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Worldbuilding & Relevance

July 28, 2011

I’ve been doing a good amount of writing this week so far (we’ll see how things go in my weekly writing recap).  Since finishing the first draft of the short story I’m working on, all of my wordcount has been on worldbuilding for “The Book of M”.  And so I got to thinking about the subject of worldbuilding this week.

As I’ve reported previously, the topic of worldbuilding came up during author Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Writing Crash Course Q&A at JordanCon 2011.  The relevant question related to avoiding “Worldbuilder’s Disease”.  If you lean toward the “Planner” end of the Planning-Pantsing spectrum (or we can call it the “Architect” end of the “Architect-Gardener spectrum”), you likely know what that means: endlessly tooling around with the background world details – the history, the magic system, the cosmologies and religions, the languages, and so on – without ever reaching an end-point and saying “I have enough now to write the actual book”.  It’s really quite common, and I’ve felt that urge.  Brandon’s advice was to focus on the key elements of the conflict of your story, and worldbuild out from there.  As your worldbuilding gets less and less relevant to the conflict and the plot, you stop worldbuilding and focus on writing the story.

What, then, is relevant?  How do you find that line where the worldbuilding you’re doing becomes irrelevant?

As I consider that question, I find it’s actually pretty hard to come to any firm conclusions about how to answer it.  It’s pretty rare for someone’s worldbuilding notes ever to actually be made public.  One of the few instances I am aware of where this actually happened is with the posthumous publication of Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and History of Middle Earth – and, well, Tolkien was a great worldbuilder, but in his lifetime Tolkien only published a grand total of 3 novels (2 if you count the Lord of the Rings as a single novel in 3 volumes, as Tolkien intended it) and a handful of other collections of short fiction and translations of ancient literature.  The point being, tinkering and retinkering with the same world until your dying day is perhaps not the best example for an aspiring fantasy author who wants to make a career of writing.  Rather, the modern aspiring fantasy author might be advised to take a little restraint in the impulse to tinker endlessly with perfecting a fictional world (unless, of course, you prefer posthumous publication).

But for a modern example of someone who practices such restraint, we have little to go on.  What exactly did any given fantasy writer worldbuild for their story, and when in the process of writing it did they set that detail in stone?  I can think of no contemporary examples that answer this question.

Of course, that means learning as you go and muddling through.

For example, Dear Wife gave me a little friendly, wifely grief over a spreadsheet I started working on last week that lists a collection of acceptable names, both given names and surnames, by culture and gender affiliation (Masculine, Feminine, or Neutral).  My reasoning: I had already struggled mightily to come up with the name for the novel’s co-protagonist.  I wanted to avoid similar struggles as I filter down to secondary and tertiary level characters.  But then, I’d grown a crop of over 200 given names and nearly as many surnames, and I haven’t even finished going through all the cultures that I know ar represented by named-characters in the book.  That’s a bit of an overabundance of names – I’ll surely not have over 200 named characters in the book, will I?  No, I don’t think so.  So much of this work will have been to excess, right?  And the clever linguistic tricks I played where the same base name evolved differently into different names in the different cultures – I probably won’t even be able to show that in the book, will I?  So, was this whole exercise irrelevant?  Was it just a case of Worldbuilder’s disease getting started?

Or, take the co-protagonist mentioned above.  As I’ve mentioned on this blog this week, the main character of my current novel project, “The Book of M”, is a young lady.  But the novel does have a co-protagonist and a few other high-profile secondary characters who get (or more precisely will get, as I haven’t written the scenes yet, only imagined them) POV screen time – many of whom are males.  Collectively they have less POV screen-time than the main protagonist, but they factor into the plot pretty significantly.  Such is my co-protagonist.  So, having finally decided on the co-protag’s name I set out to start writing about him.  So, who is he?

Well, he’s a person from “The Land of X”.  But what does that mean?  What’s the Land of X?  The Land of X is a nation that, long ago, was at war with “The Land of Y”, from whence hails the main protagonist.  Okay, and this is pretty important to the main plot, so I’m still firmly in relevant territory here.  But why were X and Y at war with each other?  Ah, now there’s an interesting and difficult question – the answer to which, at least in part, is that a wizard did it.  No, really, if I dig far enough back into the history, the actions of a wizard – or this world’s equivalent thereof – really are somewhat responsible for the war between X and Y, which has a direct impact on the plot and the problem the protagonist now faces.  So, of course, I want to understand the situation that influenced said wizard, what precisely the wizard did, and the immediate consequences of his actions, which started the chain of events that lead eventually to my protagonist.  But of course, understanding the immediate context of that wizard’s environment means understanding the history of the situation – so now we’re looking even further back into the history of this world.

