How Much Must You Know About Your World?

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I think just about every up and coming fantasy author aspires to be JRR Tolkien, or at least to be able to build a world that is as rich and compelling as Middle Earth. But when it comes time to actually do such a thing, the whole process can be amazingly overwhelming. Where do you even start with such a task?

There are some great and exhaustive lists, like the one from SFWA, that show you every detail and category you will want to consider when making your own world. If you want to know all of the nitty-gritty details about the setting, then certainly consider all of the questions. Try to answer them, or brain storm and create answers where you don’t have any. Having at least some idea for each of them can give you a really fleshed out world.

Attacking world building in this thorough manner can let you establish a strong setting ahead of your writing, which can be super helpful. When you know about as much as there is to know about a setting, it can help speed up your writing, since you’ll never have to stop and make things up as you’re going.

The downside is that you could spend forever trying to construct every detail of your world and never get around to that whole actually writing part. Or, as I brought up in my article on character creation, if you’re like me, looking at such an intensive list of “things to know” can just freeze you up and lead to not getting anything done, much less writing.

My thoughts on world building are similar to those of character creation. I’m sure many of the elements that make your setting unique or at least make you excited to write stories in it are well known to you. Start with those. Mind map or brain storm around them and see where your thoughts take you. Research things that you don’t know. Learning new things can often open up new ideas or connections you hadn’t considered before. And when you have enough of the key information down, start writing.

If you’re the sort of person who is able to plan out everything about your world in advance…I envy you, and you should keep doing what you’re doing. But if you find the idea of answering every little thing about your world ahead of time just too overwhelming, then don’t worry about it. Just focus on telling the story. You can add more details about the world in later drafts, once you know more about the story. And in all likelihood you’ll discover some really interesting things about the world as you write that might have eluded you if you have tried to come up with them beforehand.


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