Are you writing a story or building a world?

Several years back, I tried my hand at writing what I planned to be a five book epic science-fantasy series (that I might still write some day, so I won’t share too many details here to avoid spoilers).

Because this was my first serious attempt at writing an original story (up until then I had written mostly fanfiction), I was determined not to go in blind. So I took a long time to worldbuild, crafting world after world, character after character, culture after culture, all with the intent of making the best imaginary universe I could for my series. It would be even better than the Star Wars universe or the Star Trek universe or any of the other countless detailed fictional universes out there. Okay, maybe not better than any of those, but it would certainly be great.

When I decided I had done enough worldbuilding, I sat down to write the first book in the series. And I did; I wrote a few drafts, changing details that didn’t make sense to me, doing what any writer does when working on a novel, the usual stuff, you know.

And then, after the third or fourth draft, I just lost interest in the series.

I still have the drafts, still have all the worldbuilding notes. I haven’t tossed any of it away and frankly I don’t want to because I might still return to it someday.

I just don’t want to write it. Even though I couldn’t wait to write it before, it has been years since I last wrote about any of the characters or worlds I made (although I have borrowed a few ideas and names because I liked them a lot). Why did this happen?

I believe this happened because I lost sight of the series’ heart. I got so caught up in worldbuilding that I forgot this very essential, basic fact: That I was writing a story, not building a world.

To be sure, worldbuilding is highly important in speculative fiction. I don’t disagree with that. It’s just that I forgot that I was creating a world for the story, not the world for its own sake. As fun as worldbuilding is, to the speculative fiction writer, one must always ask the question, “Does this help the story?”

Some people worldbuild for the sake of worldbuilding. And if that helps, sure, go ahead. Have fun. I have a lot of fun doing it, too, at least when I’m on a roll.

But not all of us find worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding so wonderful. Remember what we’re doing here; we’re writing speculative fiction. Not world guides. Not gaming manuals. Not Wikis. Not histories. Fiction. Stories. Adventures. Art. Life, even, if you want to go that far.

Worldbuilding is a tool and should be treated as such. In my inexperience, I lost sight of the story for the sake of making more and more detailed worldbuilding notes on subjects that weren’t even important to my story. I unconsciously treated worldbuilding as an end in itself. And it killed my series as a result. Or at least put it into a coma that it has yet to awaken from.

My advice to all speculative fiction writers out there, to beginners and veterans alike, is this: When you find yourself getting lost in worldbuilding, ask yourself, “Am I writing a story or building a world for its own sake?”

The answer will determine what you should do next.

What about you, my readers? What have your experiences been with worldbuilding? Do you like worldbuilding? How much worldbuilding is enough and how much is too little? Post your thoughts in the comments!


Speculative fiction must be different, yet relatable

One of my favorite aspects of speculative fiction is how creative you can be with it. You can write about dragons, city-size starships, mages that shoot lightning bolts, societies where humans and elves live side-by-side, what the afterlife is like, and all sorts of other things you could never get away with in normal fiction. It’s probably the main reason I write fantasy and sci-fi.

Among speculative fiction fans is the idea that the worlds we create must always be different from what we experience here on Earth. This is doubly so if you are writing about a non-human society, which can get you burned pretty badly in some circles if you make them too human-like.

I agree that originality and creativity are very important aspects of speculative fiction. I also agree that when authors write about a non-human society, they should be careful to make it different from human society (a society of cat-people would probably structure itself differently from most human societies, although there may be some similarities).

Yet I think the desire for the alien and the different can blind us to the simple fact that all speculative fiction is written by humans. That means that anything we write reflects us, our beliefs, and our culture to some extent, even if we try to make it as alien as possible. In other words, it is impossible for us to come up with something that is totally alien.

In fact, I’d argue that making our works more alien can actually do more harm than good. In order for fiction — any fiction, regardless of genre — to work, it has to engage the reader emotionally. And in order to engage the reader emotionally, the story has to relate to the reader in some way. A story set in a world the reader cannot relate to at all will simply fail, no matter how much world-building you put into it.

I believe the reason some speculative fiction fails is because the authors made it too alien. It is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to identify with or understand something that is too different from them. While there’s nothing wrong with challenging readers’ expectations, it will not work if the reader cannot be emotionally engaged by it.

Some of the most popular speculative fiction out there — Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings — is popular in part because it is relevant to our lives. Amidst the wizards, starships, and epic battles between good and evil, we see ideas and issues that we struggle with, both individually and collectively, which endears these works to us. We understand some of what the characters experience in those stories, even if they often go through fantastic adventures.

As speculative fiction writers, we should always make our worlds different from what our readers are used to. That’s partly what our readers expect, after all, and is part of the fun of the genre.

But we must also make them relatable in some way. If our readers cannot relate to our works even in small ways, then they will not want to read our stories. And if they don’t want to read our stories, then we have failed as writers and need to go back to the writing desk.