Aah, world building. Is there a more satisfying way to spend you creative time than to dive into a fictional space of your own making and detail it with a sprinkling of reality? It’s also a dangerous tempatation: a hole you can forever fall down, never to return, with no written words to show for your efforts.
The key question therefore is, how much world building should you do?
I find this varies wildly from project to project, with my general rule of thumb being that the author should always know more than the reader. How much more depends a lot on the type of story.
Before I get started, though, here’s a podcast interview with Kieron Gillen I did about world building. Kieron is infinitely more experienced than me at such things, so we may as well start with his insight:
While we’re at it, I also spoke to Neon Yang years ago about fantasy world building. Here’s that one:
(the covers of their books are beautiful)
One more. This is a chat I had with writer and tutor Ian Nettleton about science fiction world building. An old one but still packed with good stuff:
So, turns out I like talking about world building. And I made a lot of podcasts when I was at the National Centre for Writing.
(as an aside, producing that podcast for three years was an absolute pleasure. I really must get to starting my own podcast on this here Substack. Stay tuned and have your headphones ready)
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MVP world building
World building can be endless. That’s the inherent trap. Eventually you need to move past the world building, set it aside, and start crafting the actual story. The world building can continue in the background, of course, and you can always be tinkering and expanding, but nobody is going to read your massive series bible if you haven’t got round to creating the main event.
This is all about figuring out the minimum viable product. What’s the least amount of world building you need to do in order to effectively tell your story? This will largely depend on the setting and type of story you’re writing.
If you’re working on a realist, contemporary novel set in London in 2022, then you don’t need to do a huge amount of world building. The real world has already done it for you, with a finesse and attention to detail that is impossbile to replicate artificially. There might still be research to be done, and you might need to go and visit the place if you don’t live there, but it’s more about unpicking reality and injecting your story. Readers will also bring their own knowledge, applying their perception of London on top of your fictional depiction.
As soon as you take a step into genre things get more complex. Any form of speculative fiction is going to require some world building, either directly or around the edges. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is set in London, but its story takes place around the fringes of the real, in a conjured space under and over the real world. Jump into the future with any of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books and you’ll find a level of verisimilitude that is palpable - I still feel that I personally explored Mars after reading his Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy. Go sideways into an explicitly fantasy realm like Lord of the Rings and the entire space becomes crafted, albeit often with heavy references from real history.
I’ll come back to Lord of the Rings in a moment, because that’s definitely an example of going beyong the MVP. To put it lightly.
For most of us, and most stories, that level of extreme detail is not necessary to begin telling a compelling story. Becoming lost in the preparatory stages of a novel and spending years building a world while never quite getting round to writing the story is a real risk for any of us working in genre fiction. Much like a writer of historical fiction can spend their lives researching without getting words down on the page.
A lot of good ideas will only begin to emerge once you start writing, if my experience is anything to go by. That’s why I tend to do just enough world building to get started, and then continue to add layers to the setting as I go along.
What is just enough?
Knowing how much world building to do is a tricksy thing. My firsty book, A Day of Faces, had very little up-front world building. It had a high concept (‘what if everyone born on the same day had the same face?’) and then the world slowly sprouted out of that. An extended back history wasn’t necessary, as it was a very forward-driving narrative. I had some broad notions about how the world had come to be, and discovered the rest as I went along.
The Mechanical Crown was different. I’d spent years on a (very bad) first draft in my twenties, during which time I’d drawn maps, written various notes on the state of the world, and worked up a 1000-year timeline leading up to the beginning of the story. The second draft which I serialised on Wattpad benefited from a lot of that work, but much of it also got redesigned to suit the story and its themes. The world building in that case was primarily about geography, as the book’s drama hangs off the unusual layout of the world. I didn’t go especially deep politically or culturally.
No Adults Allowed was different again. It’s an incredibly lean book, designed to be on the short side (just over 60k words). There is a mystery at its heart (‘why are there no adults in the world?’), but the solution did not require hyper-detailed lore. It’s a deliberately simple book in many ways, that is more about character and adventure and responsibility than it is about knowing precisely what happened and when in the lead-up.
I mentioned Lord of the Rings above as an obvious example of extreme world building. There is detail both in the text and surrounding it that brings the story to life while also sparking the reader’s imagination with what must be happening just out of sight. Much of what is in the appendices of the book is largely unnecessary for understanding the main story, but it deepens the reader’s connection to the fiction.
Tolkien decided to include that material for readers to peruse and digest, but he could just as easily kept it to himself. It’s the kind of world building that adds weight to the story and its world. It’s a perceived depth that doesn’t necessitate revealing all of it to the reader. Its existence in the writer’s mind will enhance the writing and reading experience through osmosis.
The risk with super-detailed world building is the temptation to then include all of it in the text. That will bog down the story and make it feel more like an encyclopedia than a novel. We’ve all read fantasy stories that name drop twenty made-up words on the first page. The writer may have been trying to evidence the reality of his fictional world, but instead only ends up drawing attention to its artifice.
Personally I favour a light touch when it comes to world building. Have the knowledge as the writer, but only reveal a little at a time to the reader. World building should be like the metaphorical iceberg: lots beneath the surface. The reader will feel it, subliminally, in the truth of the words.
I think next week I’ll take a closer look specifically at what kind of world building I’ve done for Tales from the Triverse. I took it much further than usual, and finding the most natural ways to reveal details to the audience has been a major challenge and a lot of fun. If you haven’t been reading, you can jump on it from the start here to see what I’m on about:
Meanwhile, let me know what approach you take for your own world building. Or, indeed, what kind of world building you prefer to encounter as a reader.
Another month means a new ebook giveaway! This one is called Creature Feature and the header image on the promo page features not only howling wolves but also a horse (I thought it was a unicorn at first, but it appears to just be a horse). If you’re looking for some cool fantasy ebooks featuring fantastic creatures, check it out.
The season 1 ebook collection of Tales from the Triverse is in there somewhere, so be sure to grab that one while you’re browsing the offerings.
Thanks for reading. See you on Friday for a new chapter of Triverse.