Building A World Without Going Insane

If you think the title is over the top, you’ve either never suffered from Worldbuilder’s Disease, lucky you (and yes, it’s a real affliction!), or your story takes place in this world, which just sits there, ready-made for the risk-averse writer.

Just kidding. Even if your story takes place in the so-called “real world,” you still need to research it to build a believable facsimile of it in your book, and that means that you can easily fall down the same rabbit hole of research as the rest of us.

… well, you probably won’t fall down the “how do tectonics work”-hole, or the “should I include the ergative case in my conlang?”-hole.

Like almost every other subject in writing, the approach to worldbuilding follows the same dichotomy of plotters and pantsers; and as with almost any issue, the truth about the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. But before we arrive at that mythical golden mean, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of either extreme.

Top-down worldbuilding – yes, it’ll take longer than six days

Top-down worldbuilders are the plotters of setting: they like to create the world first, then set their story in it. Even if they have an idea for the plot and the characters, both will have to wait until the worldbuilding is completed, and will probably be amended to fit into this world’s constraints.

The downsides to this approach are well-known by now:

  • The details of a world are virtually innumerable, so the world will never really be “complete” – and that means that you’ll potentially never be able to actually start writing the story that world is being created for.
  • The sheer scope of decisions needed for everything from geology to botany to economies and sociology of different cultures (not to mention the political systems, the history – oh, the genealogies!), can either be so overwhelming that the writer’s imagination gets paralyzed, or so fascinating that the writer starts writing an encyclopedia about their world, instead of the story they had actually meant to write.
  • And then there is always the danger of spending time and energy (and coffee. All that coffee) on things that turn out to be utterly irrelevant for the story.

The reactions to that realization vary; the writers who have preserved a rest of sanity at this point just bemoan the days or weeks (or years!) they spent on that tangent and will never get back, and then continue to write the story, aware how blessed they are to have actually arrived at that phase of writing the actual story.

Other writers succumb to the dreaded “I researched the heck out of this, and by god, I’ll tell you all about it, whether you want to or not!” and dump pages of exposition on their unsuspecting readers. Yet another type of writer – the subtle ones – will bend their plot and characters in such a way to force them to deal with their irrelevant side-research, whether it makes sense for the story or not.

So, if the divine approach is so utterly unsuited for us mere mortals, why is it still the one that the majority of beginning writers instinctively turns to?

Part of it may be the very existence of worldbuilding questionnaires. Just like character questionnaires, they suggest that you can, in fact, create a complete world and then set your characters down in it: “Now go play!” Maybe that’s owed to the RPG culture, but I’m not a player, so take my speculation with a barrel of salt.

Or maybe it’s a combination of perfectionism, collector’s passion, and control issues – here you have a whole world that has to obey to your will! And you get to decide on everything! Since the largest part of growing up consists of coming to terms with the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around you, playing around with a world that does, in a sense, can be very relaxing. And maybe that self-indulgence is the true cause of Worldbuilder’s Disease.

But of course, creating a world beforehand also has its advantages:

  • The features themselves – be they geographical or cultural – can be great springboards for both plot and character. Why did people settle in this region? How did the climate, the resources, the routes of travel and transportation shape their culture? Who are their neighbours? How did they interact – peacefully, violently? Did one occupy the other? How did their cultures influence each other? And how did all those (and many more) factors shape your characters?

An island nation will inspire different plots than a mountain nation (but maybe similar plots for a desert nation, where the oases take the place of islands, and the desert around them is as hostile as the sea). A mountain pass that can be closed by a few people is a great way to apply pressure to your neighbours – and be a source of income for a tribe that has to deal with a harsh climate and a lack of natural resources.

  • The world’s broader scope gives it more depth and realism; even irrelevant details may be mentioned in passing by a character, hinting at things that exist in that world independently from the characters and their concerns, and which will continue to exist long after their quest has ended. It makes the world bigger and more indifferent, and that makes it both more dangerous and more awe-inspiring.
  • And lastly, a world that exists before the story is not as likely to bend around the characters’ or the plot’s needs. It can become another antagonistic force, providing challenges for the characters, and also be a trigger for conflicts among the characters. If the writer can resist the urge to pull a deus ex machina out of their… laptop, a pre-existing world can become as much of a factor as any big bad villain or wise mentor – and in ways that can be much more original and surprising than those old character tropes.

Bottom-up worldbuilding – the way is the destination

The pantser version of everything is to make stuff up as you go along. That applies to the story world just the same way it applies to characters and plot. Pantsers discover their story by writing it, and thus rarely suffer from Worldbuilder’s Disease (they suffer from other writing diseases instead, like Writing Yourself Into A Corner, or OMG I Have No Idea What Happens Next).

Reverse Worldbuilding, as this is sometimes called, is naturally a remedy to many of the top-down worldbuilding’s woes:

  • There is no danger to indefinitely postpone the story the world was meant for.
  • Every detail of the world that gets mentioned is relevant to the story.
  • Research, if it happens, is pinpointed to specific, narrowly-defined areas, which minimizes the danger of falling into one of its dreaded R-holes (aka rabbit holes, aka research holes, aka recursive googling).

Reverse Worldbuilding can be very relaxing if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer mass of details you potentially “need” to know. It relieves you of the worry that something you researched may never become relevant for the story, and it soothes the perfectionist’s obsession with not knowing enough of the world to estimate its (whatever “it” may be) influence on the plot and characters – because you only create the world as it relates to your already existing plot and characters.

But of course, this kind of world-pantsing also has its weaknesses.

  • It can create a “bubble world” that lacks the feeling of depth and an independent existence outside your characters’ perceptions and problems.
  • It can create inconsistencies in the world that can bug readers just as much as plot holes do. And if you plan to write a series, those inconsistencies will only pile up with every installment.
  • Lastly, it can tend to bend around your characters, answer to their needs and magically offer solutions to their problems, instead of challenging them to think their way out of the mess that their past decisions led them into.

[I was thinking of breaking off here for part one, and then continuing next month with part two below]

Finding the sweet spot of sanity

I started out writing as a pantster, got nowhere, and naturally veered into the other extreme (as all converts tend to do), before I finally landed somewhere in the middle. Nowadays, I plot my big turning points and pants the individual scenes; create “character frames” and discover my characters’ actual personalities while I write them; and I happen to think that combining the best of both worlds is also the way to go for worldbuilding – mostly because I’ve been driving myself insane with the top-down worldplotting method over and over again.

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