On Worldbuilding: Down the Rabbit Hole Willingly

It’s often said that the downside to worldbuilding is that sometimes we writers get caught up in it, to the detriment of the actual writing.  I’ll freely admit that creating a fictitious world is a never-ending source of fun.  The Mendaihu Universe has grown and evolved over the course of two decades, and even as the Bridgetown trilogy enters Submission Phase this year, I’m still coming up with new avenues, new details for it.  Just yesterday I started playing around with another MU story set on Mannaka, an outpost world mentioned on the periphery in the BTown trilogy.  For the love of my own sanity, why am I doing this?

Short and most obvious reason?  More stories!  Ever since the aborted True Faith novel, I’ve always planned on setting a number of books in the same universe.  Not always in the same fixed spot in the timeline, of course…the timeline for yesterday’s brainstorming is up to question, but it would be a few millennia either before or after the BTown events.  This was partially inspired by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern universe–I liked the idea of writing multiple stories in my own created universe.  Each story would stand on its own, but there would always be a reminder somewhere (either up front or in the periphery) of the spiritual evolution story that’s central to the Mendaihu Universe.

And I spent a lot of time between 1994 and 1997, the years before I started The Phoenix Effect, just playing around with the universe, coming up with various story ideas and plot points in the timeline.  I remember a lot of slow afternoons in the ticket booth at the theater (and later at the radio station) where I’d lay the ground rules for my universe, such as major world events, evolutionary steps, and so on.  Just enough to give me anchors for future projects.

I can understand when worldbuilding can be a writer’s downfall, of course; spending too much time on the minutiae and not enough on the prose, focusing too much on the history and not enough on the present.  Or worse, giving into the joy of worldbuilding so completely that doing the actual writing becomes less than exciting.  It becomes like Charles Foster Kane, focusing on building the empire and home, changing it and morphing it as time and whim permits, but never quite finishing it.

The trick is to balance it out…I can have a lush background history, but I have to do something with it.  I can create a sprawling city-province like Bridgetown, but I have to have something happen there in particular.  I can create various characters to act out my story, but I have to have them do something inherently them in the process.   And after all of that, while I’m writing the story, I have a background I can work with–I can put these characters through a historical event that will affect them in one way or another, which will in turn cause them to evolve somehow.

I learned this when I realized I could no longer get away with ‘making it up as I go along’.  I learned it with The Phoenix Effect, when I realized that there were way too many divergent plot points and “I’ll revise it later” moments caused by immediate worldbuilding, all of which caused the story to be full of holes and inconsistencies.  When I restarted with A Division of Souls I forced myself to focus on the created history I had, and if new points of reference came up I would make a concerted effort to ensure they made sense in the overall story.  [A great example of this is in Chapter 2, when Assistant Director Dylan Farraway states “…this certainly isn’t a Second Coming…” to which Alec Poe responds with an offhanded “Ninth, sir.”  It was a complete throwaway line at the time I wrote it, but as I continued writing, the Ninth Coming of the One of All Sacred became the most important plot point of the entire trilogy.]

Working with your worldbuilding is definitely a tricky business.  You have to make copious notes.  You have to have a very sharp memory of what you’ve written.  You have to make sure you don’t get lost in it.  But once you’ve found a way to successfully manage it and make your way through it, it’s quite possibly the most enjoyable part of the writing process.

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