World Building – How Much is Needed?

World building, the thing that many fantasy authors like to talk about and focus on – probably a little bit too much.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe world building is very important, especially for speculative fictions such as fantasy or science fiction – stories that take place in other worlds apart from our own.  But my main gripe is when people take it too far.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who are obsessive world-builders.  By that I mean they go to Tolkien levels of world building.  Again, this is perfectly fine, and it can be beneficial to some stories, if not just for the author.  My problem is that I often see people who focus so much on world building that they seem to forget that they need to write a story and characters to go along with the world they’ve created.

Then, of course, there are people like me who do as little world building as possible and then those other people come in and start griping about how we need to do more world building.  Again, don’t get me wrong, world building is extremely important for a fantasy story.  But my question is: how much do you really need, and how much is too much?

To answer these questions, I think you need to be asking: what sort of story are you writing in this world?  If you’re writing some sort of epic high fantasy that dives into politics and deeper aspects of the world, then clearly a lot of world building is needed.  However, if you’re writing something that’s more closer to a small character drama (and you’re only going to have one or two stories in this world) then a smaller amount is probably going to be fine for you.

I think a good piece of advice for this subject is to not do more than you’re going to need for the story.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean only world build as much as will be divulged within the story.  Sometimes going a bit beyond that is beneficial to you as an author.  If you can know other aspects of the world, whether they’re explicitly stated in your story, it’s going to be easier to write about.  But I do not believe it is necessary to know every single minute detail of a story world, especially if most of it isn’t even going to be shown in the story.

For instance, it is totally unnecessary for you to create some sort of vast political system when your story never deals with politics whatsoever and never once makes mention of them.  That’s just unnecessary work for you and it’s taking you more away from actually writing your story.

Only do as much world building as is needed for your story.  Now, maybe your story would benefit from Tolkien levels of world building, but I’ve just noticed that a lot of (usually young) writers make the mistake of taking on this huge task of trying to go too far with their world building when it is completely unnecessary and their stories end up suffering for it because they stuff too much of their world into it and lose the focus of the story.

It’s fun to create a whole other world in our head.  Just realize that not everyone wants or needs to know every aspect of it.  And, if they’re anything like me, they won’t have the attention span to stick with it if you keep talking about your world and distract from the story at hand.  Remember that world building is just another tool for storytelling, so don’t let it overshadow what you’re really trying to do.


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