help avoid contradictions and give you a sense of what you want to do with the world, long term wise. i.e. I want a sci fi world based around the hero worship of pilots. Now build the world off of that. And, like Tempest said: tell what impacts the character.
Hope this helped.
Worldbuilding is a great way to procrastinate. It's a black hole into which you can sink time and effort and creativity, and you can awe yourself and everyone around you with this wonderful, detailed, unique world you've come up with. There's no end to the things you can work into your world, so many fun toys to play with.
But that's not writing your story.
Personally, I love worldbuilding. I love taking a single fact and spinning it out into 'what does this mean for a whole world', and mixing things together, and looking at what that means for character backgrounds, tools I can use in a story, and other cool flavour-type-things I can throw in. It's fun!
For me, the tricky choice is when I worldbuild, and how much. It's about figuring out when I've got enough to start and then starting the writing of the story. For example, with Starwalker, I did a bunch of reading on astrophysics before I started, but only read a fraction of the material I have on it. I got to the point where I had worked out enough of the rules of the technology to be able to start and I didn't want to delay the writing of the story any more, so I got going with the writing.
How much is enough? That's a really hard thing to pin down. There needs to be enough for your characters and story to make sense, and for your world to be internally consistent and logical. It's okay to handwave stuff that's not terribly important for your story. Make good use of beta readers if you're not sure if you're hitting the right balance!
I don't stop worldbuilding while I write, though. I'll have placeholders for certain things, and fill them in as I get closer. Like the artificial planet where the my main character was built but doesn't actually appear in the story until book 3. I'll keep reading research material and filling out backgrounds stuff. Mostly, if I have enough to make the story flow and make sense, I'm happy.
I have a long commute to work and sometimes staring out of the window, churning over ideas and possibilities, is all my brain is good for in the morning (I commute by train, rather than driving, which is safer for everyone, I think). I've had whole stories fall into place once I've worked out the world they live in that way. Of course, once the story's ready to start, I just have to find the time to actually write it. Argh.
I think I'm pretty much with Kess on this subject. Worldbuilding is one of my favorite things to do. Figuring out all the little details of how everything works, where it came from, who invented it, who maintains it, what the regulations are, I get kind of obsessive about these sorts of things. (And most of it also happens on my commute to work as well! High five. Though I'm actually driving so mine's less safe haha)
But as much as I know about how the world of Caelum Lex works, the fact of the matter is that in most cases, it doesn't matter. We introduced CIDs pretty casually and from the way they're used, I think people can sort of interpret them as essentially the character's 'personal computer' and for the sake of the story, that's fine. In actuality, it's a lot more complex than that and although I'm incredibly proud of the idea behind it and its functionality, there's just no reason to put it in the story. Like Syphax said, people read for the characters and plots. No one wants to read little details about the technology. Unless it's important. And if it does come up, we explain it in detail for that purpose. But only then.
But I do think it's handy to know as much as you can about your world going in. Obviously new things are going to pop up, but I've found it helpful to have the encyclopedia of your world in your head at all times. That way, your world is at least consistent and will feel more real and fleshed out. You'll instantly know if an idea you have can fit into the world or not and you'll never be left guessing.
I try to only add details where they're relevant to the story (emphasis on try). I've gotten good at indicating culture and history so that the world feels real, but I try not to go into detail unless it's necessary for character development/plot. If you can get the reader to feel like the world is an actual living place they could possibly visit, you've succeeded IMO. Traveling a lot helps.
I mean, having that said I have fallen victim to the way-too-much-info trap many times! Mostly for things like food descriptions and describing interiors of houses. Hobbity things, I guess. I love that fantasy domestic stuff. I've always found it useful, though. A lot of my early musings have shown up in later drafts as background noise, and it only adds to the sense of place.
Sorry for the necro-bump. I'm playing catch-up on the site, and this is relevant to my own writing struggles. Relating to Kess and Wildbow's points:
I'm one of those lunatics that can create interesting characters with full backstories hand over fist, can sit down and map out a pretty decent world detailed enough to run an RPG campaign in, in a single day. As such, I've got literally thousands of characters and hundreds of worlds in my backlog. And between them all I can count on one hand the number of actual stories I've come up with to use them in. Maybe two if I push it.
Oh, sure, it's easy to come up with an over-arching plot for a season, but the actual chapters, the actual episodes? I got nothing. And that's because all too often my creativity does pretty much fixate on the world building before anything else. And in a way, creating characters and coming up with a general outline of events is just an extension of that. It is fun. It is interesting. It impresses all your creative buddies while letting you put off the work of doing the actual story.
Setting up rules for the world is a fun exercise, but even when I do finally sit down to try and write a story in a given setting, I immediately want to break my own rules. For example, I have a world where the superhuman power sets are rigidly divided into five specific categories, with no crossing over. People who throw fireballs can also manipulate water with practice, but will never cast a heal spell. This is because superhumans in this setting are descended from genetically engineered magic soldiers who were all strategically specialized in their abilities. Now, this can make for an interesting power limitation in an RPG, or character creation challenge.
