World Building Interview – July 2015

In July of 2015, Sci-fi writer and blogger John Robin interviewed me for his website and a series on world builders – and I was the first guy interviewed! Below is the transcript.

What is the appeal of world-building to you? How does it compare to the importance of character and plot?

I’ve always had ideas naturally and world building gives me an outlet to do whatever I want.  I’ve been building the same world since 1988 and have connected so many of my ideas to each other that I have a richer, deeper, and more immersive setting.  That said, my stories are always about people, issues, and the events they experience.  I don’t believe in stories about my world building.  When I have something from the setting that I want to use, I create characters and issues that are related (or opposed) in some way, so that the setting highlights the story issues.

What aspects of the world do you have to figure out before you start a story? What do you allow to unfold as you write?

Most of my tales are set on that same world, so most main elements of world building are done.  But I did decide long ago that I’d only create basic details about a city (flag, colors, major products, etc.), then wait on creating further details until I’m setting a story there.  This is partly because there are so many settlements (inventing details would take forever), details don’t matter at the 10,000 foot level (when I’m referring to a place that’s outside my current storyline), and because I might want to change details if writing a story there later anyway.

Despite the decades of work, I still sometimes need to make up something else for the story, but this is usually done while planning, as I outline all stories before writing.  Sometimes these new ideas cause a lot of world building, but I know it’s all worth it in the end.

If creating a new world for a story, I focus on what’s needed and little else.  This approach is different and lightweight, which is one of its advantages.  I tend to write a tighter character POV so that less commenting on the world is needed.

Do you have a technique for keeping track of world-building as you go? How do you ensure your material is easily retrievable and easy to modify?

I mostly have a structured folder system full of Word docs, organized by subject.  I also have a couple different god charts for easier reference, and a master Excel spreadsheet with tabs for gods, cities, species, and more.  These are cheat sheets when I need quick intel.  The in-depth info is always in Word somewhere.  I keep desktop shortcut icons to get to the folders quickly, and from within Word, you can pin a doc so it’s a click away.

I’ve changed my files at times.  I used to keep each species in its own file but eventually combined their files into one.  Same with gods and military groups.  The Navigation Pane in Word makes it easy to jump around when I’m looking for something to verify it.  Or add to it.

I also have a file with intended changes/additions to make.  I throw ideas in there when I don’t want to work on them immediately, usually because I’m focused on a story and don’t want to get sucked back into world building.  I just come back to the ideas later and work on them, putting something in the right place.  I sometimes email myself ideas from my phone when having one away from a computer.

How do you avoid excessive world-building and balance it with the act of writing the story?

Too late for me on that one!  I’ve had long periods of my life when I couldn’t write for whatever reason (like college), and I did world building in the meantime.  I actually cut myself off from doing it at one point, on purpose, to write, but eventually returned.

Nowadays, if I have a story idea, and I always do, I try to do that instead, but writing takes more concentration and if can’t concentrate (because my toddler is climbing on me, for example), I build.  I also prioritize ideas based on global usefulness (it could impact many future stories) or localized usage, the latter being less important to spend time on.

What do you enjoy the most about world-building?

The heart of my main setting is seven new species instead of elves and other staples, so everything I do relates to them (and humans, of course).  I love the freshness of this and intertwining the concepts (for them and other things) more and more.  I get bored easily and anything new just makes my life feel in color instead of black and white.

I love the freedom to do my own thing and not be restricted by someone else’s ideas or expectations.  Of course, as I build, I create my own rules and restrict myself, but that’s better than having limitations imposed by others.  Readers will see all new species and be unable to have pre-conceived ideas.  I can write stories in a way that no one else can.  I think this lets me take readers somewhere they aren’t expecting to go.

Describe your world-building method. Do you have forms that you fill in? How do you organize your notes? Do you use a wiki or some other software?

It depends on the idea.  If it’s something like a magic portal that might be found in a number of cities, I open each city file and add a section for that new item, just basics like where in the city it is, type, and anything unique, or where that portal leads.  I also use an Excel spreadsheet where I plan that at the 10,000 foot level.  This also lets me see, later, some basic info in one place; otherwise I’d have to open every city file to see that.  I also have a file for supernatural items and describe how the portals work there.  This is all to minimize redundancy and make my life easier.

I have templates, or fill-in-the-blanks forms, for things like settlements.  Standardizing this lets me see in each file whether I’ve filled out something or not, and minimizes oversights.  I don’t worry about blank sections for cities, as I mentioned earlier.  I’ll flesh it out when needed.

Describe your world and some of the considerations behind it that you feel give your stories a solid sense of realism

The most distinctive elements of my main world are new species I’ve worked on for two decades.  Their details and integration with each other (and humans) are important for realism.  It helps me and the reader when I know what typical race-relations are like and whether these characters exemplify or defy that.  This also poses an issue in that I should write stories to establish the basic idea of who a species is for the reader, before showing a member of that species that is markedly different.

Realism is often in details, and how those are conveyed.  Sometimes authors list a bunch of things without the reader understanding why any of that should matter to them, and that’s a poor approach.  Using the species as an example, tying details to a character is better, so I try to explain physical features less as a list and more as what impression those features give that character.  The same principle applies to other world building revelations; otherwise, I don’t think anyone cares but the writer.

I imagine stories that are about an issue or theme and where one of my species (if not another world building element) helps highlight the issue in the story.  An example is “The Garden of Taria,” which is about a human woman who loves order and her personal space.  But she’s suddenly forced to live near a species notorious for not believing in property, so they take whatever they want (like your stuff) and literally make themselves at home in your house while you’re gone.  Their differing points of view are the clash and let me use my species to say things about human ideas on property while telling a story that’s about people.  In theory, the readers will never realize that the original point, for me, was to establish this aspect of that species, and I found a story idea to do that.

What tips do you have for aspiring fantasy writers on how to create a solid, believable world?

I actually write a blog about that and am turning that into a book series called The Art of World Building.  But two important aspects are research and common sense, as things that don’t make sense turn off readers, especially in fantasy/sci-fi.  I also think people should only use what is needed to tell their tale, despite having worked out background material in the world.  Finding a good balance is important, and focusing on the story and the reader’s needs is one way I keep focused.

I’d also suggest world builders decide how much writing they intend to do and whether it’s worth it to set many stories in the same world and develop that extensively, or keep creating new worlds, which allows for being radically different each time.  But the latter approach could mean that you’re developing gods, for example, for every world.  Imagining a book-per-world scenario and you write twenty books – you’ve had to create twenty pantheons.  Is that more or less work than building one, richer pantheon?