The Building of a World

I'm going to be honest here. I'm typing right now because the great, unwritten rules of blogging say one must update with some degree of regularity, or else risk perpetual anonymity. So here I am, doing my "butt in chair" time, as other writers I've read call it. The difference between the professional and the hobbyist, so I'm told, is the dedication to do something even when you're not feeling particularly inspired.

So, what should I talk about when my inspiration is a at an ebb? Perhaps inspiration itself would be a good topic, specifically, the muse that eggs on many a fantasy writer: world building.

I am a proponent of world building before you sit down to bang out that first story. Not that details won't come to a writer as he crafts a tale, but from my own experience, the writing of my fantasy trilogy has been eased greatly by the fact that my world was in place long before I endeavored to write stories in it. I see it as an equivalent to what the writer of historical fiction accomplishes through research. Knowing the "facts" about your world allows you to reveal them through your story, and prevents you from bogging down as you write. Who wants to stop in the middle of an exciting conflict between the heroine and the cock-of-the-walk knight in order to come up with the in and outs of the protocol of your knighthood? Or how will you convince your reader that your system of magic is believable if you yourself don't know exactly how it works?

A lot of what I know about world building, I'll admit I learned from writing my own campaign setting for role playing games. If you're running a game and you're unprepared, you end up having to make up people and places on the fly. Typically, you end up defaulting to your comfort zone when you do that,and you end up with a bunch of characters, places and events that are all painted the same color, if you follow my analogy. Every townsperson ends up a surly, unhelpful curmudgeon, or every building is a tudor wattle and daub cottage with windowboxes, every gnome is a get the picture. Just like you wouldn't paint every room, the furniture and decorative accessories in your home the same shade of red, you don't want to offer up a flat, monochromatic world, either.

Aside from a lack of originality, writing before you build the world serves up another risk: implausibility. Now, don't confuse implausibility with a lack of realism. Fantasy writing allows for a great deal of unrealistic stuff going on, but if all of those fantastic elements don't seem to "fit," if the world around them is not crafted in such a way that they seem a natural outgrowth of the atmosphere, then you're going to lose readers. Even if you never get the chance to explain the nitty gritty details of how the race of centaurs came into allegiance with the elves and often serve as city guardsmen, you had best know that backstory, because in subtle ways, it will infiltrate your writing and make your world more convincing.

And incidentally, I don't recommend you try to explain every nitty gritty detail either. If the element doesn't advance your story, resist the urge to saddle your readers with all the cool details you've assembled. Otherwise, you'll quickly end up with a 250,000 word book that no publisher in his right mind would consider binding together into one volume. Not to mention, much of said book will read much like a long slideshow of your vacation, forced upon people who were not there and could not care less.

Well, I started out this post with no idea where I would begin, and now I find I could go on and on. But I won't. We all know if you readers have to scroll down too much, you bail on a blog post. (I'm guilty of the same.) But this blog post has taught me a couple of things. Firstly, if you you just start writing, the words will come (eventually.) Secondly, the process of worldbuilding is a huge, complex beast. Far too lumbering to contain in a single blog post. We'll see if the muse demands I say more on it next time.


  1. Greetings,

    This is exactly right. I always try to emphasize the importance of background before plot. When you really have a lot of good background, then your plot will flow out of it in fantastic torrents. I would really like to learn more about your writing.

    Go check out the Holy Worlds Christian Fantasy site, you might like it, even though it is just starting.

    With joy and peace in Christ,
    Jay Lauser aka Sir Emeth Mimetes


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