25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is one of those topics that bakes my noodle every time my brain chooses to dwell on it. I have a whole bucket full of opinions, many of them in stark disagreement with one another. So, this list below should never at any time be taken as “25 Exhaustive Universal Truths About Worldbuilding,” but rather be regarded as, “25 Things Chuck Wendig Thinks About Worldbuilding At This Exact Moment In Time, Oh, Wait, Some Of Them Just Changed.”

Kay? Kay.

Let’s chat.

1. What We Mean When We Say “Worldbuilding”

We’re talking about the revelation of your storyworld and its details through the story itself. It’s easy to think this means “setting,” but that’s way too simple — worldbuilding covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic “twerking” rites.

2. The World Serves The Story, The Story Does Not Serve The World

My opinion: you build a world to serve the story or stories you want to tell; you do not tell a story that is slave to the worldbuilding. Story comes first. Worldbuilding supports the story. Meaning, you must look at the components of the story you hope to tell: it’s got these characters, it’s about this idea, it makes a particular argument, and from there you start to see that the world can organically accommodate and reflect those things. Doing the opposite — leading with the worldbuilding — is what you’d do if you were writing a roleplaying game which has to tell all kinds of stories, not just yours. If you put the cart before the horse the horse is gonna headbutt the cart and knock it over and then you’re all, WAIT NO MY CABBAGES then we laugh at you.

3. Put Differently, You’re Not Writing A Fucking Encyclopedia

If you prioritize worldbuilding, you’re probably going to end up with like, seven different versions of the D&D Monster Manual but no actual novel. Which, again, is super-awesome if you’re writing a roleplaying game, but less awesome if your goal is to write a more static and ego-driven story. Worldbuilding can be a giant time sink and, worse, a distraction that can make you feel productive while also keeping you from lashing your body to the mast of your novel, comic, or film — which, again, is more likely your purpose.

4. Okay, Wait, You Might Be Writing An Encyclopedia

But then again, that’s not to say you’ll find zero value in writing a storyworld bible for the tale at hand. If you’re writing a three-book epic fantasy, and each book is gonna be 150,000 words a pop or more, you may want to find a comfort level with the details big and small of the world about which you’re writing — in certain modes of fantasy, the world is itself a character, and a focused world bible will help you reflect that. Just the same, you’re still better off ensuring that what goes into the story bible reflects the characters and themes you plan to work with, and it’s probably also wise to get some of those story details down in your notes before you hunker down and start writing the bible for Middle Earth II: Shirelectric Hobbaloo. Here’s one test: if you’ve spent a year writing a 400-page story bible (one you could use to break the neck of a walrus) and yet you still haven’t put a single sentence down on your novel, you might be committing too much energy in the wrong direction.

5. Variant Approach: Ninja Genesis

Man, now I have a great idea for a Phil Collins cover band. *dons ninja gear, starts singing Sh-sh-shuriken, sung to the tune of Sussudio* WAIT YOU’RE STILL HERE okay I’ll worry about that later. If you’re lazy (like me!) and don’t feel like you can commit to writing a glacier-sized world bible, hey, you know what? Build it as you go. As you write, introduce details relevant to the story, the plot, the characters, the theme, and to the chapter at hand. This’ll probably require work on the back-end — no, not proctology, though perhaps it’s not unlike proctology, because you’ll have to go back on the second draft and root around and make everything work together instead of the random slapdash worldbuilding you just did. The pro: this is organic and works for lazy people (like me!). The con: more work after the fact, and may not give you a full sense of the world going into the story. Probably better for stories that require lighter worldbuilding, like those based off of our existing world.

