Okay, I confess: I hate worldbuilding! Do I think a map is important in a fantasy novel? No, not really. Should a writer develop their own version of Elvish? Don’t be daft!
Now, before you leap straight to the comments at the bottom in a flurry of righteous indignation to demand how I can claim to be a fantasy writer without a deep and abiding love for all things ‘backgroundy’, let me explain.
Firstly, it’s not that I can’t do worldbuilding, it’s just that other people do it so much better. Having worked in the pen & paper RPG industry for several years, I’ve come across a lot of games with rich, lush backgrounds, created over decades by scores of contributors. How am I meant to compete?
The world of Faerun, in which the Forgotten Realms RPG supplements, computer games and novels are set, was originally devised by Ed Greenwood, but since then he has passed on the mantle to other creators who have gone on to develop its rich history, cultures and cataclysmic events, spanning centuries. Warhammer 40K’s Imperium of Man was first developed 25 years ago, but has since evolved into a behemoth of a background with scores of codices, computer games and over a hundred novels filling the gaps in the vastness of its space. One of the earliest RPG backgrounds was RuneQuest’s Glorantha, which has had not one, not two, but three ages. Count them! And trust me, I’ve worked on some Glorantha products and may well have let slip some continuity errors. Trust me when I say, the long time fans weren’t happy, but in my defence there’s a hell of a lot to know if you’re new to it.
And it’s not just RPGs. Star Wars now goes beyond the limits of the movies, crafting an intricate Expanded Universe which tells its tales across various media and in various timelines that cover thousands of years. These new stories from dozens of contributors are arguably as deep and abiding as the tales of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, to which anyone who’s ever played computer games in the Old Republic, or read the novels and comics that continue the background well beyond Return of the Jedi, will attest.
Skyrim, the latest Elder Scrolls computer game (number V, I believe) is the latest set in a world that continues to grow and expand as much, if not more, than any novel series or pen & paper RPG you might delve into.
But other novelists manage to build convincing worlds, I hear you cry, you’re clearly just a lazy git.
Well, that’s one explanation, yes. And you’re correct, other novelists do create their own living breathing worlds. Tolkien, the granddaddy of fantasy himself, as well as writing detailed appendices for his seminal works completed a twelve-volume history of Middle Earth (albeit released posthumously) as well as the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and more. George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is as close to a historical novel as you’ll get in the fantasy genre, and Brandon Sanderson has been developing the background for his Stormlight Archive series, starting with the doorstep-sized The Way of Kings (which to my shame I haven’t yet read, but it’s on the list) for the past ten years. Even Joe Abercrombie, who professes to spend little time on background, has still managed to craft a nuanced setting with an ancient and mysterious history.
So your books have no background? No world for us to dive into a swim around, all the while appreciating your worldbuildy unctuousness?
Well, not exactly.
As a fantasy writer you’ve got to at least develop a cursory background, even if your world is just a mirror for the one we live in. My first novel Kultus is set in the steam-powered metropolis of the Manufactory, although there is a world beyond its walls. With steampunk you’ve already got some recognisable aspects, some tropes that are familiar to the reader and some technological aspects that are at least similar to our own. Still, I think I’ve at least created a living world, even if I haven’t laid it out for the reader like a smorgasbord of historical events.
With epic fantasy on the other hand, which generally takes place in a medieval era of technology, you do have to develop a deep history, magic system, economy, etc. And here lies my problem – I’m currently writing a stonking great trilogy of the most epic of epic fantasies!
So what are you going to do? It’s going to be terrible! A shallow two-dimensional shell of a series!
Piffle and tosh I say!
It’s not just that other people do it so much better, that I’m not ready to flagellate myself for my lack of worldbuilding proficiency. At the end of the day books are about characters! Contrary to what you might have heard, characters are the foundations around which a novel is written. In fact they’re more than the foundations, they’re the bricks and mortar. Maybe even the roof too.
Background is merely window dressing, it’s the context within which you’ve created the book, but it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all. You can have a great novel with poor worldbuilding as long as the characters are living breathing people who leap out of the page and grab you, pulling you into their adventures and making you care for them. A world can be as rich and detailed as you like, but if the characters are two-dimensional, if you couldn’t give a monkey’s whether they live or die, the novel is ultimately doomed!
Saying all this (and at the risk of contradicting myself) the best novels in the genre are the ones which combine a strong, developed, fictional universe with strong, developed characters. And in many ways, these two things work hand-in-hand.
From my own experiences I’ve found that a world will develop organically around your characters and plot – which should always come first. When you’ve got a character who’s lived a life (at least in your head) you need to know where he’s been, what he’s done and who he’s done it with. That’s not to say you need to know the thousand year history of your world, but at least an idea of your characters’ experiences is crucial to building their depth.
So will I be developing the world for my epic fantasy? Will I be building its cultures and races and cosmology? You bet your britches I will. But I probably won’t beat myself up if I haven’t detailed who the king’s great, great grandfather was or what his capital city was called a thousand years ago. These are things that can be firmed up during the writing, and if the reader doesn’t need to know, then I don’t have to tell them. All they need to know about is the characters, and they should want to follow them through the story.
Oh, and they need to love them too… or at least love to hate them!
Richard Ford’s Kultus was published in October 2011, and is available from: