Extensive vs. Minimal: What is Your World Building Coming To?

World-building is a topic that comes up often in fantasy writing circles. If you’re writing epic fantasy, most often it’s going to be in a world of your own creation. Even if you’re writing in our own world, if you have fantasy elements in your story (e.g., magic, mythical creatures, necromantic hamsters), then you have to do at least a tad bit of word-building.

However, how much world-building is too much? How much is too little?

Some people may be extensive world-builders, laying out ten thousand years worth of history, historical texts, dead languages, extinct races, etc. Others may be minimal world-builders, relying only on a handful of elements to power their story forward. So which method of world-building is better, both for your readers and for your writing? Allow me to make a list, if you will.

Extensive World-Building: Pros

1. Lots of source material: As a writer, using source material and research is very important to making your story believable. If you were writing a historical fantasy, you’d research the history, right? Well, if you are creating a whole new world (a whole new world!), you are creating your own material to research. You are the historian providing the history, the anthropologist that unearths life’s mysteries. If you’re writing a story with plenty of background information, your writing may sing that much more.

2. A fully rendered world: What people love about Tolkien is that Middle-Earth feels like a real world. Part of that came from his ability to tirelessly create cultures, myths, and histories. Readers can tell when a writer is just pulling something out of thin air. “Yeah, the Hearteater elves, um, ate strawberries for five hundred years, that’s why their lips are so red. Yeah, that’s it.” Readers may find themselves more immersed in a world that has these things readily available. One thing about fantasy readers: sometimes they want to know everything. So having the ability to give it to them on a silver platter is a good thing.

3. Templates: If you have a group of monsters called Oblixum crystal warthogs in your story that attack your main characters several times throughout, it’s probably a good idea to know their attack patterns, where they live, what they eat, etc. Not every creature or person of a particular race has to act the same, but having a template in place will save the writer from throwing something together every time a new creature crops up. Does the reader need to have all this explained to him or her? Probably not, but you can show all these things throughout your story to make your creatures more real.

4. Magic: Warning: if you don’t know your magic system before you start writing, danger lies ahead. Magic can be an extremely complicated problem in writing fantasy that a lot readers pick up on quickly if it doesn’t make sense. Carefully consider a magic system before you begin writing. If in the middle of your story a mage appears and throws a tornado made of hornets at someone, we probably need to know how he did it. Hornet-tornado hurling mages are not commonplace in the real world (as far as I know), so leveling with your reader on how the magic works can be pretty important. Especially if it’s complicated. (Avoid the dreaded info-dump if possible though!) Otherwise, it can become one of those elements that jerks readers out of a story.

Extensive World-Building: Cons

1. Overdoing it: World-building can become such a meticulous, soul-consuming process that writers never get to, you know, writing. Like anything else, overdoing world-building can not only crush you before you get started, but also drown the meat of your story (characters, plot, etc.) in a flood of endless expository fu-fu. For example, if you spend the first fifty pages of your book explaining all the intricacies of the Orundi dwarves’ bat guano currency system, readers may get bored. Your story is about story, not just history. You can reveal these things throughout the story through dialogue, light exposition, and action. “Rabernath paid the dwarf with two bat guano marks for the clockwork beetle butler, way under market price.” Overdoing it sometimes leads to info-dumping in mass quantities. If it’s hard to see your story’s meat because it’s buried in mounds of historical text of the Tagari possum-people, then yeah, it may be good to cool off a little bit.

2. Takes away discovery: For many writers, the fun and adventure of writing is discovering things along the way. For each new creature that’s found, the writer is sharing his or her wonder and mystery with the reader. If everything is painstakingly laid out, it may make your writing too rigid or clinical. “Bagwald saw a five-legged battle-lemur, male, sporting the solstice mating stance. The battle-lemur was normally not found in the wilds of Yarun due to their cautious nature, aversion to temperate climates, and allergens to the local bananas.” It really depends on how you write, but allowing some things to be discovered now and again might help your world-building more than planning it all out ahead of time.