6. The Pig In A Purse

Here’s some probably-really-bad and likely-untrue advice: give the audience only those details they need to know to understand the story. Now, it’s worth highlighting what I mean by “story” — story, for me, is not the same as plot. Story is the apple, plot is the arrow through it. Plot is a sequence of events as revealed to the reader, but story is all the stuff in and around that. Mood is a function of story, so when I say to include those worldbuilding elements that are necessary to move the story forward, I don’t merely mean the plot. I mean, hey, it’s totally okay to include a detail that is relevant to advancing a particular mood of gloom, or a theme of “man’s inhumanity to mermaids” or whatever. The problem is when the worldbuilding overwhelms — read: “smothers” — the story with needless details. I don’t need you to describe every family crest, guild sigil, hairstyle, nipple clamp, or blade of grass in the world. (Wait, on second thought: tell me more about these nipple clamps.) This is bad advice, probably, because a lot of fantasy storytelling is very much this: chapter after chapter of rich, robust, wormy worldbuilding loam. Fertile dirt, maybe, but too fetishistic and not necessary to move the audience forward in that space. And moving them forward is, I suspect, the goal.

7. Function Beyond Plot

This bears further reiterating: worldbuilding supports story, not just plot. Which means that your worldbuilding supports mood, theme, conflict, character, culture, setting. It doesn’t have to move only the sequence of events further. The details of the world you’ve created can and should engage with the whole narrative, not just action and event.

8. Action And Dialogue Above Description And Exposition

That being said, what’s true for other stories is true with a story featuring thick, delicious worldbuilding — you’re better off conveying the details of that world through action and dialogue than through giant boulders of description and exposition dropped on your readers from a vertiginous height. I get points for using “vertiginous,” right? Fellas? Ladies? Anybody?

9. A Rich Tapestry Or An Unrolled Tube Of Plain White Toilet Paper?

A lot of worldbuilding is dull as a hammer, as complex as a meaty slap to the face. This is fine for certain modes of storytelling (and a powerful story will set aside any concerns over monochromatic worldbuilding), but in general, if you’re gonna build a world, you’re best introducing some measure of nuance into it. We’ve been conditioned, perhaps, by the news and other forces (school, parents, bad fantasy novels) that everything is black and white, good and evil, that all things are easily slotted into their compartments. Example: the Middle East. Our politicians, our news media, our pop culture portray the Middle East like, “Okay, those are the good guys, those are the bad guys, ta-da, yay, simplistic world-view confirmed,” but if you spend more than five minutes looking into it, you realize the picture looks more like this. Certainly some stories are better off relying on the good versus evil paradigm, but generally, they dominate. More interesting (to me, if not to you) are those stories that are drawn from complexity and nuance rather than from easily predictable, simplistic strokes.

10. The Nature Of “Write What You Know”

Write What You Know is one of those pieces of writing advice that inspires glorious epiphany and pants-pooping rage in equal measure. Genre fiction tends to be where folks hit their heads against it in frustration: “Well, how can I write about murder scenes, alien apocalypses, or humping a sexy elf? I’VE ONLY DONE TWO OUT OF THE THREE. And the third, I was really drunk on monkey schnapps.” With worldbuilding, the question becomes: how can this advice hold up? The easy answer is: it doesn’t. It can come into the writing of characters and situations, but worldbuilding, not so much. The more complicated answer is: you can still borrow from things you understand and translate them accordingly. Maybe you know local school politics or neighborhood hierarchy, and you know how both operate viciously, each an engine that runs on gossip and lies — psst, you can use that. Just give it a fantasy or space opera context, and boom. Alternately, you can borrow from culture, politics and history. Read some non-fiction about other places and different people. Again: translate. Use write what you know as a springboard to know more things, then gaze upon said things through the lens of the fantastic.

11. Remix Culture

We live in an era of remix culture. And reboot culture. Everything that’s not something entirely new either feels like a microwaved rehash or a remix of other stories — but believe me when I say, remixing with worldbuilding is perfectly acceptable. Hell, remixing can be fun. On my iPad I used DJ software to remix Kayne West’s “Black Skinhead” with the Thomas the Tank Engine theme and, pow, now it’s getting radio play in both Moldavia and Moldova. Point is to remix things that are different enough and interesting enough so that the result is something new and unseen — remixing can be magical alchemy or it can be as boring as pouring two different types of milk together in the same glass. (“My world is a remix of Tolkien and Robert Jordan” is far less interesting than, say, “I’m remixing Cherokee myth with Eastern European vampires and throwing in a hefty dash of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.”) Don’t be lazy. Don’t be predictable. Use other ideas to create something new and uniquely yours.

