Why Nobody Should World-Build

Howdy! Aubrey Hansen here. If you’re a fan of Jordan’s, you’ve probably seen my name in passing. We’re what you might call partners in crime when it comes to storytelling. He produced my first short script “A House for Marge,” and I’m a story supervisor and screenwriter for his web series Month of the Novel. He’s mentioned in the special thanks of my latest book, and I’m mentioned in his. Basically, if I’ve written it, he’s helped me develop it, and if he’s written it, I’ve either helped develop it or raved enthusiastically about it.

So it should come to no surprise to anyone that he asked me to write a guest post for his shiny new blog. Anyone who knows me also won’t be surprised by his requested topic—world-building. What will hopefully surprise most of you, however, is the thesis I wish to present:

You shouldn’t world-build.

That’s what I said. Don’t. Don’t world-build. Whatever other writers tell you, don’t listen to them! If you’ve already started world-building, get out while you still can. It’s a slippery slope into a dark crevice with no foreseeable bottom; once you get in over your head in world-building, you’ll never get back out.

Don’t laugh at me. I’m speaking from experience. Yes, I world-build. What, you think Jordan would ask someone who’s never world-built to write an article about it? Give the guy some respect, people!

Oh, you bet I world-build. Some people even say I’m good at it. My most notable work, a fantasy planet called Erde, has gained me quite a following even though I’ve barely started. I’ve developed the basics of my world’s structure—geography, climate, calendar—but I’ve only invented a handful of animals and one or two plants. That’s hardly enough to populate a world with 4 or 5 distinct regions. I’d almost finished developing one of my cultures when I realized I needed to rewrite nearly all of the articles to make the culture as a whole consistent and realistic. I have a few ideas for three of my other cultures, but there’s several besides I haven’t even touched yet. One of those cultures needs a completely original language developed for it. To make matters worse, all of my cultures immigrated to my planet from other spheres, so at some point I may need to develop their home planets. At this rate I’ll never get around to writing any books set in the world; it’ll be a few years before I even have enough of the world developed to properly support a story.

And that, my friends, is why you shouldn’t world-build—because 10 to 1 you’ll never end up actually writing the book.

It’s okay if you’re laughing now; I’m trying to be funny in my bitterly snarky way. But don’t laugh so hard that you miss my point—I’m being serious. I have seen too many authors, myself included, flounder in the sea of world-building and never get around to writing any books. To this day I have not finished any books or scripts for which I started doing extensive world-building.

Is it just me, or does this kind of defeat the purpose of world-building? By definition, world-building is the art of developing (building) the setting (world) of a story. It’s the act of writing notes for the setting in which your book takes place—culture, politics, geography, climate, flora and fauna. Although it is most commonly associated with fantasy and sci-fi, where authors will develop completely original universes, almost all stories, even contemporary tales, involve some world-building. It can be as complex as inventing a fantasy planet or as simple as writing the charter for the computer club your main character joins. But what’s the point of doing it if you’re not going to write a story to go with it?

There ain’t much value in that, if you ask me. Sure, world-building articles can be interesting to read, and they certainly qualify as writing practice. But when you start spending all your time writing an encyclopedia for your world and never touch the stories set therein, world-building has become an elaborate form of procrastination instead of a helpful exercise. And if you’re just going to develop your little made-up world for all eternity and never write a book, you’re better off not world-building at all.

So why would anybody world-build in the first place? For that matter, why do I persist in doing it, besides the fact that I’m determined to finish what I started? Well, truth be told, world-building can be quite helpful. For many stories, it can be very helpful to have notes on how your world works. With some fantasy and sci-fi, where the world is very unique and complex, extensive world-building may be essential; but even for stories with less bizarre settings, it’s a good idea to write some notes so you can remember the layout of your main character’s town or the line of succession in your fairytale kingdom. It’s no different than writing notes about your characters or your plot.

But for some reason I’ve never seen any writer get stuck by writing endless notes about his characters. What about world-building is so addictive and distracting?  How can you write sufficient notes without getting sucked into the lethal vortex of procrastination? Can you world-build and still manage to get a book written?

The answer is, of course, yes! Plenty of authors have done it—Tolkien, anyone? As I’ve been observing other successful authors, I’ve picked up a few tips for making sure your world-building stays helpful and doesn’t turn into a disguise for writer’s block.

First and foremost, remember that you don’t need to develop every detail of your world before you begin writing. Some authors will advise you to have twice (or more) as much information as you think you need before you begin writing. Not only is this unnecessary, but when applied to world-building, it becomes positively overwhelming. Too many authors, myself included, attempt to develop their entire world in detail before writing—which explains why we spend years world-building and still don’t feel “ready.”

