Friday, April 28, 2017

Obsessive Worldbuilding

I regularly see people talk about worldbuilding best-practices, typically with a warning against simulationist or overly detailed worlds.

The idea is to have interesting stories to tell in that world, right? So focus on that, rather than endlessly detailing how many centuries ago the elven court left for the high hills.

There's a few things to talk about here. The first is:

Yes. That is good practice. To me, the most critical thing about a world is how well it supports on-theme stories. That said...

Obsessive, detailed worldbuilding is fine.

We're talking about worldbuilding as the process an author goes through, not as the world is revealed to an audience in the final product. Obviously, including lots of dumb details in the final product is bad writing... but those details aren't necessarily bad worldbuilding.

One reason to worldbuild is to experiment with the boundaries of what's possible in the world. When developing a world, it's often unclear what the unique elements of the world allow. If you have a special kind of magic, or an unusual technology, or even something as simple as just a slightly deep dive on a particular social issue, it's often unclear where it will lead.

So you explore it. You detail out all the things that seem interesting and unique about this world. In the process, you realize there's something unique about the way this culture evolves, or an interesting take on the theme of family, or whatever else you can dig up while you're rooting around.

Filling the stories you tell with details nobody cares about is bad writing. Similarly, sticking to a fiction you've invented when you can replace it with something more powerful is bad writing. But those are bad writing, not bad worldbuilding.

When some obsessive worldbuilder shows you a ream of notes on the world they've invented, they're not showing you a finished story.

Maybe that's not how you work. Maybe you don't need to explore those ideas, because you already know where you're going to go 100%. It's a different process, but one doesn't invalidate the other.

Like a cartoonist with three pens talking to a painter: the cartoonist doesn't rag on the painter for their endless paint supplies and brush variants. It's understood that the two have completely different approaches.

Sure, the painter might suck.

The cartoonist might suck, too.

Another reason to worldbuild is to fill up the author's "working imagination": to make the world feel real to them. Some make the mistake of thinking that the notes they take can give someone else the same "working imagination", and then they get yelled at for misunderstanding how writing works.

... That's not writing. That's worldbuilding. I'm sure they regret bringing you into their process.

The next time you see someone excitedly building a world in a way you don't like, consider that they're searching their world for new ideas, new variants, and trying to leave a vivid impression in their own minds.

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