Many Sci-fi/Fantasy (SFF) writers create their first worlds in childhood. They might spend years crafting epics in their heads before putting pen to paper. (I did it, too.) We build settings, characters, backstories, religions, environments, and systems of governance. Some of us have art, maps, maybe even notebooks full of details. Pinterest boards. Folders on our hard drives filled with inspo.
We know everything about our worlds. Clothing, food, trade systems, how sociopolitical factions conflict with one another. Some of us might have the scaffold for thousands of years of history already constructed. These worlds are real, are alive inside our heads.
…but we don’t have a draft of the novel.
In this three-part blog series on worldbuilder’s disease and its associated elements, I’ll tackle the following topics:
- What worldbuilder’s disease is and why getting trapped in the worldbuilding phase is dangerous
- Overcoming worldbuilder’s disease and getting our project started
- The pitfalls those with worldbuilder’s disease will likely encounter while drafting
I hope this serves as a useful reference for my fellow spec fic writers, whether or not you identify as a member of the worldbuilder’s disease club.
What is worldbuilder’s disease?
The defining characteristic of worldbuilder’s disease lies not in the vividness of the built world, but rather, in the sparseness of the writing. In other words: there isn’t any writing, even though we’ve spent years upon years cooking ideas in our heads.
Or, alternatively, there is writing – but not a complete story. Maybe we’ve started a bunch of different novels but never finished any of them. Maybe we keep rewriting the same opening chapters of one story over, and over, and over again.
Whatever the case may be, we have a head (or notebook) full of ideas and almost no narrative content in functional draft form.
Not all diseases are malignant.
Worldbuilder’s disease isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with filling notebooks with new languages or alternate universes (Tolkien did it, too). Some worldbuilders are more interested in the building than the storytelling, and that’s fine. If you get joy from making character profiles but never want to craft the narrative itself, that’s cool and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You don’t have to ‘use’ your world by putting it into a story.
That said, if your ultimate goal is to write a SFF epic someday, worldbuilder’s disease starts to look a little less benign.
Once we’ve spent years worldbuilding without writing, the act of worldbuilding becomes an impediment instead of an aid. This doesn’t apply if the project is backburnered in favor of drafting others, of course. Worldbuilder’s disease becomes a problem only when it prevents us from getting any words onto the page.
At that point, we’re faced not with a fun story-building pastime, but rather, elaborately crafted writer’s block. We trick ourselves into thinking we’re working on our work-in-progress (WIP) by doing everything but the writing itself and put months (years?) into the pre-production phase. In reality, once we’ve spent more than a few weeks on worldbuilding, we’re well past the point of diminishing returns.
Writers with worldbuilder’s disease tend to have one of two drafting roadblocks:
- “I don’t know how to get started.” (Related: I’m not done fleshing out 10,000 years of history. I just can’t make myself pick up the pen. I’m afraid the reality won’t live up to what’s in my head. I have no idea how to make a story out of a bible’s worth of worldbuilding facts.)
- “I don’t know where to start.” (Related: How do I fit 10,000 years of history into a single story? I’m not sure which characters to focus on. How the heck do you figure out where to start chapter one after you’ve crafted an entire space opera universe?)
If you have worldbuilder’s disease and are stuck in an inescapable rut, I have a spoonful of motivation to share with you: the same realization that helped me transition from building worlds in my head to putting them down on paper.
We don’t need to spend ten years getting a world down on paper. We don’t need to know everything about our worlds when we start writing.
Most importantly: our readers don’t need to know everything about our worlds, either.
No one cares about our worlds.
Yes, ouch, I know – believe me, I know.
You may be squinting at the screen and saying ‘No way, Cee. GRRM, Tolkien, etc. built words that people are obsessed with. There are wikis and merch and fanworks to prove it.’
And yes, you’d be right to say so. People are obsessed with the world of the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, etc. I’m not immune to this obsession. Know what else all of those works have in common?
The authors already wrote the stories. People don’t read Tolkien’s notes for giggles. They read them because they fell in love with the story Tolkien told. Though Tolkien ostensibly wrote LotR to have somewhere to house his nerdy languages and eons of history, he wove all of that worldbuilding into the story via
- Engaging characters, and
- A compelling narrative tale.
If he hadn’t, the SFF community wouldn’t have spent years digging through every letter he wrote to trace the history of Middle-Earth.
(If Frodo hadn’t (mostly) cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom, no one would care about the Dark Lord, his tower, or his ring.)
In other words, the bitter part of the medicine – no one cares about our worlds – is sweetened by this:
No one cares about our worlds until we tie them to plot and character.
Rest assured, it is possible to get readers to love the world we’ve built as much as we do – but the only way to get there is to write the story that goes with it.
When we worldbuild, we come up with some truly amazing, creative ideas. Rainbow wyverns who eat prismatic light and pelt attackers with gold. Desert wyrms who can split apart and multiply in-battle like the world’s most infuriating videogame boss.
Yet those amazing creations aren’t enough on their own. They only matter inasmuch as they have a direct impact upon the characters in our story.
These wyverns and wyrms won’t drive the reader to keep turning pages unless they come into direct conflict with characters the reader cares about. Until a rainbow wyvern lobs a nugget into the protagonist’s head, why should it matter to the reader that they turn light to gold? Until worldbuilding details interact with a character, they exist in a vacuum.
I’m going to distill this idea, because it’s vital to understanding how worldbuilding serves our writing: a setting’s importance to the reader is directly proportional to how much of an impact that setting has upon the characters. The more conflict the setting causes, the more interesting the setting becomes.
In order for our readers to care about the world we spent ten years crafting inside our minds, we have to write a story that takes them through that world, showcasing its most interesting bits through the events of the plot.
Think of the narrative like the tracks on an amusement park ride. The ride itself is meaningless from the outside – a potential experience that has yet to come to pass. The story (or the rail the ride’s car sits on) guides the reader through that world in a fun, engaging way. Readers might not notice every bit of machinery that makes the ride go. They may focus on one bit of the ride and ignore others. But the tracks you’ve built – or the story you craft – is what makes that ride accessible.
Otherwise, they’re standing on the other side of a gate, looking in at an overwhelming amount of information without any compelling reason to slog through any of it.
Worldbuilding isn’t writing
For those of us with worldbuilder’s disease, it’s imperative that we stop thinking about worldbuilding as time spent writing.
(Caveat: those of us who don’t have worldbuilder’s disease may find the opposite helpful. I have a friend who counts all of his worldbuilding words as ‘words written today’ to keep himself from skimping on the planning process.)
Until you have several completed drafts under your belt, counting planning words is a kiss of death. It gives you permission to avoid the difficult work: actually writing your story.
This is hard. Harder for those of us who’ve been worldbuilding for years and consider the worlds in our head a second home. So long as the setting remains intact in our minds, it’s perfect – the exact story we’ve always wanted to read. We can play it through our minds in its entirety – all ten thousand years of it – and don’t have to think about character arcs, killing darlings, or avoiding white-room syndrome.
As soon as our worlds hit the page, they’re beholden to two Big Scary Limitations:
- The limits of narrative structure, and
- The limits of our technical skill.
If we want to write our story, we must accept that imperfect words on a page are better than perfect words inside our head. We must let ourselves believe that, even though some of the richness of our world will invariably be lost in translation, we cannot transport anyone else to that world with us unless we make an attempt at translating. And even if the limits of narrative structure demand that we only tell a mere fraction of the full measure of the story in our heads, that mere fraction is more than what currently sits in our blank drafting document.
The first step of curing worldbuilder’s disease is getting started.
Stay tuned for next week’s post when I’ll write about mending our worldbuilding ways and getting words onto paper for the first time (or getting past whatever chapter keeps hanging you up!). Join me again on week three when I break down some of the biggest pitfalls those of us with worldbuilder’s disease encounter as soon as the words start flowing.
And if you’re looking for a way to get something – anything – on paper in the meantime, join me tomorrow (and Saturday, and Sunday, and Tuesday) for Morning Pages: short flash fiction prompts for SFF writers looking to jumpstart creativity and chat about craft.