You don’t need to know everything about your world to successfully write in it. Think of it this way—if you were going to write a story set in Chicago, would you feel the need to research all the other cities in Illinois? What about the other states in the US? What about the other countries in the world? Would you research the current politics in Dublin before writing? Of course not! What’s happening in Ireland is completely irrelevant to your story, so researching it would be a waste of time.

By the same token, you don’t need to know everything about every region in your made-up world before writing; you only need to focus on the region the story is set in. If you’re finding yourself overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you think you need to world-build, step back and ask yourself how much of it is truly essential for the story. Plot out your story, draw up a list of world-building elements that are incorporated, and focus on those. If you find yourself wandering and world-building endlessly instead of writing, force yourself to stick to the list.

Of course, not all stories stay close to home. There could be a story in which Irish politics affect life in Chicago. For instance, an Irish exchange student could join your main character’s class. In this case, researching Ireland would be warranted. So what happens if the character in your fantasy novel encounters elements from other regions in your fictional planet?

My recommendation would be to let the story guide you, and world-build as you go. Remember that you don’t need to have all your world-building done before you draft; you can world-build while you write, and in many cases, this is preferable, as you’ll only be developing elements you actually need for the story. Don’t be afraid to start writing before your world is fully developed. Just start writing; if you encounter an undeveloped element, you can pause and fix it—or better yet, write it down and fix it during revisions.

This is how I approached research while writing Peter’s Angel, a historical fiction novel, to keep things manageable. I researched a few key elements beforehand—things like slavery which I knew were central to the story—so I could make sure my major plot points would coincide with history. The rest of the research I did while revising. As I was editing each scene, I paused and researched any questionable elements. For example, I researched window coverings, as that was essential to a particular scene, but I never looked into funeral customs, as they didn’t appear in that book at all. This saved me a lot of needless researching and also kept me from being overwhelmed with excess information.

Which brings me to another point—be wary of information overload. One of the troubles with world-building before you write is developing a lot of interesting elements and intriguing details—and then being unable to use them. This can lead to a lot of frustration which makes it hard to focus on the story at hand. Or, worse, it can lead to contrived scenes written just to include bits of world-building.

In the process of developing my world, I’ve discovered a lot of interesting tidbits about Erde. One is that people in the south reportedly used to execute criminals by throwing them over the edge of the flat earth. This is sadistically fascinating, as many of my readers will agree. But, alas, this has absolutely no place in the novel I’m currently writing for the world. It’s simply never going to get mentioned.

Trouble is, most authors, when presented with interesting information, have the strong urge to include it in the book somewhere. They will become obsessed with all these details they want to include and will even contrive the narrative just so they can impart this information on the reader. The result is that either the writer goes insane from information overload, or their book starts to sound more like a world-building article than a novel. Neither is a desirable outcome, so avoid being distracted by too many irrelevant details, and be careful not to force your world-building into the story. No matter how intriguing your world-building is, it’s not acceptable to dump it on the reader. If your interesting tidbits don’t work themselves smoothly into the story, they don’t deserve to be mentioned.

Which reminds me of another quick tip—remember that your world-building doesn’t need to be excessively detailed. While it may be fun to develop an animal’s entire life cycle, chances are all that information won’t be necessary for the story. Don’t get bogged down with finite details like the chemical composition of the shells of your creature’s eggs. And by the same token, don’t feel like your world-building is inadequate because you don’t know the chemical composition of the shells of your creature’s eggs. This is especially important for sci-fi; you don’t need to know how all your gizmos and gadgets work down to the technical details. You don’t need to know how a lightsaber works as long as your character knows how to turn his on.

That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? With all these tips, it should be easy to keep world-building from becoming overwhelming. So what’s my excuse for continuing to do it and refusing to touch my novel? Well, sadly, all the tips and tricks in the world are useless if a writer lacks one essential quality—self-discipline.

It all comes down to self-discipline. Do you have the wisdom to know when you’ve done enough development? Do you have the courage to force yourself to start writing even though you don’t feel ready? Do you have the humility to admit it when world-building becomes a method of procrastination?

World-building is fun, and there’s nothing wrong with having some literary fun. If you enjoy world-building, by all means—go all out and develop a whole galaxy! But if you find yourself avoiding your novels, stop and ask yourself why. And if world-building seems to be getting in the way, don’t you dare touch another article until you’ve worked on the novel. Taking notes is not an excuse to stop writing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go figure out where I stored the files for Faded, the first novel set in Erde…

P. S. By chance, have I made you curious about my fantasy world Erde? All of my articles are posted online.

Aubrey Hansen is an energetic screenwriter and author, typing merrily on a laptop decorated with Toy Story stickers. When she’s not writing, she’s watching movies, tweeting, or moderating holyworlds.org. She is a homeschool graduate and hails from Wisconsin. You can find her on Twitter as @Aubrey_Hansen.

