World building is exactly what it sounds like. It’s sitting down and writing a creation story or drawing maps; creating character sheets, inventing languages and cultures, magic systems and weather patterns.World building can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a serious momentum killer. It’s important not to be consumed by it.
What not to do
Six years ago I was consumed. Swallowed whole. I created my own wiki (omg, mistake number 1), which encouraged an obsessive amount of detail oriented world design (mistake numbers 2-9001). It was totally unneeded and I have learned my lesson. Promise.
It’s important to know your world, but not build it too far beyond your reader’s horizon. So only build so much of the world that you need. We don’t need a map of the interior of that house if we aren’t going in that house. Do we need to know how the magic works? Only if knowing how the magic works is fundamental to the story.
What to do
The same way movie sets use facades to create false reality, you too must learn the art of the facade and mystery, of knowing when to be vague. Mystery is great, it lets the reader do the work for you. Your words are only important if they can inspire your reader to imagine beyond them, to create a part of your world for themselves. Good writing provides the spark that ignites the imagination.
That said, world building is needed. You have to understand how your world works so you know how to work your characters into it. Having a clear understanding of your world will generate lots of conflict, which you’ll need plenty of to get through your story.
Our interests will dictate which facets of the world we want to build first, be it a map, a language, a magic system, a creation myth, etc–there is no wrong way to begin so long as what you build is integral to the story. A lot can be impacted by which of these items is first chosen for development, because often each will provide inspiration for the others.
I like to begin my stories without having done much world building at all, so that the story can first provide me with insight and questions that lead me through the world building process. Usually it leads me directly to the creation myth because I am completely obsessed with them!
By writing a scene or two before doing any world building, you give yourself some concrete concepts to work with. You create rules and restrictions within the universe simply by writing about it, which provokes inspiration and creativity when it’s time to figure out how things got this way. Examine everything you’ve written and try to figure out why it is the way it is. For instance, if a character has magical powers, where do they get them from? Is magic inherited biologically, or bestowed by some artifact such as The One Ring? Is it a language spoken, or a knot tied?
Let’s say for example that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit without much consideration for where Gollum’s ring of invisibility came from or without caring why it functioned as it did. When Tolkien was asked to write the sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings became an exploration of the nature of The One Ring, it is a story not about hobbits or dwarves or men, but about the ring itself: detailing its creation, its impact on the world, and its destruction.
How do you build your worlds, and what are your favorite worlds from other books?