12. Ew, Stereotypes

If you’re worldbuilding, don’t rely on stereotypes. Noble savages and white heroes and damsels-in-distress and people of a single race acting in a single way. No culture is monolithic, skin color does not determine demeanor or magical racial bonuses, men are not all one thing and women are not all another thing. Stereotypes are lazy at best, harmful at worst. They make Story Jesus karate a kitten and then post the pictures on Facebook that say “SEE WHAT YOU MADE ME DO.”

13. Your Heteronormative White Male Gaze

Carrying this conversation a little further: if you’re firmly ensconced in your mini-mansion sitting on top of Heteronormative White Dude Mountain, you should cast an extra-long look at any presuppositions in your worldbuilding and sniff for the acrid tang of privilege sprayed all over from your White Dude scent glands. The result of worldbuilding in genre fiction seem to skew strongly toward White Dudes, and this is frequently excused in some way  — “Well, in the Middle Ages, women were basically sexy goats and dudes were the shepherds and I’m just being authentic and something-something slaves and blah-blah-the-Moors–” Mmm, uh-uh, bzzt, wrongo. First: you don’t need to be “authentic” to history in genre fiction that does not use actual history. Second, history is a lot more nuanced than you think. Third, we know you’re just using that as an excuse, so just stop it. You’re embarrassing yourself. For shame. *shakes head*

14. Small Details Are Just As Important As Big Ones

It’s easy to get wrapped up in all the Big Epic Holy Fucksmuckers aspects of worldbuilding — all the weighty topics like RELIGION and POLITICS and THE DANCE MUSIC OF KINGS. But a lot of worldbuilding lives in little details. What they drink at different meals. How they wash their hands. How they treat their animals. What materials they use to construct their sex toys (“BEHOLD THE ORICHALCUM DONG”). These little details can connect to and reflect a larger cultural aspect without bludgeoning readers over the head and neck with weighty exposition.

15. Simple Interactions Pregnant With Worldbuilding Complexity

Just as small details matter, so do the small interactions of our characters. The way one shares her food. The way another addresses a superior. The way a third chooses to couple rectally with the tentacled yelly-beast of Vrall, and whether or not they cuddle afterward, and what that cuddling means culturally. Allow the world to be built through what your characters do and say.

16. Your World Must Be Active And Alive

Worldbuilding is not an encyclopedia for dead cultures and forgotten races. That element can be in there, sure (because, so cool) but this world is one that features actual characters doing actual things and affecting the world. Worldbuilding has a tendency to feel staid and monolithic: “Everybody does this because it’s the culture.” But that’s never really true in our world, is it? Look at it like this: the rest of the world sees America as this single-headed entity, but they also seem to recognize that Americans are not always representative of that entity. That’s the breakdown: the world is one way, but the people are allowed to be another. Because people are alive. They have free will and agency to confirm and deny different aspects of their culture.

17. “But It’s Cool, Shut Up” Is Not An Excuse

All aspects of your worldbuilding should justify themselves in some way. “BUT IT’S COOL I LIKE IT” is not enough. My experience with worldbuilding is that it yields no small surfeit of Really Awesome Ideas that, at the same time, Don’t Really Belong In The Story. “But this cult! They do awesome things! And they spray acid from their nipples in the name of their Dark Lordess, Areola the Aerosolized Acid Queen, and they have magic based on the configuration of moles and skin tags and–” And none of that belongs in the book. Doesn’t connect to characters, plot, theme, anything. Cut it. Save it for a time when you can use it meaningfully, not just because oooh preshus darling I loves the pretty peacock. *paws at the darling, mewls*

18. The Rules

Worldbuilding likes to offer “rules” — in particular, rules about the way This Certain Thing works, which might be magic, or some alien technology, or political ascension, or what happens when you fuck a minotaur while holding a pelican under the boughs of the whispering wank-wank tree. Rules can be critical in helping readers understand the nature of the world and, more importantly, how the stakes of the story in this world shake out. (More on a story’s stakes here.But (you know a ‘but’ had to be coming, right?), rules can also be woefully boring. They can be expository, obvious, and they can rob the story of mystery. You’re not writing a technical manual for HVAC repair. And yet, you also don’t want a world where everything is so unpredictable that it feels convenient and lazy. Here’s how to handle it: you should know the rules and conform to them. But you don’t need to spell them out to the audience. The audience is smart! The audience wants to work. Let them figure it out for themselves, like a puzzle.

19. Wait, I Need To Research My Made-Up World?

Tad Williams thinks so, and I happen to agree. Research trade routes. Economics. Religious persecution. Poetry. Guilds. Alchemy. Djinn. Leprechaun ranching. Medieval donkey shows. Knowing how real things work will inform how they work in your made-up fancy-land.

20. Imagine A World On The Edge Of Conflict

Conflict is the food that feeds the reader. Just as characters enter a story facing conflict, so too should the world in which they live. First, because it’s interesting. Second, because has any world ever been entirely without conflict? War! Famine! Plague! Facebook! Miley Cyrus’ soul-leeching hell-tongue! Conflict is good for your story, your characters, and your setting.

21. Everything Affects Everything Else

Behold the complexity intrinsic to worldbuilding. Everything pushes and pulls on everything else, often in interesting ways. Again, our world makes for good examples: think of how a technological development can change the world in a relatively short amount of time (printing press, electricity, the Internet, Robocop). Think of what happens when a critical resource (food, water, oil, coffee, hair pomade, black market llama squeezings) dries up. Small changes in an economic system can have huge results. A new farming practice can fix — or wreak havoc upon — the environment. Everything is tethered to everything else, and in this, you can find compelling worldbuilding as well as the interesting stories that grow out of it.

22. Subtextology

Characters can speak in subtext. So can the world. Not everything must be spoken or spelled out.

23. Preserving Mystery Is Vital

A fully-realized and known world is also a boring world. Mystery, alongside conflict, is another of those vital vittles that feeds the reader and keeps them hooked. Question marks are shaped like hooks for a reason, I say — so leave lots of questions. The best parts of any map are the ones that fade out and leave us with the dread note of HERE THERE BE DRAGONS. Preserve that uncertainty in your worldbuilding. Never pull back the curtain all the way. Always leave us hanging, waiting for you to reveal more, more, more.

24. Worldbuilding Versus Storytelling

Good worldbuilding does not automatically mean the same thing for the storytelling. I’ll leave you with this io9 article, which compares the worldbuilding of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with Star Wars: A New Hope. One could make an argument that the worldbuilding in the prequel chapters is more robust and more detailed than what you’d find in the original trilogy. And one would hopefully also argue that this didn’t make for a better experience in any way, shape, or form and may have in fact robbed some of the narrative potency from that universe.

25. Construct Worlds Mapped After Your Own Heartsblood Spatter

Pro-tip: build worlds that you love. That interest you. Whose characters sing the song that drums in the deep dark labyrinthine chambers of the puzzle box you call a heart. If you don’t like it? If it doesn’t conjure themes that fascinate you, if it fails to play with images and ideas that appeal to you, the world will feel flat as a frog under an anvil. Get excited about world building! Embrace the mad genesis. Scream, let there be light, and then cackle, and pull the switch, and watch the storyworld of your dreams and nightmares glow bright and bold like a fucking Christmas tree on Jesus’ own front porch. I mean, jeez, if you don’t dig it, what’s the point?

* * *

91 comments

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds