There are two common problems I hear when people are having trouble with their worldbuilding. One camp is overwhelmed by the task, the other unable to tear themselves free to begin writing. How can you overcome these crippling writing roadblocks?
Can’t Get Started?
Help! I’ve got this idea for a fantasy story, but I need to create a world for it. I want a king and a princess, so there has to be a kingdom. How many generations back do I need to trace the monarchy? Would I be better off starting with the map, then figuring out the resources the kingdom has and building an economy from there? I have this idea that my hero likes a particular brand of ale… what climate and terrain should I be looking for in order to produce a top-quality dark ale locally? How far can a medieval-era kingdom be expected to export spirits? Can I count on my hero being able to acquire his favorite ale 100 miles away? 1000?
For some writers, the task of creating a secondary world has so many potential pitfalls that they’re willing to put the story on hold until every one of them is smoothed over. They want every question answered, every nitpick pre-addressed, every aspect of their fantasy world’s existence spelled out ahead of time.
If this is you, STOP IT!
As much as you might like to think otherwise, your world doesn’t exist. It’s nice to think that your world could exist as shown to a reader – that’s a major goal of worlbuilding, after all – but it isn’t relevant to the story. You don’t need to know the macroeconomics of beer production to drink one, and neither do your characters. By extension, neither do your readers.
Can’t Stop Yourself?
Well, I’ve got names and birth dates for all my barkeep’s extended family mapped back three generations. That ought to be enough. Now I just have to do the same for the stable master, the scullery maids, and the blacksmith, and I’ll be ready to work on drawing family crests and mottos for the 12 families of the Cabal of Lords. I can probably get away with just a partial vocabulary of High Welnish and Frenese, but I should have a complete dictionary for Garmic – there’s a whole chapter slated for Garm. Maybe I can wait for book 2 to get started on Ilolian… nah, better be safe and do that before I start.
Creating a world from scratch can be a fascinating exercise. If you’re creating a game setting, you may need to do quite a bit more than a fiction writer, just because the chances to explore off the beaten path are so much greater. But even then, there are limits. I would say that 9 times out of 10, family trees fall into the “too much” category, and conlangs (constructed languages, i.e. invented tongues like Elvish or Klingon) 999 times out of 1000.
If this is you, STOP IT!
Most people in this camp seem to subscribe to the “but Tolkien did it” theory of worldbuilding. What they fail to realize is that Tolkien was a university professor and linguist. His day job was dissecting languages. By the standards of a modern author he wrote relatively little, and he wasn’t attempting to support himself with his writing. 18 years passed between publication of The Hobbit and the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. He made George R.R. Martin (a frequent target of reader impatience) look like Brandon Sanderson (who writes books in his spare time between books). Tolkien’s methods, success, and style are inimitable, and all attempts to prove otherwise are doomed to failure.
The Middle Ground
Where should you start worldbuilding, and when should you stop? Here’s my guide.
Begin with a premise
What is your book about? What’s the core idea. If you’re writing a fantasy story because of a cool magic system you wanted to explore, by all means work it out in detail before you begin. If you’re writing a tale of politics and backstabbing, develop the system of government and rulership.
Find your protagonist
The knowledge of your protagonist should color (and limit) his view of the world. A farmer isn’t going to know court politics much beyond “they raised the tax again this year”. A city urchin wouldn’t know the first thing about foreign cults or wizards. If your character shouldn’t know it, your reader shouldn’t see it until he does. That means you don’t need to set it in stone before you begin writing.
Know your plot
This is where outlining ahead of time will help. If you hate outlining, check out my guide to outlining for writers who don’t outline. The more you know about your plot and where it’s heading, the easier it will be to tell where your world will need building. If you want to figure out what Garm and Itoly look like before your characters travel there, that’s fine. But if you know that no one is going to see Weln, you don’t need to catalog details about it.
Trust yourself to think on your feet
Writing may be a predominantly seated activity, but the ability to think “on your feet” can be invaluable. If you come across a point where you need a worldbuilding element that you haven’t decided on ahead of time, invent it on the spot. It is no less valid (or less made up in your head) than details you lovingly crafted ahead of time and wrote down in that spiral-bound notebook or carefully indexed file system. If something comes up later in the story that makes your decision questionable, change it in editing. If something comes up in a future book that makes you wish you’d done things differently, write around it. You’re bound to have unintended consequences. The real world has plenty of those. Just keep consistent, avoid worldbuilding fouls as best you can, and keep those fingers typing. You’ll only get better at it with practice.