You can see where this is going.  At what point does the history of this world become so distant from the immediate action of the main plot of this novel that it cannot possibly be relevant?  Where’s the cutoff?

So, this week, I picked a point in this world’s history – almost all of which was as yet unwritten – really rather arbitrarily.  I said to myself: I am going to start writing the history of the world from this point on, going all the way up to the start of the book itself.  Everything before this point is irrelevant.  Everything after, at least tangentially, is relevant.  And that’s just what I’ve been doing.  It’s been great fun so far.

In the end, I did decide to go back one step further in history to provide the cultural and historical context that surrounds actions of that lynchpin wizard.  I decided that was an important piece of his puzzle.  In the process, I’m now writing about conquerors and emperors whose names contemporary characters may be only vaguely aware of – in the sense of “Oh, you mean my city is actually named for this ancient conqueror who stormed through here and set up shop like some time between 500 and 1,000 years ago?  Oh.  That’s cool, I guess.”  Kind of an Alexander the Great analog – as if Alexander the Great is at all relevant to anything that happens today.  Well, that, but then there’s culture Z over here, where they’re all like “You are all the descendants of Conqueror Q and Q murdered our ancestors and razed our cities in his mad quest for new conquests, and yes we really can hold a grudge for that long.”  So it turns out it’s not entirely irrelevant.

The funny thing is, though: I didn’t know going in at what point any of this would be relevant or not.  I couldn’t know until I’d written that bit of history.  And that got me thinking back to the whole idea of the difference between planners and pantsers, or between architects and gardeners.  Pantsers are famous for making all of this detail up as they go.  But the thing is: when I’m planning it all in advance… well… I’m pantsing it – I’m just making this stuff up as I go.  It’s just that I’m making up the history stuff before write the actual book.  But you gotta make it up some time, don’t you?

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2011 11:55 am

    I only had a vague idea of world history when I started (just enough to get going), but had to stop while writing to think through more of the details. I suppose the advantage to this approach is that it’s easier to know what details are in fact important to the story. The disadvantage (and why it’s not much of a time saver) is that it usually results in having to go back and add bits and pieces to the manuscript or change things previously written. LOL So yes, I agree we all have to make it up sometime!

    • July 28, 2011 12:30 pm

      That’s not unusual for a Pantser, I don’t think. But it does a good job of illustrating part of my point here: that the difference between planners and pantsers, in this regard, aren’t really that large a gap. However, I’m not sure how much time doing this ahead can reasonably “save”, because there’s still going to have to be a lot of muddling around and moving bits and deleting bits and writing new bits in revisions. And of course, there’s the risk of writing too much background that never gets used. So, maybe neither method is necessarily going to produce a finished product any faster than the other? I don’t know… it’s not like you can directly compare one writer with another, anyway – there are a lot of variables affecting writing productivity.

  2. July 31, 2011 1:32 pm

    The History of Middle Earth series was fascinating (including how many false paths he went down on his way to the right ones), but your point is very well taken. Writing was not his job (he had quite a good “day job,” after all 🙂 ), so he had some freedoms that are not available to those seeking to “go pro.”

    • August 1, 2011 9:24 am

      Well, I wouldn’t say he wasn’t trying to write publishable work, per se – at least, I don’t know what his intentions with The Hobbit were, initially, but everything I’ve read said that “The Lord of the Rings” was undertaken as a sequel to The Hobbit in the hopes of following on the publishing success of the former. (Of course, Lord of the Rings ended up eclipsing its predecessor, if only by a little…) As I understand it, though, it was only in the writing of it that he found ways to integrate it with the world and mythology he’d been tinkering with, as it turns out, since his youth… so that originally the languages and history and world of Middle-Earth weren’t created for the Lord of the Rings, but really it was the other way around: LotR was fashioned to fit in this world he had already created. (That’s part of what accounts for some of the discrepancies between The Hobbit and LotR, as I understand it – because the former was not designed to fit that way.) But yes… his worldbuilding, I guess you could say, was like a hobby. And he just happened to find a way to make it work with his secondary job as a writer… Even so, his non-posthumous publications are titled toward his academic work. It’s only after his death, and his son Christopher’s execution of the literary estate, that we got to see the full breadth of what he’d accomplished with his hobby.

  3. July 31, 2011 11:04 pm

    I think determining relevance depends on having a solid, holistic understanding of not only the overall plot of your story but also of how all the major and minor components (characters, settings, themes, etc.) are supposed to function (accomplishing some goal with every detail you incorporate) as well as the relationships between those components (how they “fit” together)—be it through writing multiple drafts or very detailed planning, or some mixture of the two.