Minimal World-Building: Pros

1. Character and Plot thrive: The meat of your story is going to be characters (who is in the story) and the plot (what is happening in the story.) Minimal world-building allows you to focus on these elements more and make them shine. World-building can be compared to peanut butter: it tastes good, but if you smear too much of it on, it tears the bread, gets on your clothes, your hands, and you try to wash it off, but it’s just too sticky–argh, argh, BLARGH! Meaning, take it easy and let the characters’ adventures tell the story.

2. Discovery: Basically, the opposite of what was noted before (Takes away discovery). If you are free to discover your story, your readers may feel more connection to your characters because they’re learning about the world the same way you did: by just seeing it and embracing it through your POV characters.

3. Cuts back on superfluous work: I think most people who like fantasy are aware of Dungeons and Dragons. When I was younger, I used to play a lot. A night-time ritual would be to read the Dungeon Master’s Guide before I went to bed. Case in point, I didn’t need to know every single thing that was in that DM Guide. It was a reference for telling my story. The same goes for world-building. It’s all background, window dressing, extra cheese. If world-building consumes more of your time and your reader’s time than other elements, it may turn them off to your writing style. So yes, maybe some want to plot out every little detail of their world, and that’s fine. But at some point you have to write your story, so getting bogged down in years worth of world-building may not always be the best use of time. Disclaimer: Time-frame and results may vary.

Minimal World-Building: Cons

1. Leaves the reader wanting more: If your world-building consists of, “Yeah, there are dragons. Or something,” then your readers may be left scratching their heads. What are the dragons doing? Are they bad? Have they come back from a 1,000 year old sleep to sear the bones of the unbelievers! If you’re too lax with your world-building, especially in fantasy, readers may see right through it. Making up some stuff as you go along is fine, but all of it? Might be a steep hill to climb.

2. Inconsistency:
Someone is reading a book about a warlock that can control demon horses. In one chapter, the demon horses can fly, but in another they can’t because, um, well, just because. If your world isn’t consistent, it can be another element that jerks readers out of the story. Good world-building keeps things consistent, so being too flippant about it can cause glaring gaps in logic in your world.

3. Um, it’s fantasy:
It’s fantasy. Come on! Do some world-building!

Find your favorite authors and seek out interviews. How do they world-build? If you like their style, then use it. If they are successful in some way, then their world-building techniques must be working.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I think the best method is to keep a solid balance, both for your readers’ sake and for your own. If you love lots of world-building, go for it, but be aware that your readers are never going to read your background notes, they’re going to read your story. So making your story shine through whatever world-building methods you employ is the most important aspect. If you hate world-building, then fantasy may not be the right genre for you. I think fantasy requires at least some world-building, even if things are centered in our own world.

What are your world-building methods? Do you meticulously craft everything before writing or just kind of make a minimum swipe at it and get into writing your story? Write your methods in the comments below!

You can find Phil’s blog about Japan, writing, pro wrestling, and weird stuff at philipoverby1.blogspot.com.

Philip Overby is a nomadic warrior, indiscriminate troll slayer, undead unicorn enthusiast, former indie wrestler, and lover of all things fantasy. He lives in Yokohama, Japan.

37 Responses to Extensive vs. Minimal: What is Your World Building Coming To?

  1. I think of it sort of like a flower garden. People who come by to admire your roses and petunias don’t really care what sort of fertilizer you use or how you decide when to plant or the brand of your favorite set of clippers. They care about the finished product, not the process. And yet, when the other members of the local gardening society come around, they love to talk shop, share tips, etc. 

    I’m not sure what proportion of fantasy readers are like the members of the gardening society and want to delve deeply into the appendices in the back of the book (or the Wiki or whatever). I am fairly confident, however, that that number is greater than zero. :-)

  2. I would definitely be concerned with over-doing it when trying to be too extensive with the depth of my nether-worlds. Thanks for the advice.

  3. I’m not really following your thought, Philip. For me extensive or minimal world building is a work done by the author in the background. You may not use even a half of what you’ve thought in your story, but it’s not the point. I think that part of the world building is relations as well – between the key characters, at least. Dumping too much information or giving too little of it doesn’t have anything to do with the world-building.

