When detail helps, and when it hinders: Worldbuilding as a Tool, Not a Goal.

As NaNoWriMo looms, and I increasingly suppress the urge to sit down and write the thousands of words that have been floating around my head (is November really still three months away?!), I’ve more and more found myself thinking about worldbuilding, what role it should and shouldn’t play in a story, and how best to integrate it fully with the plot of a project, no matter what length. 

As an editor over at Æther & Ichor, I’ve spoken to a few authors about fantasy worldbuilding and seen some vastly different approaches to worldbuilding as a story tool. Some authors construct an entire world, with different societies and histories and mythologies, before they write a single word of narrative, and some authors have a story they want to tell and characters they want to include, and the story wouldn’t necessarily be different if the characters were elves or orcs or faeries or humans. I think the key, here, is to find a balance between these two perspectives: if your setting doesn’t contribute anything to the story, what are you writing fantasy for? On the other hand, if you’re writing a story just so you can showcase your cool fancy world, the reader will be able to tell: the plot will be thin, and it will read like a travel brochure.

One of the masters of worldbuilding, and the author of one of my favorite series of all time, is Naomi Novik (I just finished the final book in her Temeraire series which came out in spring, and will be reviewing it within the next week). To put the essence of her series into five words would be something like, The Napoleonic Wars, Plus Dragons. But the series is so so so much more than that (I won’t go into it here, since I’ll have room to gush in my review of the book, which will be an overall recommendation for the series as a whole), and a big part of this is the genius with which Novik integrates dragons both as characters and as a fundamental part of various world cultures in her stories. They perform different roles and are regarded by people differently in different societies, and though those roles are mostly military (I mean, the series is about a war), the existence of dragons alters, in ways big and small, the very fabric of many of the societies they exist in. And they create conflict, potentially more trouble for the human characters than help. The English society Novik depicts in her series is one undergoing an upheaval, at first because of the war but then, later, also because of the efforts of the two main characters (one man and one dragon) and their efforts to use their influence to change how their society treats dragons. So Novik here has created a world which is not only a clever twist on a well-known historical era, but one that actively changes due to the course of events of the story.

You may say, building a world in nine books is all well and good, but what if you’ve only got a few thousand-or a few hundred-words to work with?

In my early days at Æther & Ichor, I wrote a piece of flash fiction and published it to pad out our selection of stories. The idea essentially came to me in a dream, and I didn’t want to develop it past one or two scenes. I had an idea, a motif, essentially, (my story ideas often take the form of single pieces of imagery or motif that get expanded upon, and I’ll be writing another post about that later) of a clear-skied, sandy city with white washed walls, a young girl protagonist, and the vivid image of blood hitting sand and soaking in. I didn’t want the story to be more than 500 words, so I relished the challenge of using hints to develop a world that existed beyond the scene: I mention a ‘mark’: the protagonist is an assassin (though this can also imply thief), there are ‘other girls’, implying she’s part of a group. There are named fighting stances (‘snake’ and ‘crab’), and ‘resin’, a substance that gives the consumer focus and precision, something like hashish. ‘Her god’ implies that the people she belongs to believe in more than one, maybe that each person has their own; ‘her god was a petty one’: perhaps the gods these people believe in are more of a ‘human’ type, à la ancient Greece. And so on.

The picture of a world I render in this story isn’t very detailed, but it’s detailed enough to give the characters motivation and develop conflict. That, I think, is the most important purpose a fantasy world can serve, in order to be fully integrated into the story and give the reader a sense of satisfaction or enlightenment: the reader should read your story and it should give them a new perspective their own world, environment or society. They should get a sense of how the story is grounded in this world you’ve created, in some important way fundamentally different from the real world.

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4 thoughts on “When detail helps, and when it hinders: Worldbuilding as a Tool, Not a Goal.

  1. Great article! WorldBuilding is perhaps my favorite part of being a fantasy writer! However, I can see the trap you talk about in our writing being only a showcase for your world and not the other way around. Stories are about change and transformation. They are character driven. I guess that is why my favorite part of WorldBuilding is creating the races; getting into the mind of a people that are not human. What motivates them? Why do they do what they do? This for me is how WorldBuilding best impacts my stories. Thank you for sharing this article.

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    • Thanks for the insightful comment! That’s another reason why I love Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series: she’s very adept at rendering characters with distinctly non-human personalities. And I do think that the best fantasy stories (at least on an ‘epic’ scale) are ones about the worlds they take place in actively changing (i.e. Game of Thrones, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight and Mistborn series, etc).

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  2. This is always a trap that I find a lot of fantasy writers fall into. I love worldbuilding, but more as a background…something that is there to be explored at my own leisure. When reading a story, however, I’m expecting story–plot–something that grabs my attention. Yet this seems to be a common enough debate in the genre–you always get people arguing about certain series, which has very good worldbuilding but which can be boring or too much for someone just trying to read a good story.

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