World-building—And Why It Matters

19 Feb

One of the first things you’ll hear on going to a writing forum dealing with the genres of Speculative Fiction is that “characters and stories are more important than world-building.” Which, on the surface, is absolutely correct. You could create a fictional world twenty-thousand times as deep and fascinating as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and if you didn’t have a story with characters that took place in it, you’re not going to sell a book. At least, not a commercial fiction book.

But think about this, you could come up with the most fast-paced, suspenseful story ever written, and if the characters are cardboard, you won’t sell it. The same goes for having the most fascinating and intricate characters in the history of story-telling. If you don’t have a story, something for those characters to do, you won’t convince anyone to pay you for writing about them. So, we’ve concluded that no one aspect of a story make up for a lack in the other two.

But wait, didn’t I just quote Generic SFF Writing Forum Member as saying that both character and story are more important than world-building? Well, yes, I did. You can’t sell a story without a story, and it isn’t a good story without good characters. But the question is, how do you create a good story? With good characters? I would like anyone who would buy a story that was exactly the Borne Identity set in 435 BC Japan to raise their hand.

Now, for those of you who didn’t raise your hands, why not? (The rest of you can GTFO.) One reason might be that it makes absolutely no sense. You can’t set a story that’s identical to the Borne Identity in 435 BC Japan, because the story is set in Zurich, relies on the real-world geography of Zurich, and includes a great deal of not only Swiss, but also 20th century culture, that just didn’t exist in Japan (and still doesn’t, and never will) in the 5th Century BC. That makes sense, right?

Now, you could set a similar story to the Borne Identity in 5th century BC Japan. Perhaps an ambitious warlord or clan leader is using deadly proto-ninjas to assassinate his adversaries. (Yeah, it’s cliché, and historically inaccurate, but that’s not the issue. Well… okay, it’s exactly the issue.) But a similar story is still not the same story, right? There are going to be differences, most of them enormous, at least as far as the details go.

You might still be able to throw in some amnesia, and espionage, and a romantic subplot, but there won’t be any car chases, or guns, or long-range communications technology (e.g., cell phones). The characters and the setting, and probably many themes, will be informed by an entirely culture and perspective. And readers will expect the writer to be accurate in those things.

How does a writer do that? They research. A lot. Even the most seat-of-the-pants writer will be constantly checking their ideas against reality. They may decide to ignore it in very important areas, but they will know they are doing so.

In fantasy, or at least, secondary world fantasy, the writer does not have that enormous pool of reality to compare the story to. Instead of research, they do world-building. Everything that your normal, non SFF writer can look up on Wikipedia? You have to make that stuff up.
Of course, you do get the advantage of flexibility. Whereas an author writing in a well-known period of earth will have to fudge things—even when they know some readers will bite their head off for it—an SFF author has a lot more freedom to make shit up.

But, lest the reader still find plot holes you could drive the Deathstar through, you must be internally consistent. And that’s where all that effort you spent world-building comes in. Now, you can borrow a lot from real life: gravity, thermodynamics, human beings—but for most of the history and culture and geography, you can only get inspiration. Same for characters. You have to sew it together yourself from whole cloth. All of it…

Er, well–as much as you need for the story anyway. How much that is will depend on the scope of the story, but considering that most SFF written today has relatively large scope, you’ve still got a lot of work to do.

“But wait! It’s hard enough to come up with a plot and characters. Why must I create an entire world, as well?”

What? You thought SFF was easy? Reality check!

Making shit up is hard, but you have to know all of this stuff because your story and characters have to fit in the world in which they live. Remember our talk about setting the Borne Identity in 5th Century BC Japan? Setting matters—a lot. Now, there are many approaches, many methods, many ways to do this creation.

Some authors spend a few months working this stuff out at the beginning. Some people mix it together with the story and characters as they go along. Some people go back and revise once they have the basic draft of their story on paper. But you’ve got to do this work sometime. We can discuss the advantages of the different methods later. For now, you just need to understand why this stuff matters. In the next post, we’ll discuss how to decide which aspect to cut when they conflict.


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6 responses to “World-building—And Why It Matters

  1. Sneaks

    February 19, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    I love writing Fantasy and world-creating is one of my favorite aspects of it. It is difficult to do well, and there’s a lot of truth in what you say about having to have a good story to go with it. What’s the fun in reading about a different world if there’s not really anything happening in it?

  2. ekcarmel

    February 22, 2010 at 1:45 PM

    Loved your post. World-building is something I can easily get lost in for hours. You are absolutely right about the world informing the story and effecting the characterization. It all connects. I’m trying to tone it down now and just create as I need it for the story line, but it’s difficult because I get some of my best ideas for character and plot while I’m world-building. I suppose it’s a matter of balance.

  3. atsiko

    February 22, 2010 at 2:17 PM

    Yeah, writing Spec Fic is very different from any other tpe of writing. Balancing the different elements, both in presentation and time spent is tough. I get caught up in world-building a lot. I try to do somework at the beginning, then write few chapters, then do som more world-building as issues come up.

  4. e6n1

    March 7, 2010 at 6:21 AM

    I agree with your post- some people think its easy to construct an entire world. GTFO those who think it is!

    I’m writing a sci-fi novel and it took me 3 years to build that world, milieu, culture, etc…especially to avoid that common pitfall in sci-fi that human and alien cultures are homogenic.

  5. Mark Lord

    March 7, 2010 at 2:38 PM

    Good post and quite right, you need compelling characters, story and setting for a successful novel I think. Sometimes though the reader might take comfort in a setting they are familar with on the whe but has been altered somewhat, thus the popularity of urban fantasy. It’s also easier for the author to bypass a lot of world-building too. Eve.n in the case of secondary world fantasy I often see settings that are close to a medieval reality, but as it’s fantasy the author can get away with not checking their facts as long as the internal logic of the world works.

    • atsiko

      March 7, 2010 at 6:11 PM

      Well, a lot of secondary world fantasies are close to medieval fantasy. A shocking number of writers working in the medieval milieu really don’t know all that much about it. But neither do most readers, so they an get away wit it like you said.


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