It seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? Why worldbuild, indeed?
I asked myself the very same question, and answered myself with a diffident little shrug, the last time I started working on a major novel-length project. Big fat mistake. It took the near-collapse of that story to get me to confront a great many misconceptions I’d had about worldbuilding, about my story, and about my own work habits.
Once upon a time I did no worldbuilding. Shock, gasp, horror. Whenever I sat down to write a story, it was something I felt I could contain comfortably in my head—characters, plot, setting, everything. My philosophy, unspoken as it was, was something along these lines: if I can’t hold the whole thing in my head at once, like a memorized text, I don’t deserve to be writing about it. After all, wouldn’t forcing myself to memorize the material I’d created make me work with it all the better? Wouldn’t it be better to live with the story “up here” instead of “out there”?
I was able to get away with a certain amount of this for a long time, if only because at first even my long-form writing was fairly confined in scope. I didn’t have more than six or seven characters, tops, and the locations in question were all mirrored from real life. Consistency between scenes or among elements was easy enough to enforce. I didn’t take any external notes worth mentioning. After all, wasn’t the best place for such things the work itself? Why duplicate effort? There were only two places that a story ought to live: on the page, in its actual draft form, and in the author’s head. Everything else was … well, cheating.
Foolish as all this stuff sounds now, I was dead serious about it at the time. And, again, for a while I was able to get away with it.
Then my ambitions ramped up, and with that came the amount of material I had to keep track of in the story. And soon it became clear I’d been short-changing myself. My aversion to world-bibles and note-taking had made it difficult for me to think about the work I was doing in all but the most general terms. And with world-building, you can’t think generic. You have to think specific.
A major project of mine, onto which I’d pinned some fairly high hopes, was derailed when I slammed full-tilt into this wall of bad habit. I spent about a month wondering where the hell I’d gone wrong: why couldn’t I write this blasted thing? Why was everything spinning hopelessly out of control as I watched?
I put aside my self-pity, dug a little deeper and came to a realization. It wasn’t that I disliked the idea of having to transcribe and maintain all the details of my work’s universe. It was that all of the ways I’d seen how to do that had been provided by other people with other work habits. They weren’t me, and that was all there was to it.
Sum of realization: I had to get organiz-ized, my way.
After some thrashing around and a few noble but failed attempts at getting organized, it hit me that I wasn’t choosing organizational methods that reflected how I thought about my projects. Most of us, at least at first, don’t think too closely about our creative work habits—at least not until either a) someone confronts us with them or b) we’re forced to do so (as I was).
But the whole process of getting to that point, of bruising my shins against the realities of large-scale storytelling—all that showed me why worldbuilding is necessary apart from the writing itself. Four main reasons:
It keeps you from having to hold everything in your head. Nobody has a perfect memory, and nobody should expect themselves to be on perfectly intimate terms with even their own creations. If you keep an external store of information about the world you’re creating, you have an infallible source to check against for consistency—and one a lot more manageable than constantly paging through your own manuscript.
It allows you to separate worldbuilding from storytelling. The amount of effort I was expending trying to hold the whole thing in my head at once kept me from being able to sit down and enjoy the spontaneity of writing it. With the worldbuilding taking place off in its own separate domain, I didn’t have to worry about the implications of taking this detour or that digression. I could do those things freely, because the story itself was no longer my one-and-only embodiment of the information about the story. Also, it can let you see if the setting you have and the story you want to tell are suited for each other—or if each would be better off paired up with something else.
It allows you to test your ideas about the story before committing to them. If you have a wild idea that’s just burning a hole in the pocket of your mind, one you just know would work perfectly in the story, you can use your worldbuilding space as a way to dope out the integrity of that idea and its fitness to your story without having to stick it into the story itself.
It gives you a way to make sure things are consistent. Not just names, places and chronologies—it’s a given that you want to keep all that straight—but also the construction of your world. If you can see from thirty thousand feet that having any magic at all will throw things off or be a distraction, then you know better than to trot out that character who has just a smidge of magic in his blood. Yes, you’ve been searching for a home for that wisecracking wizard for ages, but is this gentle Midwestern town where outsiders are suspect at best really the place for him? (Maybe it is, but without that top-down view, it’ll be harder to say.)
These four things weren’t apparent when I was just walking around with the story only rattling around in my head and on the page, and absolutely nowhere else. Once I broke that habit and started mapping the story independently of its actual creation, it was like I’d never left my hometown and had suddenly been shown how to book airline tickets and fly around the world.
Next up: what we mean exactly by worldbuilding. Both the world part and the building part.