Friday, September 30, 2011

The Delicacy of World Building

Just finished musing about How my own book reviews can make me a better writer over at Operation Awesome.

And now I'm thinking specifically about world building and how jealous I am of other writers for doing it so well. ;) It really does seem to be an art, weaving details into a narrative in a way that doesn't front-load or overload. The more I read, the more I get a sense for how it's done, but I still haven't mastered it.

I feel like a butterfly trying to weave a spiderweb, but my gigantic wings keep getting in the way. That's about how subtle my world building is.

I think my problem is that I geek out over science fiction, fantasy, or clever contemporary concepts. I make concept king, and everything else suffers. What should be king? CHARACTER. 

The setting and the world building have to be a backdrop against which the character can work - like an actor on a set or... a spider in a web. Let the web get too prominent, and it just might strangle the spider it was built for.

Let me show you what I mean:

Azalea wants to find love, purpose, and a place on Earth to belong, since she's always felt out of place in her own world (which is literally another celestial orb in the sky). She happens to be an alien with the ability to manipulate humans emotionally. Because of that, she never knows when someone's feelings for her are genuine, and pretty much always assumes it's just the result of her beyond-her-control sway over mankind. She's lonely.

She finally meets someone who's impervious to her power, but he's fresh from a bad breakup and doesn't trust girls as far as he can throw them. (He doesn't throw them; he's a nice guy, really.) His lack of trust is only exacerbated by the secrecy Azalea's identity requires. The character conflict is there, right? But it's overshadowed in my current manuscript by details about the world Azalea comes from, the people on Earth who don't want her there, and the people back home who want to control her fate. I haven't succeeded at all in weaving a web. I've got a mass of silk instead. It's still a precious material, but it's impossible to appreciate in its current form.

I think reading my reviews of books I've loved by authors who've mastered world building is a good first step in learning what works.

But what other ways do you make sure you're weaving a web instead of sitting on a spool of silk? How do you keep from front-loading or overloading your story with detail?


  1. This is a really good question. It takes me many drafts to find the balance of details. I don't know if I do it right, or even how I do it. I've never written a story set in a completely different world, though, so I don't usually have a world to build completely from scratch.

    I think Brandon Sanderson does this amazingly in his fantasy books, though. The Way of Kings had the most non-Earth-like fantasy world I've ever seen, but I never felt like the world overshadowed anything, just that it was a rich and brilliant component.

  2. I hear great things about Brandon Sanderson! Must get my hands on some of his books.

    On world building, I'm not sure why I keep trying to create whole new worlds. I think I like the challenge, even though I'm not exactly succeeding. :) I'll be reading some Brandon Sanderson, though. I always learn so much from the authors I read. Thanks for the rec!

  3. I've decided when it comes to details, less is more :)

  4. Great post. You know I love world-building! I think it's something that can be layered through the drafts to reach the right balance. It's kind of I like to the frame my character walks on, but try I don't want the world to crush my character in its rubble. i just have to use the right words to cement it together. Or something like that. lol.

  5. You've made some great observations here :) It really is more about the characters than the world. My world was hardly consistent at all when I first started writing, because I was a little too focused on the characters. There always needs to be a balance, and I think I've finally found it (after TONS of edits!)

    So glad you're working on MUSED again! I really like it and think it has a lot of potential!


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