On Worldbuilding

June 21st, 2021 7:40 PM

Today I'd like to share a few words about worldbuilding. This will, by no means, be an exhaustive discussion about the topic, nor will it dive too deeply into specific techniques, but my aim is to highlight a few precautions an aspiring writer might wish to take. These precautions come from my experience publishing my most recent novel and the feedback I've received in doing so.

Worldbuilding is one of the most explosive concepts in writing these days... or so it seems. If you're a part of any of the various writing communities online, you've probably started to see this word crop up even when you're talking about genres that have traditionally used our pre-made world, Earth, as their setting.

Worldbuilding, for those who may not know, is the term used for the detailed process an author must go through to define the way their world works in a fictional setting (this could even be a modified Earth, like in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale). Typically, this process takes place before and during the author's creation of the novel (or board/video game; worldbuilding isn't just for novels, either) that will display their world. Worldbuilding addresses such important topics as the world's histories, economies, religions, magic, topography/geography, inhabitants, cultures (art, achievements, architecture), and societies. There's probably even more that goes into an entire world, but this is a good starting point. There are acronyms out there to help organize all of these elements (maybe, if you've visited Reddit's r/worldbuilding community, you've heard of GRAPES or HERMETICS), but there is also a kind of danger in fleshing out your world at too much length. This danger has a few different manifestations, and I'd like to start here, with the things that an aspiring author should be cautious of.

The first issue with worldbuilding is that it alone can take up as much time as you let it. If you start building your world, you can very easily become obsessed with creating a veritable encyclopedia of facts about this world. Maybe you've already experienced this. If you never get around to writing your novel (or building your game or typing up your screenplay), then you will be sitting on a pile of made-up facts about a world that no audience will ever be able to sink its teeth into. It's true, there are more and more people these days who are worldbuilding as a hobby, and these people have come to terms with the idea that they simply like building a made-up world more than they like writing about anything happening within that world. These people don't have a goal beyond making a complex world. That's okay, but if your goal is to produce a novel or some other medium in which characters and plot meet to produce an amazing story, then you'll want to be wary of this issue.

I spent perhaps a month and a half working on the worldbuilding for my current series. This endeavor resulted in a binder with perhaps fifty pages. I could have elaborated on each thing a lot more than I did, but, in doing so, I would've delayed the writing of my novel significantly, and, worse, I would've ended up with even more facts and lore and mechanics to try to cram into my series.


This is the other danger; the more you build your world, the more you feel compelled to include within your narrative because you've already invested time and energy into the act of creating these systems and societies and stories and creatures. If your narrative is nothing but an expose on the wondrous world you've created, I'd argue that you're basically asking readers to pay for a museum visit instead of an entertaining or thought-provoking story. Plenty of people do pay for museum visits, but readers often buy books with the expectation of being immersed in something other than exposition and information.

After considering those two major concerns with worldbuilding itself, I think it's fine to press forward and consider some other facets of the process.

When it comes to selecting or creating your fictional words and names, I'd say that this is one of the most exciting parts of the process, but it's also a challenge. You must take care to select names that don't sound too similar to one another. This is something I struggled with (and received feedback on) for my series, and, having already published my debut novel, I'm afraid I cannot go back and alter the vernacular I've already created. In my story, you've got the aereo, the bioluminescent creatures who protect the world and serve the power above the Dweller, but these creatures are further divided (by their color): you see the cereo (blue), fereo (yellow), reo (red), pereo (green), pureo (purple), and aureo (orange). A simple in-world diagram might be enough to clear this up for readers, but all these names can be daunting when they're dispersed organically through the text. I've also got a lot of similar-sounding metals and plants.

To sum up this bit of caution: never expect your reader to care about your world as much as you do. You'll know every word and every nuance, but you may be grossly unaware of how dense your world may appear to somebody besides yourself. It's wonderful if you develop a fanbase that does come to care so deeply about your world (think of those people who've become experts of Middle Earth), but you shouldn't expect it. Your job is to make your world make sense to the reader. It will only make your job harder if you make your terms sound too similar (take it from me; I've learned from experience).

This next piece of advice comes from a person who once wrote a comment somewhere, and, when I read it, I understood it to be a wonderfully correct and astute observation. This commenter wrote something like this: "I don't want to have to keep track of a bunch of terms that have real-world equivalents." Try to avoid substitutes. By this, I mean that you shouldn't make up words that have real-world equivalents unless you have a good reason for doing so. For example, my readers will have to suffer through reading about the harbinger (which is really just the sun), but I justified this. The reason the Aerisian people call this giant light in the sky "the harbinger" is because the light signifies the nightly approach of the vayle, which spell certain death for those left without defenses.

If you have a cow and you change its color and call it an unduri, you've not created anything new. However, there are ways for you to shift aspects of your inspiration (the cow) to synthesize something that is entirely new. As in my example above, it could be something as simple as changing the lore of the name. My people don't call it the sun; they call it the harbinger because it's meant to inspire fear and remind each soul, always, of the impending threat of the vayle. You could change the appearance of your inspiration (the cow) more drastically, or you could change its function. Perhaps it produces some sort of liquid that fertilizes plants but isn't edible to your people; now you've got an interesting take on the cow. People don't milk it for themselves, they milk the unduri to grow their crops. Wherever possible, create new things with a purpose that benefits your story.

The aentin from my story are another example. The reason I don't use animals in the Tales of the Gatherers (I instead use aenti), is because I introduced and developed a magic system called emeia. This magic system enables the Aerisian people to learn the abilities of Aeris's fauna. Animals have a ton of interesting abilities and strengths, don't get me wrong, but I wanted a totally unique set of animals from which I could extract any abilities my characters might need. Thus, the aenti were born, and I created them with the purpose to serve my story.

You could definitely argue that I'm a hypocrite because of my use of metals and jewels. I'd mostly agree with you on this, too. I have myrra, erra, pyrre, bessea, liselle, onium, and amnium (this subset of my world definitely highlights that issue I mentioned earlier about some of my words sounding too similar). I have some others, too, but these are the main players. Most of them do have real-world equivalents (myrra is highly valued like gold and erra is second to myrra, the way silver is second to gold), but the main thing I did to justify the inclusion of these alternative metals is that I planned on them having different properties and responding to immersia (the other magic in the Tales of the Gatherers) in different ways later on. Granted, I could have just included gold, silver, iron, and the like in my story and had those elements respond in different ways to my magic, but I digress. This is the path I've chosen for my story, and it's too late to change it now.

I have come to believe that it isn't a great choice to include alternative/substitute words when we have real-world elements that fully suffice to illustrate your story's mechanics. In fact, one could certainly argue that gold, silver, iron, and all those other metals actually have more emotional power because they exist in the real world. Readers already have strong feelings about these different elements. A reader might instantly visualize splendor and excess when you reference gold, but, if you turn gold into myrra, suddenly you've traded that reader's immediate association for a learning curve. Sometimes that's a good thing; sometimes it can work to your detriment.

These are only a few pitfalls to beware of. If you're considerate of each of these elements, I'm confident your story will be much stronger.

As always, thanks for reading!