Friday, December 18, 2015

When Your World is Too Big

Recently, I read a blog post on “Too Much Worldbuilding” (in addition to suggesting you read that post, I suggest you read that blog in general). Not only was the post very true, but made me do some additional thinking about what I wanted this post to be about.

I knew I wanted to write a post like this: a “warnings against Worldbuilding too much” post, but reading the above-linked post made me think through some of my thoughts a bit more.
Thus I sit and write this rather later than is my custom, in the hopes that it will be of use to some of you. If not, well, it has been of use to me, at least.

Now. I like to worldbuild. It’s almost as much of a hobby in and of itself as writing is. I’ve created whole worlds just for the fun of imagining what would happen if a few things were different.
What if we had an extra moon?
What if the world was in a constant state of winter because it was further from the sun than normal?
What happens when you combine elemental magic, a one-eyed race, and 1920s technology and fashion?

I enjoy building worlds for the “what ifs” and the “why-fors” and “to-becauses”. Well, maybe not the last one, but I digress. However, the main reason to build a world is to plant your story in it. Am I right, or am I left?
However, it is possible to go too far. To spend so much time, as the aforementioned blog post says, building your world that you forget about the actual story.

The Story is more important than the Setting

I’ll be the first to admit it and the first to apply it. I have written three novels without so much as a sentence of world building under my belt. It is possible and it is necessary for some stories.
In two of those three cases, the story didn’t require world building. One story was set in our world, in modern times. Easy enough excuse there to not worldbuild. The second story was set in a low fantasy setting, where really nothing was different beyond a bit of geography and country names.

The third case involves a story which fell apart because I didn’t world build. That is the case where it becomes necessary to stop and think about what the setting is. When the setting become important to the story that is when you need to develop it.
Much like a character, the setting needs to be developed. But if you spend all your time hanging with your online friends and developing characters in different scenarios, you’ll never get your story written. And that is the point of writing.

Never put the setting above the story. Allowing the true elements of story – plot and characters – to dictate your needs in developing setting is the best way to go about the whole process.
Last week I talked about festivals and calendars. I said every story needs a calendar, but perhaps I went a bit far. Not every story needs to have a calendar with all the holidays planned out. For instance, an alternate history about a girl growing up as a slave and then being freed by a series of mysterious happenings might not require you to know when people celebrate their Independence Day.
I still stick by that post, however, in that calendars and festivities can thoroughly improve your world. Just keep in mind that they need to improve your story, too.

Setting is for you more than the Reader

Yes, the reader needs to know about your setting. Yes, they need to know enough to be able to picture the scenes clearly.
No, they don’t need to have memorized the names of every religion you’ve built for your world.
You, however, you might need to. If they are important for your ability to recognize your world and getting immersed into the setting, then yes. Memorize the names of the religions you’ve built.

The setting should be brought out as necessitated by the plot and seen through the eyes of the characters. It should not be dumped into a prologue [link] at the beginning, nor a glossary at the end (although I will say glossaries can be useful when writing very large fantasy series). Instead, items from your world should only appear in your story as the plot dictates.
Don’t pull out your strange animals just to show them off. Yes, your dragon-butterfly-mammoths are very pretty, but they’re blocking the view. I want to watch the story and not your world’s strange tastes in hybrid animals. If the Draco-mammoth-fly is central to your plot, then it’s perfectly fine for it to make an appearance or appearances.

Here, let me whip up a professional-looking diagram in Paint:

Much Professional. Such Diagram. Many Color. Wow.

Let this be the sort of “connection” between the three key areas of story. Plot and Character are on equal footing. Without the two, there can be no story. Even slice-of-life stories need at least a semblance of a plot. If they’re literally a bunch of character running around doing nothing besides eating chips and throwing knitting needles at each other, then it’s not a real story.
As you’ll notice, the strongest connection (actually… the way I’ve drawn it reminds me of Lewis structures in chemistry… oops) is between Plot and Character. You cannot have one without the other, so it makes sense for them to be on a level plain with a strong bond.

There, below them, lies the topic of our little one-sided discussion (which I’d mostly gladly make into a two-sided one…). Setting.
It’s connected to both Plot and Characters, but not as strongly as the two. While it is important (very important), it is not completely necessary. You can pull off a good story without much of a setting. Take, for instance, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. This tale (told in a series of letters) has very little setting. Yes, there are mentions of places and wars and goings-on, but very little is described. It is merely the interaction between characters as their devilish plot unfolds.

But what happens when you refuse to develop setting altogether? Even in The Screwtape Letters Lewis shows us precisely what is going on in the time period, where the senders of the letters are, what they are, who they are, what they do, what those in their plot do, and so forth. 

Plot and Characters, with no setting whatsoever, would look like this:

Such Professional. Many Floating. Much Circles. Wow.

They’d be in the same general area with one another, but there would be no clear-cut connection. The plot is happening and the characters are there. But – for all we know – they aren’t happening in the same place.

Build what needs to be built and be Content

That is what I want to leave you with. If your story requires a government, build a government. If your story never mentions even the idea of nobility or democracy, don’t. There are few circumstances where you need to develop something that never plays a role in your story (calendars come to mind).

Develop your setting. Even if it’s the bare minimum for your story, you need that setting. It is a vital part of a well-crafted story. Just remember: world isn’t everything. It is, in a way, the glue that holds the rest of your story together.

What do you think? Is setting on an equal plane with the other elements of story, or more of a background worker, sitting in a swivel chair making sure the story doesn’t collapse and drinking excessive amounts of chai tea? Leave a comment and share! Discuss! I’d love to make this a two-sided discussion. Or twenty-sided.

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