Friday, December 11, 2009

The Fun and Stressful Nature of Worldbuilding

I'm a fantasy writer through and through. This was true before I got into the steampunk game, and will be true if I ever decide to not write that subgenre anymore (doubtful, but it's a possibility). Now, one of my favorite (and simultaneously least-favorite) things about writing fantasy is that I get to create an entire world wholesale. But wait, you ask, how can you both love and hate something at the same time? Well, the answer to that is simple:

Worldbuilding is effing hard.

There's a laundry list of factors you have to consider when creating your fantasy world. These include, but aren't limited to, language, history, mythology, religion (which is not always the same thing as mythology), countries, peoples, weapons, level of technology, politics, and social mores.

And then comes what is perhaps the most annoying part of the whole worldbuilding process: Much of the work you do will never be seen by the general public. Ever. To be quite frank, much of the time you spend worldbuilding is only of interest to you the author. And that's the only person it'll ever be useful to. Well, unless you're the next J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, or George R.R. Martin (hey a guy can dream, can't he?).

Let me use an example from my own work. SON OF MAGIC (which is woefully underrepresented in these posts) takes place on a world called Haldor, which is peopled by twelve sentient and semi-sentient races (sentient means thinking, for those who aren't huge sci-fi geeks like Adam, Bane, and me). The eleven races that aren't humans are based off either animals or creatures from myth (yes, there is the obligatory race of elves -- no dwarves though).

There's a total of (I think) 20 countries, each with a culture based off one that currently exists on Earth, with a current level of technology placed at about the 15th Century (the tech level will change when it becomes steampunk). I spent nearly a year concurrently researching and writing in order to get the details I needed for the world, and even wrote a semi-mythical history that stretches back 25,000 years for purposes of the hero. And yes, I do have the ancient race that vanished without a trace. There are some tropes you just can't ignore. *grin*

To give you an idea of the mass of worldbuilding -- I have 20+ files on my computer devoted to this world's backstory, including timelines, legends, organization charts, political relationships, tribal splits, lineages, and capsule descriptions for each of the 15 gods and goddesses. And don't even get me started on how many printouts I have of baby names.

Am I crazy for going through all this just to write a story? Probably.

Am I having a blast and a half crafting new worlds out of whole cloth? You bet your sweet bleep I am.

My theory is thus: any writer who says they don't have an teeny little god complex is a liar. How can you not enjoy putting fictional people through their paces? Or crafting new worlds and new civilizations, boldly going where no one has gone before?

Yes, worldbuilding may stress me out. Yes, it's annoying with the amount of detail it requires. But it's a heckuva lot of fun regardless. And I wouldn't have it any other way.


Susan R. Mills said...

Between the amount of research you do and worldbuilding, how do get any writing done? :) I don't write fantasy, so I don't have to do much worldbuilding, but I think the same thing goes with backstory. I know everything there is to know about each and everyone of my characters. Most of this info doesn't make it into my stories, but I must know it. I spend a lot of time doing character sketches. I understand what you mean about love/hate and about the god complex thing. That's why we write. We get to create and then control it all.

Rick Daley said...

You clearly went to the J.R.R. Tolkien school of world building. Do you invent a language, too?

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

The upshot is I have few moments where I go "wait a minute, is that possible here?"

Rick --

God no, I'm entirely too lazy to create my own language. Do you know how much work that is? ;)

Instead I translate things into Latin/Greek/insert language here and then make anagrams of the words.

Stephanie Damore said...

And I thought it was annoying creating a VR gaming world one of my character's is into playing. I will quit complaining now. :)

K. Marie Criddle said...

Aaaamen. Worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of the whole process, too...and the great part is that it's not just regulated to fantasy. Building a whole new world out of a Middle America high school with only human denizens and a whole social class to figure out can be just as fun/frustrating. Funstrating. See? I can Tolkien my vocab, too.

(And now Tolkien is a verb which means 'invent my own.' WORLDBUILDING!)

Matthew Delman said...

Marie --

Didn't you know Tolkien is an all-purpose word, just like Disney?
"Aww man, this shiz is Tolkien." -- complex; or "I'm Tolkiening this stuff." -- making it up.

Oh, and loyal blog readers? Say hello to Marie -- she's a member of my real life crit group, maintains an extremely amusing blog over at C'mere (with artwork!), and is repped by Mr. Super Agent Nathan Bransford.

Anita Saxena said...

Wow, 25 thousand years of fictious history! How fun! I love history. When I was in school I thought history class was like story time. That's amazing that you pay attention to so many facets of the worlds that you create. My fav is when an author takes something that actually happened in real life and puts a spin on it. Like when JK Rowling said the fog in London was from the dementors. Way cool. Those are the best.

L. T. Host said...

Hi Marie :)

Great post, Matt. I didn't go through THAT much trouble building the world for WIND FURY, but to be fair, it was already in existence.

Matthew Delman said...

And I've just been corrected -- Marie's blog address is, not what my comment above says it is.

Matthew Delman said...

Anita --

It all hearkens back to me being crazy detail-oriented and wanting to be sure I'm consistent. Some Potter trivia for you: in an interview, Rowling said she developed bios for every child in Harry's year at Hogwarts -- which amounted to 40 different backstories (I think).

There are days I wish I could be like Terry Pratchett, who admits he doesn't take notes about Discworld because "You can't map a sense of humor." But I'm having fun my way too.

K. Marie Criddle said...

(wave) hi all!

And may I say that Matt is just as helpful and eloquent about writing in real life as he is on this here blog, even though he doesn't always believe in giving the girls in his story their own horses. :) Mua ha ha. Close that can of worms, Delman!

Joshua McCune said...

For my first manuscript, I had copious notes and a very elaborate map. Still peek at the map every once in awhile, but the manuscript remains hidden :)

Joshua McCune said...

Marie, everybody knows girls don't need horses -- they need unicorns (or pegasi)...

Matthew Delman said...

This from the woman whose shipboard balcony scene could only work if the top balcony had a hole cut in the floor?

And I'll have everyone know that I gave the character her own horse in the rewrite.

K. Marie Criddle said...

Ha! Toooooouche.

Maybe I'll just have a unicorn stab a hole through the floor for me.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Whew! I'm glad I knew what sentient means. :)

I could never write fantasy- I would spend so much time building that I would never write. As much as it drives me bonkers sometimes to have to research nitty gritty historical details instead of making them up, I'm glad to have that framework.

Did I throw a little temper tantrum when I realized that ancient Egyptians didn't have candles in Hatshepsut's time? Why, yes, I most certainly did because it meant editing about five scenes where I'd mentioned candles. Woe is me.

Matthew Delman said...

Stephanie --

Yeah, historical fiction writers like you and Gary have it both easier and harder than fantasy authors. You have the burden of getting things historically accurate for the period you're writing in, but you also have scholarship to go through where people have collected the extant information already.

And there's nothing wrong with throwing temper tantrums now and then. :)

Adam Heine said...

"Yes, I do have the ancient race that vanished without a trace. There are some tropes you just can't ignore."

Amen to that.

I love world building. It's true, you have to create a lot of detail that the reader never knows, but with a good world you can reuse it for things like short stories and stuff. (Did I just pimp my sale announcement again? Yes, sir, I did!)