Worldbuilding & Relevance
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?