How to Avoid OVERbuilding a World
One of my very favorite parts of being a fantasy writer is being able to build my own worlds. I get to design my own cities, economies, religions, political structures, empires, and more. The thing I enjoyed most about writing my first novel (Blade of the Destroyer) was following my main character on his tour through the temples of his city and learning about the 13 Gods of Einan.
However, a number of readers found that this section sort of lost their attention. They didn’t want to know about the gods as much as I wanted to write about them. In fact, I’ve heard more than a few say that they skipped over the sections that described the religious systems just so they could get to the action.
This got me thinking about world building as a whole. I may find certain elements interesting, but not everyone will. The key, then, is to only build as much of the world as necessary.
There are two parts to this:
- What YOU need to know. You need to know your world (or at least the city where your story is set) as thoroughly as possible. It’s not a waste of time to spend hours writing up all the complex details of religion, politics, military, economics, and more. The more you know about your world, the more accurate your story will be.
- What the READER needs to know. This is what really matters when writing the book. Giving your readers too much information will bore them to tears or make them start skimming to get to the good stuff.
One of my favorite book series in the last few years (Safehold by David Weber) made the mistake of dropping 5 pages of world building in the first chapter of the book. I hadn’t had time to care about the characters yet, so I simply skipped over the boring details to find out more about the story. Eventually, through the characters and interactions, I learned everything I needed to know about the world.
My approach to world-building is simple:
Only give as much information as your characters would know. If your character has never left his/her city, how would they know about the world at large? If they hate politics, why would they care which nobles are feuding?
As an example, I’ll use my character Ilanna from the Queen of Thieves series. In the first book, she’s just a child who spends most of her time trapped in the Guild. Very little of the city is revealed beyond her immediate surroundings, and there’s little to no understanding of religion or politics provided.
But in Book 2, when she’s a thief who roams the city, she needs to know as much detail as possible in order to be effective at her job. Thus, the Ilanna we meet in Book 2 is much more informed, and her world is much larger. We explore the city of Praamis through her eyes as she goes about her business of stealing.
Some readers have commented that they want more world building in Book 1, but it doesn’t seem right that a book set from a child’s perspective would have such a well-developed world. So, by only revealing what my character would know, the reader is able to discover the world as she does.
Only give as much information as your reader needs to know. How much does the reader need to know about every minute detail of the world? Some information is important, especially as it pertains to the characters and the stories you’re telling.
Some characters will be more “in the know”, so it makes sense that they’d have information on everything from religion to politics to economics. But if the story you’re telling isn’t as broad in scope, don’t worry about adding in all the complex layers of world building. Stick to what’s important for the reader to know—and no more! Make every word relevant and interesting, and limit your world building to the crucial information that drive the plot and character forward.
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