World Building: Devils and Details

To say that the devil is in the detail is certainly true with world building, especially where Fantasy is concerned. We strive to create something that not only makes sense but also amazes and inspires. Creating a world is a complicated thing, sure, we might have what we consider to be a solid vision of our would be creation but actualising it is not as simple as that. It could be, and sometimes it needs to be, but most of the time it is not – therein lies the devil.

It is very easy to get lost in the countless things that need attention when building a world. Fantastical elements needn’t make things overly complicated, but they can, but even with those aside something like Geography and the lay of the land isn’t as simple as randomly drawing things on a map. If we work out a landscape and know that water i.e. rivers, lakes, etc. behave and flow in certain ways depending on the terrain we get to move on to the really complicated parts, namely us, humans (or other races if that’s your fortĂ©, I’m personally not that fond of elves or dwarves).

  • How are the humanoids inhabiting our world affecting its eco system?
  • Are there other sentient beings with advanced cognition?
  • What kind of societies do they live in? Where do they get their food?
  • Are they agricultural or gatherer-hunters?
  • What do they believe in?
  • Are there actual deities in our world?
  • What do the cities look like?
  • How do they interact with the humanoids?
  • What motivates them?
  • What motivates the humanoids?
  • How do the humanoids interact with other humanoids?
  • What languages do they speak?
  • Do they all speak the same language?
  • And why is that?

Above are just a handful of basic questions that spring into my head as I type. The what and the how parts of the equation is often pretty straightforward, the devil is in the why. For every “what?” and every “how?” there must always be a why-part added to the answer. There are ton of problems that come to light when we try to create worlds, societies, cultures, religions, and so on. I could probably rant on about them for hours – which is something I’m guessing we share in common, dear reader. But that’s not what I want to highlight right now.

Before we dive into our world building, head first without looking at the waters, we all need to ask ourselves to what degree it is necessary, or rather to what degree it is relevant. Is the fact that grass is purple in your world relevant for the story your telling? Does the knowledge of purple grass further the reader’s understanding of the plot? Or of the characters? Does it even occur to the inhabitants of said world that purple grass isn’t normal? If not, why would they ever notice or even reflect upon it? If yes, then why?

Now, I’m the kind of person who loves getting lost in detail. I can spend hours upon hours tinkering with this or that part of the world I’m building, expanding it beyond the story that takes place within it (or well, one of the stories). Spending that amount of time on world building is not wrong. It can be a pleasure in and of itself, but for the sake of the stories I want to write I have to be aware of how much time I spend, and also how the changes affect my story – and that is the point I am trying to make. By all means, build to your heart’s content, but always demand an answer to these particular questions:

How does this pertain to the story I’m telling? Is it relevant? Why?
How will this affect the story I’m telling? (The smallest of changes can have the biggest of consequences)

When I build myself I think of them as a compass by which to navigate. Then again, it is your work, your story, and ultimately it is also your choice. It all comes down to what kind of story we want to tell.

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About Fredrik Kayser

Everything is connected.
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