One of the best things about being a writer working is hammering out the details on a new product. The empty page represents a whole world of endless possibilities.
Who will be the central character?
Will the story take place on Earth, or space, or maybe another dimension?
Will there be magic?
What’s the weather like?
New things are exciting, and there’s nothing quite like laying the foundation for a fresh new world all your own and filling it with fantastic wonders. Unfortunately, like with most things, the devil is always in the details.
“World Building” is a term typically associated with fantasy and sci-fi authors since they’re stories tend to take place in worlds other than our own, but it really applies to most authors. Behind every alien world, or magical kingdom, or secret shadow government is a catalog of research enthusiastically conducted by the creator. And to a well-crafted work, at least some level of research is necessary to provide a more believable world. In most cases, researching can be a lot of fun, but when it comes to writing- enthusiasm can be a double-edged sword.
How many times have you heard the story of an aspiring author dreaming of creating the next great novel but never gets down to the actual writing part of being a writer. And it’s not because they’re lazy and it might not even be because they have nothing to write. It’s because they’re driven to perfection.
Perfection is usually the ideal goal of any creator, but with newer writers, it can be dangerous to their overall success. While it’s that same push towards perfection that gives an author the essential enthusiasm to happily sink hours, days, or even years into research…it takes restraint to properly temper that drive. It’s easy to get lost in history and the colorful array of cultures humans have to offer. However, tearing oneself away from the facts is nothing compared to the real dangers of world building.
Fantasy and science fiction writers have the great task of fleshing out strange and unfamiliar worlds for the reader to explore. And building a world, needless to say, is a lot of work. In fact, you’ll soon learn that researching the real-world facts was the easy part.
World building can be intoxicating. Choosing a setting. Creating new races and exploring their cultures. Drawing maps. Naming the lands and seas. A fantasy author favorite is spending a lot of time carefully constructing the rules to their own unique magic system.
I remember Patrick Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller Chronicles, mentioning how some of his fans would tell him about their own novels they were working on. He recalled how they would speak at length about how their world works. They described the politics of the kingdoms or the old lore that sets the foundation of the setting, or how their magic system works. And Rothfuss’ response perfectly encapsulates the danger of world building in one simple question: “Where’s the story?”
Some writers spend a lot of time buried in research and meticulously crafting their new world. It’s exciting, and they’re eager to show it off to the reader the moment they turn to the first page. That eagerness can be a detriment to the story. The harshest truth every new writer must learn is…nobody cares. The big mistake is to show it all off in big boring exposition dumps. A reader doesn’t pick up your book for a long lecture about a world that doesn’t exist. A reader picks up your book for the story. They have no investment in your world. They’re not fans yet. Having the wise character go on at length about the history of one place or the culture of another, or worse just having a paragraph detailing everything, is on the same level as a boring college lecture. There’s no quicker way to turn away new reader than to be boring.
It’s important to temper that eagerness. Show restraint. It’s the writer’s job to make people fall in love with your work. And the best way to convince a new reader to see your world in the same light as yourself is to be patient, create a compelling story, and conservatively weave plot essential elements of your world. Once the reader is invested in your characters and story, they will become interested in the world around them.
Researching and world building are some of the most exciting things about writing, but without restraint, it can kill your work before on page one.