    I like to think of my story as a giant puzzle or a bunch of clusters with webs connecting each serviceable component (and this is something that could even be diagramed on paper to various levels of complexity): if I notice that I’m not able to make a meaningful, lasting connection between one component and at least one of my other major ones, then to me that is an indicator that it probably doesn’t have much relevance to the rest of the story to begin with.

    Visually, in my mind, I can see this now as I’m reading through the manuscript (during the editing process, anyway; for this particular story there’s no way I could have seen the entirety of “the web” before writing my earlier drafts, for various reasons). I’ll come to a seemingly trivial piece of information that I included, sometimes (though not always) identifiable as a largish chunk of infodumping, that seems to be something of a loner when I consider the big picture and then ask myself, “Okay, how does this piece of information/character trait/whatever in any way augment, complement or emphasize other components in my story?” If I can’t answer the question or can’t see a way to tie in that lone story component with a more important one (and that’s the key for me, determining the most important elements and pointing everything in the story in their direction), then I’m compelled to remove it.

    I couldn’t do this, though, when I was still playing around with elements of plot structure, worldbuilding, character development and theme because I was still exploring connections between ideas, which is probably why I’ve reserved this process for the editing stage and chose to mostly pantsed my way through the plot to the draft I’m currently editing. (I’ve also been planting plot devices and worldbuilding details enough for multiple stories to come—and not always on a conscious level, which presents its own set of challenges.)

    • August 1, 2011 10:02 am

      That’s an interesting way to go about it, in a sense… I’m trying to do all that up-front, before committing myself to 7+ draft. 😉 I’m hoping that “Book of M” doesn’t have to go through that many drafts before it’s in a good, readable, (and salable) final-state – though I’m sure it will still have to go through several drafts, just the same, just hopefully not that many. But yes… I can see that with some aspects of the worldbuilding and whatnot I won’t be able to fully appreciate where and even if they belong as a part of the whole until I have a bigger picture to look at from which I can tease out these sorts of micro- and macro-level connections. In other words, I’m guessing I’ll have to have it all written down in some form or other before I can really gauge the relevance of each little bit.

  4. August 5, 2011 12:00 pm

    Interesting subject. I think it really depends on what your goal is. I think Tolkien accomplished his goal, posthumously at least. Has there ever been a created world that captured the imagination of generations as Middle-earth has done? No, I say not. And for him I don’t think it was about the stories as much as the world and the mythology. The Sil was his passion, it’s just that no one wanted it at first.

    My goal is similar to Tolkien’s. Primarily I am concerned with creating a fleshed out imaginary world complete with peoples, places, history and mythology. My goal is Mythopoeia. My secondary goal is to tell stories in that world.

    • August 5, 2011 12:17 pm

      That’s a good point. And I suspect you’re right about Tolkien, although it is sad to succeed in such a goal only posthumously. Now that you mention it, though, I’ve written about Mythopoeia here on my blog before – and went on at length about how Mythopoeia differs from traditional Fantasy. “Lord of the Rings” was Fantasy, but underlying “Lord of the Rings” is a complex and rich work of Mythopoeia. My articles on the topic are here, here and here. (It was a series of three.) You might find those to be of interest. While my own long-term goal is to create a work of mythopoeia, I also want to be a writer and a novelist, professionally. For me, creating stories set in my worlds isn’t a secondary goal, it’s a co-important goal. Part of that is because I don’t really consider a work of mythopoeia to be complete until a physical artifact of the work’s creation fully exists: and novels and stories are the most common medium by which mythopoeia can be expressed (and are definitely a lot more commercially viable than, for instance, trying to get your own “Silmarillion” published before an actual novel). But in my current novel project, refining my skills as a novelist is a higher goal than creating mythopoeia. If a novel is to be the most important artifact expressing the existence of my mythopoeia, I have to be a strong novelist, first. And I don’t yet consider myself a good enough novelist to tackle my life’s work of mythopoeia (that which I call “Project SOA”).

      • August 5, 2011 2:20 pm

        Indeed, I actually found your blog through those articles. Mythopoeia and Sub-creation are my passion and I am a shameless devotee of Tolkien. Writing the stories is not unimportant to me, but it is only important insofar as it furthers the goal of mythopoeia. For me they cannot be separated.

      • August 5, 2011 2:26 pm

        Ah, excellent then. Yeah, I gathered mythopoeia was important just based on your blog address and e-mail. Actually, your blog looked familiar to me, so I checked (hastily) and didn’t see any comments by you on my Mythopoeia articles. Otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned them. But I realize I must’ve seen one before on something because I’d definitely visited your blog before. For me… I’ve always been a writer and a storyteller. Mythopoeia just became an extension of that.

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