How Complete Must a Setting Be?

Earlier today I was reading through a reddit thread in which comparisons were being drawn between the Mystery/Thriller genres and the Fantasy/Science Fiction genres. The discussion mostly revolved around an unusual paradox, this being that while the apparent readership and sales figures of the Mystery/Thriller genres are much higher, Fantasy and Science Fiction titles show up on bestseller lists just as frequently, if not more so.

A number of theories were posited, but one in particular caught my attention. This theory pointed out that Fantasy and Science Fiction are more difficult genres to write, largely due to the extra effort required to convincingly worldbuild a Fantasy or Science Fiction setting. Additionally, there is extra effort required on the part of the reader to parse and comprehend these invented worlds. Thus, while Fantasy and Science Fiction attract fewer readers, fewer people are able to write Fantasy and Science Fiction exceptionally well. Thus, that smaller readership will concentrate around excellent titles, driving those titles onto the bestseller lists.

The reasoning behind this theory is solid. However, I think it makes a fairly significant assumption about worldbuilding that isn’t necessarily true, and which can trip up newer writers as they write their own Fantasy and Science Fiction stories.

When I was first learning how to write by attempting to emulate my heroes–Tolkein, Robert Jordan, and Ursula LeGuin at the time–I did a lot of worldbuilding. Often I would spend more time and effort designing fictional cultures, fantastic landscapes, and incredible magic systems than I actually spent writing prose fiction. Sometimes I still fall into this trap. For example, I spent two solid weeks working on an orbital dynamics problem for the sake of worldbuilding  a setting which, to date, I have only used for one short story which had little if anything at all to do with the orbital dynamics in question. But, in the last year or so, I’ve discovered that I actually have more success when I leave large chunks of worldbuilding undecided until the actual drafting stage.

Part of this comes down to the fact that I am an extreme discovery writer. I’ve basically stopped using outlines entirely, other than random notes for scenes that I want to happen but don’t want to write yet. My projects tend of evolve as I work on them, and I create new worldbuilding elements–not to mention plot points and characters–as I need them on the first draft and use subsequent drafts to more elegantly weave them into the narrative. Which is not to say that I do no worldbuilding before I start drafting. In fact, I do quite a bit, but usually focused around the core concepts of the story I want to tell. Those worldbuilding elements combine with character and theme to form the germ of the project. These can be cultural elements, or geography, or a magic system, or the history of a people group. Other ancillary cultural elements, which are necessary to the richness of the setting but less so to the heart of the story, can be decided upon as they appear.

I think within the Fantasy and Science Fiction reading communities, there is a tendency towards the fetishization of elaborate worldbuilding. Its one part the legacy of Tolkein, who seems to have been as interested in the linguistics and history of his world as he was in the novels which he set in it–and one part the genuinely amazing experience of exploring a well thought through and convincingly presented fictional world. But I am increasingly of the opinion that hyper-detailed worldbuilding, while incredibly fun and very useful when done with purpose, can be a trap for young writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction still figuring out their process.

It was for me, at least.


[As I wrote this, I remembered this blog post I wrote a couple of years ago on how I layered detail into my worldbuilding. Much of this post is still true and, I think, useful. And its interesting to see that, as far back as two years ago, I was aware of how much of a trap superfluous worldbuilding could be for me.]


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