I sit down to write the story, though, and I immediately want to have my main guy be able to throw fireballs and heal and turn invisible (which is a third category). And for some reason, he just dead-set sticks in my head this way. There's some ways around it (specialized artifacts), but those ways wouldn't be available to someone like him. So now, instead of just saying "fuck it" and running with it, I end up getting all hung up on how my power dynamic is broken and I need to fix it, and, oh hey, while I'm fixing it, wasn't there something else about this one country I was still iffy on? I should go back and tinker with that a bit. Before I know it, its a year later, the story is stale on me, and even as much as it nags me, it's become nigh-impossible to write.
Some of the better stuff I've done has just been to, once I have an idea of an end-goal, start throwing random shit that seems neat at the time when I do the first few stories, or first few plot points of an RPG campaign. Then, as I continue, I start trying to wrap those elements together, tying loose ends and making connections between the seemingly random stuff. While this doesn't always work out, you'd be surprised how often ideas of yours end up synching up down the line.
When I was a kid, I created my first superhero universe and was truly random about it, throwing any idea that came to mind into the world and just running with it without a care. Years later, I went back and looked my ideas over, and I actually saw how a bunch of them could easily be related and interconnected. A vast majority of character origins could be tied into the machinations of a company that was experimenting with mutants. A good majority of the alien shenanigans going on easily tied back to these two otherwise unrelated alien villains. In the end, while the world was still way too silly for me to get back into, I could easily see how to make the random universe much more cohesive than I'd originally thought.
I'm not sure if this sort of method would really work for anyone else, but I've found I'm really a by the gut writer. If plan too much, nothing gets done. If I just write in the moment, sure, plenty of stuff goes nowhere, but after a while, some of it starts clicking into place, and before I know it, I've got something pretty decent I've been building up without realizing it.
I don't throw away the world I built, but I no longer build the entire world upfront.
While writing I often end up in a situation where I suspect I risk shooting myself in the foot (right now or later). At such a time I world-build until the danger is gone, and hence my world is a little bit more defined.
As I see it the worst problem with a frontloaded world is that it'll become static. You invested so much energy in building it that you become wary of 'destroying' it.
I kind of approach it both ways. I like having the general, large chunks of world building done before I start writing, but the specifics I leave to come up with as I write. This way I won't be as tempted to engage in huge exposition dumps nor accidentally write myself into a corner.
World building can be a seductive time-waster. Wildbow hits the nail on the head though: It isn't writing. Not in the sense of 'furthering the plot of your story', anyway.
A problem with worldbuilding is that a lot of words and effort often end up wasted in what amount to pretty dry historical facts.
The best thing I can recommend as a time-efficient world-building exercise, that will actually inform characters and plot? Write nursery rhymes for your world. These reflect the simplest distillation of cultural information, the information *every child* in your world grows up knowing.
Here's a selection I've used for From Winter's Ashes:
When mother thirsted I conjured her water, when mother hungered I conjured her food. When mother died of her thirst and her hunger, I buried her sadly in the green woods.
Mama, mama, the crib is on fire, Baby is angry and sparking with ire. Mama, mama, bring milk for the babes, and a song of sweet joys to put out the flames.
An itch in the teeth says father, a taste on the air says mother. A song on the wind says sister, a smell of the iron says brother. A light in the distance says I! Oh what sort of spell do we spy?
Each of these, in four sentences or less, does more to inform me about the world (both as the author and the reader) than pages of worldbuilding.
Rhyme #1 establishes that a child can work magic, and conjure food and water, but that doing so doesn't provide meaningful nourishment.
Rhyme #2 establishes that *everyone* in this universe can work magic, from infants on up to adults, and that emotion has a direct link to the use of magic.
Rhyme #3 establishes that different people use different senses to perceive magic.
Rhyme #4 establishes that people do sometimes return from the dead unexpectedly in this universe, and in doing so, return with a connection to spirits. Sometimes that connection is manifested in physical objects or symbols.
Even if you never use this in the manuscript, you should, as the author for your world, be able to imagine up the simple nursery rhymes that would be intrinsic to the cultures you're exploring. Writing characters that grew up with these nursery rhymes will tell you a great deal about what they know and don't know about the world around them, and the reader will follow the character's cues.
Roger Zelazny, a science fiction writer I like would write a short story about the main character of a novel he was writing, and then only rarely show the short story to anyone else. It had the effect of forcing him to make basic decisions about the character and setting before writing the story. There's a lot to be said for it.
Personally, I tend to come up with ideas about the basics of the setting before writing, but then constantly make up details while writing. The key part of this is that I'm always asking myself if they fit the overall picture. I then modify overall picture to fit if the new idea works better for the character/plot than the old one. Also, vice versa if I feel that things will work better if I hew closely to the original idea.
I love world building, but the world only starts to come alive when you start writing and allow the characters, the plot, and the story to shape and enrich the setting. JRR Tolkien spent what I believe is the upper limit of world building... like, there's almost as much text on world building as there is text on story telling. It's a little crazy. That said, write EVERYTHING DOWN, it's so helpful to have a collection of information on the world's rules, places, cultures, customs etc., because if you produce an inconsistency, your readers will notice.
I spent several years working on background details, because experience taught me that being vague and not having strong foundations caused things to fall apart. As for how and when I insert it into the actual writing, I tend to keep it out of the first draft, use the second to work out what extra details I need, and the third to hone them. A lot of the time, I cut it down in the final revision.
It also depends on which character is the POV. Some are more inclined to the details and like to ponder things or show off. Others are blissfully ignorant or couldn't care less.