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Fantasy Worldbuilding 101

October 2, 2007

I just finished listening to the Dead Robots Society’s podcasts (part 1, part 2) on building a universe, and while I liked them quite a bit, they made me wonder, what should go into a world when you’re starting from scratch. As a result, I’m going to give you some of my thoughts on the subject. Keep in mind, this isn’t meant to be only for fantasy writing, but I think that fantasy writers will get the most out of it, as that is my personal focus.

The first thing to remember about worldbuilding is that you don’t want to do too much of it. On the other hand, it is just as big of a danger to do too little.  So the challenge, then is finding the right amount.  The four rules below are not hard and fast (except for the first one), but I think that they provide a good basis from which to talk about how to go about worldbuilding.

Rule #1: The story dictates all.  The amount of worldbuilding you have to do is dictated almost entirely by the story, after all, if the entire story takes place on an isolated island, then who cares about the continent on the other side of the world that no one on the island has ever heard of?  If there is any one thing that you should take away from what I write here, this is it.  Everything else that I write will be stuff to help you determine just how much the story does dictate.

Rule #2: If you can’t picture the environment that your characters are walking around and doing stuff in, then you haven’t done enough.  It is easy to do just enough that you can get a sense of what is there, but everything is sort of blurry and vague.  You don’t have to know what sort of wood the lord’s house is made out of (unless its critical to the story, in which case, it had better be damn interesting), but you don’t want to rely on residual memories of other authors work to paint in the details for you (your readers will not have read all the same stuff you have, and besides, its boring).  Corollary to this is that a few rich details are worth reams of mundane description, focus on the interesting stuff.

Rule #3:  Stop when it gets easy.  If you can write down five pages on just about anything in your world without thinking about it too much, then you already know enough about the world to start writing.  The point of worldbuilding is not to work out every single detail, but rather to get your head inside of the world, where you can see it, so that your prose will be authentic.

Rule #4:  If its hard, ask yourself why.  If its because you’re still making basic decisions about how things will work, then you should keep on going.  If, on the other hand, its because you’re making decisions that are so small that there isn’t enough to go on, then you should stop.  Too much worldbuilding is something that keeps many new authors from actually writing.  Remember, its a step in the path to a destination (the finished story), nothing more.

As always, feel free to leave comments.  I am doing this for me as well as for everyone else, and since I am not a master of it, I may (and probably have) get a few things wrong, in which case I expect you to call me on them.  Good luck and happy worldbuilding.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ryan Stevenson permalink
    October 8, 2007 8:14 am

    Bang on, man! Rule 2 is a great idea, and I really like that. It is an interesting exercise to picture your main character walking down the street or whatever, and having them just look around. What do they see? Why do they see that? That kind of idea. Great thoughts!

  2. October 8, 2007 9:23 am

    Thanks. I wouldn’t have written it if not for your podcast, though. It made me realize that one of the major problems with the story that I was working on (and posting here) was that I really had done almost no world building. It was like playing an 8-bit video game, there was suff there, but if you looked at it too closely, you realized that it was just a flat wall.

  3. Steve Leahy permalink
    October 31, 2007 1:48 pm

    The Story Dictates All! Something I struggle with immensely. Part of my issue is I can visual so well and what I see is so grand that even though it may not relate to the story I want to be able to convey it to others. Something I need to work on, because my novel is riddled with things I can most likely trim. Good advice.

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