The allure of World Building

While most of my weekday hours have recently been spent preparing for ECCC and Norwescon, I also have been thinking about my next project after the dust settles.  I have to admit that I am beginning to yearn for a new project. Something fun, something different than what I have created before. This brings up the subject of world building.

I have an unpopular message for everyone who wants to write books. You need to write them. Spending a year or two or three building a world for a novel is generally a waste of time. So is all that fluffy “research.”

Here is why: Loose world building and fluffy general research is a huge time killer, because it feels like you are accomplishing something, but you are not. At the end of the day, you are no closer to your goal of having a finished novel.

Here is how I set up my story (and why I finish a graphic novel or written novel in a year.)

First is the basic plot structure. This can be a loose idea such as a hero’s journey or a coming of age story. It will probably even have the antagonist in the description.  No beautifully built world will enthrall the reader if there is no plot.

Secondary is characters. The protagonist(s), possibly the antagonist(s) and secondary characters.This is a broad stroke: but your protagonist must be some sort of reasonably intelligent life with free will. Otherwise they are not interesting. Even when it is an animal, such as Buck in the Call of the Wild, these attributes do apply. Even if the world is the main character as it is in some “Milieu-type” stories, it can not be your protagonist.  (Yes, your world can be your antagonist. )

Then you have the World aka the Setting. So make decisions on your world and make them as quickly as possible. Draw a map if you have to, write out some new tech or magic system rules. Those things can be useful, but make your design decisions and move on.

The longest I have ever spent researching and world building is six months. That was for Lure. One of the reasons it took me eve that long was that I was working on Faminelands: Living Stone at the time. The other reason is with Lure, the setting was the antagonist.

Lure started with a sketch that I did at a convention. Two mermaids in a river with human bones littered among the gravel at their fins.  It took me three months to know where or when that river was. But I had some ideas I wanted to keep. Once I found the setting, the rest came easily. The next three months I spent in the Goldrush museum, taking photographs, doing sketches of characters, and reading books. I also did a round of jury duty. Due to Lure’s setting and because I did not want the story to be bogged down with Victorian sexual politics, I figured out early on that it would a book with primarily male characters. From that point, the graphic novel itself took me nine months to create.

I have a completely baseless opinion on why authors spend so much time on world building. You see, world building is a relatively safe activity. No one looks at it with jaundiced eyes, judging every word.  No one is sending rejection emails–or simply not answering you. It is easy for an inspiring writer to get stuck in their world. They start writing detailed political systems thinking that is the story, when it is all inconsequential.  They start describing the new race they made up, but have no characters.

Another way authors can waste time is by generalized “research.”

I do a little bit of research for all my titles, but it is applied research. If you want to know something specific in order to make your world fuller and more complete, then look up your fact, however if you are writing a “fantasy book” so you decide to look up the “middle ages” then you are wasting your time.

However let’s say you are writing an epic fantasy novel about a young man born into a carpenter’s guild in an Elizabethan time period… and you want to start the book with a few points of his early life in the guild working with his father, uncle and grandfather. That’s great.  You have a specific goal.  You are not writing a non-fiction book on carpenters in the middle ages, you are writing a fantasy novel. Since a few well placed and well-chosen facts will do more for your book then six chapters of back story, so why waste a year or more doing research when a week or two will suffice?

So to sum up, if you want to write novels, then get writing!


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