Readers of fantasy and science fiction expect a moderate amount of world building. That’s part of what makes these genres attractive; to read about characters in worlds different than our own. These readers are familiar with what’s come before, so yet another elf vs. orc saga or FTL military epic isn’t going to raise eyebrows—but they do require familiar concepts. One might then ask, why world build at all? Why not recycle what has already been done? Though some (untalented) writers do just that, readers want something different.
I’m one of those writers who create plot overviews and character bios before I pen a novel. True, most of it
gets changed/ignored in the course of writing said novel, but I like having a guideline. When I world build, I take this philosophy a step further. I write a chronology, glossary of terms, details on locales and cultures, and often draw a (crude) map of my setting, just so I’ll have a sense of geography. None of this is necessary to write a story, but I enjoy the process. In turn, I like to hint at all this hard work in the context of my story, by inserting descriptions of the setting I’ve made. Everything from clothing styles, how languages sound, and the way a mundane item is described (bungee cord becomes flexi wire) is meant to transport the reader to another place and time. This can be done to any fiction genre, but is really the icing on the cake when it comes to fantasy and science fiction.
But too much icing makes the cake too sweet.
I once said that I’d like to be the Ridley Scott of writers—that I create worlds. Ones that feel logical and complete to the reader, allowing for an even greater suspension of disbelief. While I’ve received praise for my efforts, I’ve also garnered criticism. Some of it may be personal taste, but the reader wants a story—not a travelogue of a world that I think is super cool. So like all other aspects of the writing process, world building requires moderation.
Some would suggest I stop fussing over the details and just write the damn story. Good advice, but the settings I create, I write multiple stories in. So it really helps to keep a glossary and a chronology. It’s convenient to have a map I can consult, and even add to, as needed. I like cohesiveness and continuity, and keeping track of my setting’s details aids in this. The real trick is adding just enough of all this information to the story.
Then there is a writer’s indulgence. Stephen King has said ‘kill your darlings’ and man do I need to take that to heart. Some of my novels have only gotten thicker with each revision, not tighter, and I keep tacking on things I think the reader should know. I try to convince myself that these are epics I’m writing, that a novel grants me a gargantuan canvas to paint my story on, that…yeah, you get the idea. Sometimes I get into world builder denial—and that’s when my rejection slips seems to pile up.
I don’t know about other writers out there, but maybe I need to rein in my world building fetish. Or should I? Epic fantasy has seen a resurgence, such as the works of Brandon Sanderson and George R.R. Martin. That doesn’t mean I should drown the reader in exposition or useless details, but it does give me hope that eventually my work will find the right audience.
That’s no excuse to keep writing fatter novels, though. Brevity is key, and the writer that can say it with fewer words is often the better one.
So world build large, write small. Then dream huge—and expect nothing. Somewhere in the middle, I’ll make it.