5 thoughts on “Why Nobody Should World-Build

  1. I actually do know how a lightsaber works….

    World-building is not really fun for me, except with things like secret societies, advanced tech, starships, and cities. The rest is just painful. But I do it anyways, at least enough that most of the dots are filled in and the ones that aren’t I can make up on the spot.

    1. Hehe, I vaguely remember how a lightsaber works as well.

      As I’ve ‘recently’ (within the past few months) decided to reset the world I was developing, I came to realize something. Though, perhaps its untrue (and if so, you should really talk me out of it, hehe). I enjoy deving quite a lot and actually have a hard time finding/fitting (interesting) stories within my world. Thus, I’ve reached the conclusion that I will simply continue to world build and eventually I may discover a story worth telling. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to write what short stories come along while I’m deving. I figure I’ll enjoy writing as a hobby.

      I suppose that’s not very helpful to people who are quite determined to publish. *grins*

  2. The lady speaks the truth! Matches my experience almost exactly. Which is why I stopped worldbuilding some time ago, at least consciously, and now just let my stories decide.
    I think one rule is that if you are going to write without worldbuilding, when you write a scene about (say) history, you should have the history be new to someone involved. This is so that you don’t end up contradicting yourself by referring to some old war and then later the Elder Alliance and find that the Alliance contains enemies in the Old War and have to go back re-editing yourself. Just an idea.

  3. Great article. ^_^ I even mostly agree with you. 😉

    When I started world-building (for me it was necessary, just how I work as a writer), I realized that I would have to be all-knowing in order to truly worldbuild and do a good job of it. So I recognized some of your points early on, and that’s why one thing I did for my worldbuilding was write a 99k word novel–it showed me where my world was empty or undetailed, and even added detail to my world without me consciously “building” it there.

    Also, you do have a good reason to keep worldbuilding, now that you made it so others can write stories set in it, people need to know information, even those bits that don’t make it into any of your stories. 😀

  4. The point is a good one: if the worldbuilding’s primary purpose is to serve the story, then we need to keep that in focus, and not let it “take over.” And while that’s a big “if,” most people who “do worldbuilding” at least start out with that intention. But Tolkien’s contention is that “subcreation” is a proper vocation of man, and he himself was more a “subcreator” than an “author” or “storyteller”—he began by inventing languages, with histories of development, then had to invent the peoples that spoke them, then their myths and the world in which they lived, and only then the stories with which we are most familiar. For Tolkien, the stories served the world, not the other way around.

    (While I’m talking about relative teleology, by the way: We need to be careful to keep in mind the purpose for which we have been made subcreators. Just as, for most of us, worldbuilding is something that we do to serve the end of writing the story laid upon us, we ought to consider our writing as something we do to glorify God, rather than an end in itself. As you say, intermediate ends have a tendency to take over, so we need to be on our guard.)

    Also, to quote Kipling:

    There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays
    And every single one of them is right!

    What you say is apropos and on target for me, and probably for most of us, and smewhat familiar because so I’ve read much the same advice (if not in quite the same engaging tone) from well-known, established authors …
    Just as there are some authors (Heinlein) who could write a salable story in one draft and found revising (except under instructions from an editor) to be a bad habit, some (probably even most) who have to do quite a bit of revision but could go on revising forever, and some who know when a story needs revision and when it’s been revised enough, there are some who don’t need to do any worldbuilding beyond what comes up in the course of the story, most need to think some things through but need to beware of letting it take over … and some do need to know details that wouldn’t seem to be important. (Because everything’s connected …) So in this, as in all writing advice, it’s important to not overgeneralize or overstate the case. (For all that the title of this post would likely have drawn me in even if the byline hadn’t.)

    For my own work, “worldbuilding” as aspiring fantasy authors tend to understand the term (development of unusual plants, animals, technologies, foods, races, and the like) isn’t all that important to me (yet); I write occasional “worldbuilding articles” to “keep my hand in,” as practice, and to have someting to show off, and I work through guides (like Patricia Wrede’s list of questions or, this year I hope, the fractalling system(s) on Holy Worlds) to ensure that I’ll paint a consistent picture. But other parts of “worldbuilding,” having to do with politics, geography, history, and such, I find I need to understand in fairly rich detail to even begin to write anything influenced by them with any degree of confidence. And because my grand story is partly the history of the world (ecumene) from its beginning on and partly the stories of individual characters from our world as they find their way in that one after they find themselves there (or, rather, the parts of those stories that intersect with the “history”), just about everything is influenced by politics, geography, history, and the like … and the characters influence the politics and the geography …

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