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Worldbuilding: Necissity or Inspiration?

D. Gray Warrior

So, do you prefer to worldbuild only what you need for the story, or do you add things to your world that aren't necessarily relevant to the story, but are adding it just because you think it's a cool idea?

For instance, I keep getting ideas for one of my worlds, and want to add it in, but it's for a project I haven't even started to write yet. I'm adding it because I happen to like the idea or think it's cool, even if it would not actually have anything to do with the story.

Do you worldbuild only what you need, or whenever you get an idea you like?


Myth Weaver
I always have a bigger idea of the world than appears in the story, and as the story expands, so do my ideas for the world. At present, there are many many details I have in mind about the world that will never make it to the page. Maybe in supporting materials if I decide to write them.
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“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. ” – Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

This is the Iceberg Theory.

Some have advanced on this idea, turning and tuning it for fantasy fiction world building. If you present a handful of things about the world, then depending on how you've done that, the reader may assume you've also developed so much more than you've included in the story. This can make the fictional world seem even larger, more real.

I'd say that including things that have zero other relevance to the story can lead to this feeling that the writer knows the full world well. Maybe the reader will have the impression he can just peek around the book's cover, over its spine, and spot so much more the writer didn't include lurking there, heh.

I do think caution is in order, because too much otherwise irrelevant information can bog things down, distract, and bore.

Miles Lacey

I've been worldbuilding since I picked up my first road map at the age of maybe five or six years old and an atlas around the same time. I love the worldbuilding side of things but, as FifthView correctly states, caution about over-doing it is important.

Mad Swede

For me world building is about developing the background and the setting for the stories. That matters, because things like plot triggers and mundane things like food and money need some sort of explanation. I might not put all the details in the story, but I need it to add depth to the story as required. As the author I can and do mention some of these small background details in passing, like in overheard conversations at an inn. Those can be red herrings, but they also add the depth. It's all about drawing the reader into the story, making them a bit curious. That way they'll buy the next book too, in the hope of getting some answers...


I started out world building the very basics of my world but the more I fleshed out locations and characters, the more I realized I needed to flesh out the world so their motivations made sense. I have a lot of back and forth with my plotting that way, so we'll see what happens when I finally start writing the story and how much more I want to flesh out the world. Having a basic infostructure, landscaping, and economy I think are necessary to at least start going and then fill in anything else needed for you to properly visualize and write your narrative.
Food is one of the ways I'm most easily drawn into the world. If you think about it, most of the time the specifics of what is being eaten or imbibed will not matter so much to the plot or story except as a kind of window into more depth. If the pastries taste like raspberries or strawberries, does that have much weight? Ah, but I can almost taste either one just now!
For me it's both.

I worldbuild what I need. That's my main focus. I start with the idea of a world and a story in that world. From there I write out what I know I'll need. I work on a map (if the world requires one), place names, culture and whatever the plot requires.

However, I will also come up with ideas that are not needed for the plot or that won't even make it into the book. I'll still write them down. You never know what you'll need exactly. And maybe you'll end up writing a sequel and it suddenly very much becomes relevant.

As a side-note, I don't fully buy into the iceberg idea. Or rather, I think that most authors create a hollow iceberg. Few authors will know all details about everything in their world. Tolkien tried to get there and there are still gaps in his worldbuilding. However, the best way to approach this is to work on some aspects in great detail. Know everything about the bit of worldbuilding relevant to your story. That could be the climate, or the history and politics of a place, or the food, or whatever. Show the reader that you know your stuff. Once you do, then the reader will simply assume you've also done all the other bits of worldbuilding, and they'll let you get away with a lot of handwaving.
I think it how you want to approach it. Does it serve you as purely inspiration for your writing or will it be integral to it. It can also be both as I know it is for me, and there’s nothing I love more than opening a big fantasy novel and pouring over a map at the beginning, something about it feels more special.
I think the trick to using the iceberg theory when writing a fantasy world is to imply much more than is said. For instance, you could spend a whole paragraph or two info-dumping about a famous battle, or you could instead use a single reference; e.g.,

His position was more hopeless than Prince Holrin's at Berlfork. He had no army, and his magic was spent. He should never have tried arguing with Fernice.

We maybe don't need any more info re: Prince Holrin and the battle of Berlfork. Or perhaps we'll already have some understanding of who Prince Holrin is because the MC previously saw his image on a tapestry and asked who it was.

Miles Lacey

In a lot of books written during the 19th and early 20th Centuries worldbuilding involved a lot of info-dumping because they were writing for a readership that rarely travelled widely and had not seen images of the people, places and things being described. This is a reason why Tolkien used such detailed worldbuilding.

In the 21st Century most of that info-dumping would be pointless because the moment you used certain words it would create a vivid image in the reader's mind as to what both the story and its setting would be.

Write "gunslinger" and images of Western movies, saloons, dusty plains and cowboys riding horses come to mind. Write "starship" and images from Star Trek, Star Wars or even Battlestar Galactica pop into your head. Write 'mobster' and men in suits and fedora hats driving Cadillacs in a gritty place like Chicago in the 1920s or even the 1950s spring to mind (unless you're in New Zealand where the term "mobster" invokes images of the Mongrel Mob which is one of the biggest street gangs in the country)..

How much worldbuilding that goes into what I write depends upon how important the places concerned are to the story or if the setting would be one that wouldn't be expected in a particular genre. Also, the character interacting with the world they're in brings both the characters and the world to life.

There is such a thing as too much information or too little information when it comes to worldbuilding but you'll always find readers who love info-dumping and others who hate it. As with any other aspect of a story it's often surprising what individual readers actually love (or hate) about that story.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
So, do you prefer to worldbuild only what you need for the story, or do you add things to your world that aren't necessarily relevant to the story, but are adding it just because you think it's a cool idea?

On the one hand, if you have enough to get started, it's important to start. Writing is work; worldbuilding outside of what you need for your writing is purely hobby, and you can't let it hold you back from taking time to actually write.

But then.... I mean, it's all relevant, if you know how to worldbuild for the most interesting details and use them.


Myth Weaver
I have a lot of details, but way more generalities, in particular with history. I don't want things to be canon until they need to be, and once I formulate details they tend to stick, LOL. The knowledge of the characters is also full of lies and contradictions, and that gives another layer of depth to the creation. There is no way to flesh out an entire planet with thousands of years of history and cultural depth to match. The ultimate judge of whether you're doing it right is judged by readers. Reviewers have said I go light on details, others too much, but for the most part comments have been positive, and my favorite comments relate to things like not spoon-feeding the readers with world building or letting it flow naturally.

But In general, I agree with Hemingway on this one.


I do a little of both.

Often I feel like worlds where the author has only created what the story needs feels empty and shallow and I am less interested in its fate and the people who lives within it.

Thus I support to create some extra for additional depth of the setting.


Myth Weaver
I think the world is almost its own separate character, though maybe indirectly. It does matter if the reader come to care what happens on it. I hope I am succeeding at that, but I will need readers to know. For me, world building did not come out very strongly until book three. The characters simply did not understand it, but now its taking shape on page. Course, like many I suspect. the tale expands the further in I get.


Sometimes the issue is glossing over things rather than adding too much stuff, i.e. when there is a worry that the reader might struggle to suspend disbelief. For example, dragons are too heavy to fly but writers don't justify the mechanics. So, I think it's about where you draw the line when describing fantasy.

Insolent Lad

The more one knows about their world, the more ideas for stories and plot elements are going to present themselves. I see it as something like preparing for a debate, cramming oneself with knowledge, so the right answer will be there when you need it. Incidentally, world building is not just for fantasy and SF; I find myself doing just as much for 'mainstream' novels.