1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep
– Genesis 1:1-2
Every single writer plays god. Every single one. No, don’t point out the author of a high school Geometry book and tell me I’m wrong, they do it, too. They’re a bit more square, more obtuse, more linear (see what I did there?) about it, but even they play god with their words, deciding what to emphasize, what to draw attention to, how the narrative is constructed. But obviously I’m talking more about fiction writers, like myself. We play god by inventing characters, shoving them into some vision of the world we hold in deeply cherished pockets of our minds, and then aiming the mighty Pen of Problems at them so they’ll do back flips for us and our readers.
World Building is not unique to the fantasy genre. Even the most jaded romance writer engages in world building, pushing their plot through a thinly veneered representation of the world as they see it, a world that they expect their readers to have some familiarity with in their real lives. But it is in the fantasy genre that world building goes far beyond inventing fictional towns set in a “real world” earth, where cars roll along highways, restaurants serve us salmon, and hotels exist to provide the heroine a night of pleasure under the strong arms of their handsome, mysterious, billionaire lover. In a fantasy world, many of the things we take for granted are gone, dissolved, replaced by things that don’t exist or haven’t existed for a long time.
Take Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth. Deeply constructed, rich in detail, it’s as much a real place to many of his fans as their own homes are. Tolkien spent many long hours pouring facts into his world to breath life to it, right down to extensive languages for the various races. It remains the measure so many fantasy writers strive for when creating their unique versions of The World According to <Insert Name Here>. George R. R. Martin does this, as did Terry Pratchett (Disc World), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea), Robert E. Howard (Hyboria), Terry Brooks (Shannara), and Ann McCaffrey (Pern). The list is almost countless, but think of how many we forget, and how many are truly interesting and unique.
I bring all this up because, recently, one of my early readers for Mercy (whose advice has been incredibly dead on and useful, by the way… get yourself good readers, and your stories are going to improve immeasurably) complimented me on the world building I’ve done for the story. And here is where I start to feel a little guilty. When I wrote the first draft back in 2012 (may have been 2011 actually, I’m still trying to recall which year I did NaNoWriMo), I spent countless hours researching the 1930’s. Phrases and idioms, their clothing and cars, the way the city of Baltimore and state of Maryland would have looked at the time. I wasn’t very interested in building a new world, I was more interested in understanding what the world was like in 1938 and molding it to my needs.
During the re-write, with a change of character focus and a change of time period to “almost modern”, most of that world building research was abandoned. I wrote the story, focusing on the characters, and only when needed did elements of how this “alternate earth” with its society that blends human and non-human races reveal itself. A city is a living, breathing thing in some ways in my book, with its own personality, making the world around it suit its needs. There are no cell phones, but there are computers. There are airships, but no airplanes. There is science and magic, and the two somehow just… coexist.
I think there’s a potent power in focusing on your story and your characters, and only world building as you need, as you go along. You’ll be focusing on what’s important, not spending too much of your time trying to show all the cool things you’ve created, including that little map you spent countless hours hand drawing for your D&D group which is now going to become the world of Allaria, with the kingdom of Carvalla and it’s mythical race of horse beings. And you’ll be telling instead of showing, and in the end that’s going to make your story a much better place to be. There’s nothing wrong with the Tolkien way… but don’t beat yourself up if you chose a different way of handling it, and for the love of god, don’t try to be Tolkien. Few have managed it well, and the world is full of long lost worlds that were built with loving, intricate detail and have faded into obscurity after all that work was finished.
Honestly, for me I think it would be much worse to have spent hundreds of hours designing a world, then writing a story based off it that flopped. I’d rather it flop the way it is and not feel like I wasted that time on little details that don’t end up making an impression. If it works for you, go for it. You’re god, you can do what you want. Just try not to flood the whole damn thing, you’ll end up backing up the sewers, and no one wants that.