Yesterday, I mentioned how profanity can be an opportunity to do some world building. When the writer thinks about what is secret, holy, or unpleasant in their world, then use those things to craft the world’s profanity, the effect can be colorful realism which grounds and supports the rest of the narrative. It can be subtle, clever, and fully realized in the writer’s story.
Today, we’re going to talk about world building in the way writers get it wrong, and what they can do to be more efficient.
A Darling that Refuses to Die
Sometimes, writers (and gamers!) get caught up in some aspect of the world they created that doesn’t serve the larger narrative. The writer will spend some amount of time working out all the details, imagining it, maybe drawing diagrams and writing lore to accompany it.
For example, let’s say the writer has come up with an amazing and elaborate church. They can see it clearly in their mind. They draw it, write history for it, craft an entire religion and pantheon to inhabit it. The stained glass windows, crafted on the sandy beaches of the Hawani, the enemy nation, underwent a journey all their own to arrive at the church grounds, and have been given prominence such that when the morning sunlight shines through its center, its as though a finger of the god of tears and laughter has–
This can go on and on, and it might be really interesting and fun! But then in the story, it turns out the main character is an atheist that doesn’t even go inside the church. They just camp along the edge of the yard one night before packing up and moving on.
The writer is torn, because they LOVE this piece of the world they’ve crafted. They want the reader to love it, too, and how else is the reader going to enjoy all this luscious world building if the details aren’t included in the prose?
The advice is “kill your darlings,” and this church is one of them. It doesn’t serve the story. It doesn’t have anything to do with the characters. It is detached from the plot and the struggles on the page, and when the reader lands on this huge block of beautifully constructed masonry and glass, they’re pulled out of the immediacy and needs of the characters.
Chilling Your Drink with an Iceberg
How did the writer come up with this church in the first place? Why do they have it sitting in their notes, ready and waiting to drop into the narrative?
My second pet peeve around world building is that sometimes writers build way more than they need. The story demands a scaffolding, an impression of depth that makes the reader think that there is more than the immediate environment surrounding the characters. What some writers will do is build a city when all they needed is a wall.
This is different than the “kill your darlings” peeve. When the writer drops a detail into the narrative that doesn’t serve the story, it is a problem for the reader as well as the writer. It’s there on the page for all to see, taking up space and altering the pacing in ways the writer may not have intended.
Overbuilding the world is a different problem, in that the reader can be completely unaware of the undertaking the writer endured. These are the details that only appear in the writer’s notes. The story remains the same whether or not the writer went to the trouble of creating all these extra details.
Why is this a pet peeve of mine? The story is a journey, and the characters and the world are the vehicle by which the writer carries the reader. The larger the vehicle, the more unwieldy it can be.
Let’s use the church example from before, but let’s say the writer doesn’t include it in their story. They give a little bit of a description of the church from a distance, and the characters move on like they were supposed to, allowing the story to unfold naturally. Everything is great so far, but what happens when the writer needs another church or religion?
The writer has to make some choices and do some work. Their notes include all these details they already crafted in this other part of the world. They could just lift the details and drop it in where it makes the most sense to the story. However, they’ll need to check to make sure it still makes sense in the new location. They’ll need to walk through it, making sure it lines up and doesn’t feel disjointed. If the pantheon includes a fish god, it won’t make as much sense if the new setting is in a desert.
If it looks like the church won’t work in the new location, then they have to build a new one. The writer has now doubled the amount of work they needed to do for the story, and the reader’s experience has not been doubly enhanced.
Some writers really love world building, so it’s not a big deal to them. They don’t see it as work. I think world building is okay, but I’d rather spend my time working on the characters and the specifics of the prose.
World Building Classes Encourage Inefficiency
My first peeve was about writers including details that they shouldn’t, which comes from my second peeve, which is about writers building more than they should, which comes from my third peeve: world building classes and panels encourage writers to overbuild.
I have attended dozens of panels on world building, and they usually focus on a specific aspect of the world. Animals, magic systems, religion, geography, language… you name it. These classes focus on one facet and talk about how writers get the details wrong, and how the audience can work to do better. They talk about research, and they’ll include details about the area of focus that are interesting and tantalizing to include in a story.
Friends, if your characters are not interested in horses, you do not need to focus on the equine details of your world building. If your characters know nothing of boating or bartering, you do not need to plot out the entire trade route of the ships and vessels that roam the high seas and up the rivers and along the coast line.
If the plot of your story involves the specifics of language and religion, then it’s important that at least one of your characters has an interest in those subjects, which means that you’ll need to do the appropriate amount of world building for those details.
I still attend some panels and classes on world building because I think they’re interesting. I go for the fun. I have yet to attend a panel that talks about world building in a way that is actually helpful to the writer.
What You Need to Know about World Building
If I were to run a class on world building, it would be brief, and it would start from one simple rule: only build the parts of the world that your characters care about.
If you follow that rule, you will be efficient, nimble, and less likely to include details that are not relevant to your story. You will not be anchored down by the weight of your notes or tempted to include beautiful details that add nothing but bloat.
Readers connect with and care about the characters. If the characters care about aspects of the world, the reader will also care about those aspects.
Also, world building according to the needs of your plot is fine, but the plot of your story should be relevant to your characters as well. If you’ve crafted a plot that is completely tangential to your characters, I’m not sure how you’re going to make the story work as a whole.
If I wasn’t clear, I don’t hate world building. My pet peeves are more about being inefficient, or doing things in the writing process without intention. If there has been a theme this much, it has been: write with intention.