Worldbuilding: How Much of it?

Worldbuilding is the core of the fantasy writer’s job – no fantasy novel can be completed without an excruciating attempt at creating the most realistic and believable world possible. The amount of worldbuilding your novel needs depends on your writing style, on the books’s sub-genre and on the amount of focus on the environment you are trying to reflect.

  • Many authors build the basic guidelines of their world and leave space for the reader’s imagination to fill in the details: think about “The Chronicles of Narnia” – although you perceive you are being emerged in a totally different fantasy world, C. S. Lewis constructed the story and the world around it so that only you can understand the boundaries of the world itself; he never explains the rules of magic or the facts that lead to certain events – as why is there a lamp post in the middle of the forest. On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien can be quite exhaustive about his worldbuilding, creating a whole historical background since year 0 that leads to the events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. How you adapt to the quantity of worldbuilding your story needs is up to you. As long as you are able to balance what needs to be realistic and what needs to be actually explained, you are good to go.
  • The sub-genre of the book you are about to write actually interferes a lot with the type and quantity of the worldbuilding you need to do. High Fantasy is one of the most popular sub-genres of fantasy writing and is also one of the genres that needs the most worldbuilding, since you are creating a totally different world, whose rules and laws are yours to conceive. It can be a daunting experience for a reader to be emerged in a world where nothing is explained – he will most probably read the first 50 pages and quit. However, contemporary fantasy or historical fantasy need less worldbuilding, since most of the characters and locations are pre-defined by history itself.
  • If your novel surrounds themes like magical realism, suspense or spirituality, doing too much worldbuilding could be a disappointment. Some novels require a very mysterious environment: since the moment the reader picks up the book, he actually has no idea of what is going on and it’s that mystery that drives the reader to read until the end. In the hands of the most talented writers, this could result in an enticing plot. Although the author Haruki Murakami isn’t considered a fantasy writer and therefore shouldn’t be used as an example, the themes of most of his novels surround eerie dreams and visions, repetition and alternate worlds, something that is very common to fantasy writing. On a side note, I should mention that Murakami’s worldbuilding is poor; heck, it’s non-existent. However, it works in a remarkable way and it’s what makes him such a competent and different writer.

Don’t be fooled if someone tells you that there is a specific amount of worldbuilding to be done before you start writing a novel: that isn’t true. Every writer has a different way of worldbuilding: some of them do it at the beginning, when the plot is freshly brewed inside their heads; others worldbuild as they write, since the dialogues and the actual active writing are what triggers the general assumptions and laws about the world they are writing about. Some writers don’t even worldbuild at all because they are only focusing on the characters or the plot itself, diverting the reader’s attention from the actual laws and principles of the fantasy world.

However, I should warn novice writers that worldbuilding is a central element while gaining writing and character-building experience. Worldbuilding is the process that makes all the fantastic ideas you imagine believable – if you have no training in associating fantasy with reality, you will most probably end up with a twisted, unfinished and confusing story. In that sense, the amount of worldbuilding I recommend to everyone that is starting writing fantasy is medium-high, depending on your patience and the length of the story, medium for solo novels and high for trilogies or epic sagas.

Read more tips about worldbuiling in the “Worldbuilding” section on the blog menu.

~Happy writing