    Usually I start with small things and build it up. Government, religion (or beliefs), races, magic, etc. Since it’s a fantasy (new) world, they are not speaking the language we know – a bit of language is necessary. Some of my stories have just few words or sentences used, I didn’t think about the rules. For one world now I’m creating now I’m thinking up of the rules for the officially used language. How do they express even greetings (everybody says “Hello”, is it based on the time (how they measure it?) or on a position of a speaker and listener?) shows a lot about their culture, how they see others and the world. The same should go for customs. If you’re expected to do one thing, but fail (for example a person that was magically transported to the different world) or choose not to do so (you break the rules) then there should be some kind of reaction. That is usually based on your position. Things like these might be small, but they spice up the story and make it feel real. If the author doesn’t bother about culture, I’m not interested in the story. The culture might be in the background but it’s an important background.

    I think that short stories usually don’t need a very detailed world building, but if it would be a series of short stories set in one common setting, then it should be more detailed. A book should have more detailed world.

  4. I agree with you, Ruth. “Info dumps” are boring to write and they’re
    boring to read. I think the author should give out background and other
    worldbuilding info in small pieces, otherwise it does become kind of a
    slog. As a reader I’m much more interested in the characters than what
    happened a thousand years ago.

  5. While I can understand the need for world-building, I have to admit that if it is over done I quickly get bored. One of the ways that writers can still do world-building without boring readers like me is to break it up with current happenings of the characters in the story. i.e. give some history, then have some stuff happening, then add more history again. Just enough every time to stay ahead of what the reader needs to know at that point in the story.

  6. As a reader, I don’t like to get bogged down in too many details about unfamiliar worlds.  The characters and the plot usually interest me more.  Clive Barker’s Imajica comes to mind as an example of a fantasy book that might have benefited from a more mimialistic approach.

  7. I think having a well-thought out world is a plus, as long as the story is still the main focus. It provides a solid background for the story. Great article, Phil!

  8. I think it’s a balance… I used to make them pretty complex, worlds with ecosystems, races, a thousand years of history etc… now I just do enough to give the story a platform which to unfold in without the unnecessary complications of whether or not something will work within the rigid structure.

  9. The comments here are as interesting as the article itself. Who knew there were so many differing opinions on world-building in fiction settings? Not having completed my first novel as of yet, I hesitate to offer an opinion, but thus far my world-building has been minimal, as I use character POV and dialogue to pass on discoveries to readers. I know when I’m done I’ll have to go back and add a lot more detail, either via exposition or further conversation, but I can’t tell from this point whether the world-building will remain minimal or “GO BIG.” Either way, it’s an interesting concept! :)

  10. I create what I need to validate that the story will work in that universe, then expand if I need to. Like Allan says, I know people who never actually get to write the story for creating the world, and there is always the risk of letting your research show through in you story with necessary detail. But then we are into plotters vs experiential writers here :)

  11. My comment was too long so I’m adding the second part of it here.
    I belong to several conworlding groups and you’ve no idea how many people there are out there who create worlds just to be creating worlds. It’s a hobby and a compulsion in itself; they have no intention of ever writing fiction based in that world. For me the story comes first. (It’s the same for conlangs – I only write them if I’m going to use them in my fiction, but great numbers of people write conlangs just for the fun of it or as scholarly investigations of language.) When I write a story, I tend to construct the world as I go along. You don’t need every detail worked out before you start, but you do need to keep careful notes because, again, consistency is essential. Keeping notes on chronology is important, too. You can’t have the Great Revolution happening in the year 805 at one point and the year 905 at another.

  12. Excellent post! I write mostly from a science fiction viewpoint and I tend to write realistically. This is true even when I write fantasy (somebody once criticized one of my early fantasy pieces for not having enough magic in it). I agree that magic can be tricky to handle and to keep realistic. In my early days when I was writing only fantasy, I found it was too easy to have a sorceror do something at one point and then have that be come inconvenient or unlikely at another point. Establishing the rules and staying consistent is tough, because you have no external guidelines In SF, it’s necessary to at least stay within the laws of physics . And my novels do have some info dumps, because in order for my termite people’s behavior to make sense, it’s necessary for the reader to know something about entomology. Besides, in science fiction you expect to find some science.

  13. I’ve met people who’ve spent twelve years designing star systems and family trees, all in a neat folder, instead of starting to write the book itself.

