Archive for September 30, 2022


Building Nuanced Worlds

I finished the plot/structure draft of the next mystery book this week, and I think I’m going to do another pass for emotion and description and generally making the words better, but while it’s resting a bit so I can look at it with fresh eyes, I’ve been doing some development work on a fantasy series, and I’ve realized that good worldbuilding is hard.

I’ve been known to mock the science fiction trope of the forest planet, the desert planet, the ocean planet, the ice planet, or else the “Ancient Greece” planet, the “Old West” planet, the “Nazi” planet, etc., but fantasy is prone to similar lazy tropes, only it’s kingdoms instead of whole worlds. You get the desert kingdom, the mountain kingdom, the seafaring kingdom, etc. That’s perhaps a bit more realistic than having an entire planet having a single climate and bioeme, but it’s still a pretty broad brush. Or else you get earth cultures pasted onto the fantasy kingdoms, so you’ve got Not!Scotland, Not!Norway, Not!Ireland, etc.

Even if you get a little more granular than that, it’s still tempting to have the Uptight Religious City, the Party City, the Serious Business city, the Warlike City, etc.

And that’s because it’s a lot of work to drill down and create multiple cities in multiple kingdoms that are distinct from each other and that have their own culture but that also have nuance. The less important a place is to the story, the stronger the temptation is to just go “they’re businesslike and somewhat British-like” and leave it at that.

But failing on building a three-dimensional, coherent world can actually make writing harder. This book I’m developing is the one I worked on briefly last year. I’d come up with the core of the idea more than thirty years earlier, wrote it and had nothing come of it, then pulled it out last year and replotted it. I thought it would be easy to write since I knew the plot and the characters, but the problem I ran into was that I realized I didn’t know the world. The characters were moving through a featureless void. I knew the history of the place, but I didn’t know what it was like on the ground, to live there or travel through there, and that made it difficult (and kind of boring) to write. So now I’m working to create a world for them to exist in. I seem to have made it difficult for myself by having the situation be a cluster of smaller kingdoms that’s unified, so I need to develop each kingdom, at least in broad terms, and then I need to figure out what the actual places the characters will visit are like. It’s a “road trip” story, so I have to fully create more than one place. I have to keep reminding myself that I need specific details.

This is fun work to do, but at the same time I get impatient about wanting to write, especially when I come up with a detail that gives me ideas for the story.