Worldbuilding for writers demands over-engineering

Worldbuilding is essential for any novel – not just fantasy stories.

The Hill and Bag End, complete with a chintzy artificial oak tree.
The Hill and Bag End at Hobbiton, complete with a chintzy artificial oak tree.

A writer has to understand the world in which their story and characters are set, be it an imaginary world or historical London or contemporary Sahara desert.

That demands a lot of research, work and definition. Not all of it will make it into the finished book – in fact, it’s essential that it doesn’t. Why? Because it’ll stall the plot to dump too much information on the reader.

But it’s also necessary for another reason – richness of world. The best stories use only a fraction of what the author has researched or developed, but the fact that the author has researched or developed them shows through. It adds a subtle dimension to the story, because the reader picks up the feel that there is so much more there than the bare bones of a scene or setting.

Just like the real world.

One of the masters of the technique has always been J R R Tolkien, whose Middle Earth setting was a rich tapestry of invented languages, landscapes, a deep history and complex peoples, each with their own legendarium. There was plenty of that material in The Lord Of The Rings – but that, still, was but a tiny fraction of what he had developed, and which he continued to develop.

For Tolkien, of course, the exercise wasn’t novel-writing so much as legend-creation, which demanded that rich world. But the principle is clear enough.

All of which points to the fact that in order to write a really compelling novel or story, the writer needs to have done an awful lot of work before the first words of the expected story are written.

That, for instance, is why I did so much development into the world for my novella “Missionary”, published recently by Endless Worlds Publications in their first Endless Worlds anthology. I created a far more complex world – including doing the mathematics of spaceship design – than was strictly necessary for a 10,000 word story. But I thought it was essential.

And, of course, there’s the spinoff benefit, which I can sum up in one word. Sequel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


5 thoughts on “Worldbuilding for writers demands over-engineering

  1. It’s not just research (if you’re creating a fictional world). You have to hit a certain level of obsession, to the point that you start living in that world. When you start to write, words will gush out of that obsession; you’ll probably have to cut all kinds of stuff once you get to the revision stage.

    1. Or stick them into appendices, Tolkien style! You’re right, the enthusiasm for world content and what is needed for a tightly structured plot are two different things.

  2. The thing that’s struck me is there are some source materials that incite fans to try working out the deep background, and there’s others that don’t. It’s easy to see why someone would look for the deep background of Tolkien, since everyone knows it’s there.

    But, like, Star Trek inspires that too and while a massive world’s been built up there, nearly all of it was just one step away from improvised, built on the demands of “we have to have a plot this episode” and “we have to have a couple throwaway lines for flavor”. In comparison Asimov’s Foundation novels have a similar universe built by plot-and-flavor, but nobody really cares to dive deep into its mysteries, and it’s not as though there isn’t a good mass of interesting story hooks in it.

    What is it some writers and some settings have that invite getting lost in the continuity that most writers and settings lack?

    1. I suspect they speak to our social and personal aspirations and our (perhaps subsconsciously held) sense of self-validation. I am pretty sure Tolkien ‘took off’ in the mid-1960s because his material coincidentally keyed in to the priorities of the counter-culture. But I don’t quite know how in detail… yet. I think a further blog post is brewing, hopefully with input from commenters who can help extend the discussion. This an interesting one.

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