  14. Minimal, then add things as I go. If it seems right that some people ride elephants, I just add in elephant stables and elephant handlers, and probably have people complain about the city gates being to low to ride through. – Although, like Meg Anderson, I like to use one world for many stories, so if one story requires wizards to have six fingers, (which I stole from Nancy Collins/Sonja Rose) then all the stories have six fingered wizards. -> Which means some new-born babies are born to be wizards, and you can tell from their fingers -> which means I have to have a six fingered boy who does not become a wizard. And HIS novel is out as an eBook and I haven’t got around to writing the story that needed six fingered wizards.

  15. I am known for my world building. I am very careful with designing each world but I ground them in scientific fact when I can. It just makes for better reading.

  16. Broad strokes to frame the world, start the story, then add details as needed for scenes/plot/characterization, return to the beginning and add thematic threads and more details to fill out the world, finally draw a map.

  17. Haven’t experienced it. But I can see validity to both approaches. In software terms, Extensive reminds me of the Waterfall process, while Minimal seems more agile and Scrum like.

  18. I’ve met people who’ve spent twelve years designing star systems and family trees, all in a neat folder, instead of starting to write the book itself.

  19. Minimal, then add things as I go. If it seems right that some people ride elephants, I just add in elephant stables and elephant handlers, and probably have people complain about the city gates being to low to ride through. – Although, like Meg Anderson, I like to use one world for many stories, so if one story requires wizards to have six fingers, (which I stole from Nancy Collins/Sonja Rose) then all the stories have six fingered wizards. -> Which means some new-born babies are born to be wizards, and you can tell from their fingers -> which means I have to have a six fingered boy who does not become a wizard. And HIS novel is out as an eBook and I haven’t got around to writing the story that needed six fingered wizards.

  20. I mostly stick to a minimal approach on worldbuilding, otherwise the worldbuilding begins to take precedent over the writing and the point for me is the writing itself, not the worldbuilding. But, I will create however much I need to in order to (hopefully) make the reader believe the world is “real”.

  21. I am very,very extensive. In fact, I often get confused; Which one do i like more, Writing the novel, or designing it?
    + I like to beef out my worlds as I usally use 1 world for multiple books.

  22. Great post, Phil!  I world build at the level I like to read–I put just enough detail to allow the reader to fill in the bits with their own images :).  I really dislike books that spend pages developing the world, I think a few well placed brush strokes can pull the reader quite nicely into your world :). I do think some times writers spend alot of time world-building, and not enough time writing ;).

  23. I have heard that there are only a few story lines out there that are possible. The setting is what makes one unique.  If the setting is seen through the portal of our imagination and that of the writer, that is good.  If the story is so hidden among the historical, real or imagined, then it is boring. I just put down a book like that I was trying to read and did not wish to finish it.  I was not left wondering how it ended because I didn’t care.
    When I am writing a Fantasy Novel, I like to build as I go. I fill in the setting as it comes up in the story and at times, make it like another character with sounds, smells and temperature.  I feel it is oppressive to build a structured world that I must utilize and stay within a formula. It crushes creativity.  Better to allow the muse freedom to take the story where it can go.  I assume none of us who call ourselves writers will find it difficult to remember what we have already written and thus keep things in order with what is already there.

  24. Great article! I like to develop a magic system before hand, but let other elements of the world (my stories are in the real world with magic) and cultures come naturally through throughout. If I surprise myself with a development, then the reader should be surprised too and that’s only a good thing.

  25. The more you model your world on societies that really existed, the less you need to actually invent. (To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, ancient Rome does just fine in outer space!)

  26. I start of small, basic, get the fundamentals down. Magic, religion, races. Then I start to fine tune it that way I don’t have too much to rewrite in case something doesn’t work out.

  27. I like to be extensive in my worldbuilding. I like to make 100% I have the best image of my race, cultures, and setting before I write.

  28. being an artist I like to draw out a map first and highlight key aspects of it. Worlds are the foundation of the story because it sets up the different cultures you create. :)

  29. Extensive. That way I can use one world and have many different stories going. Plus I just love to create new worlds. :)

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