One Vs. Many
Since world building takes time, we should consider how many worlds we might build over the course of our career and whether it makes sense to build a world per story (twenty worlds for twenty stories), just one world for all [twenty] stories, or a mixture of both. Or neither. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each approach.
One World for One Story
Creating a world for each story has some advantages. We build only what we need for that tale, so it takes less time. We don’t have to think through so many items. We’re not tied to that world indefinitely; if our audience doesn’t like it, or we grow tired of it, or something just doesn’t seem to be working, we were done with it anyway. Those creators who aren’t sure how much writing they’ll do can test the world building waters and learn if it’s something they enjoy. If we’re a novice at world building and it shows in early work, we can learn and move on rather than having to fix those mistakes. If we have a more experimental concept that takes greater risks with an audience supporting it, we’ve risked less.
This approach has disadvantages as well. Skimping on world building could cause an under-developed or less interesting world. It can be less unique, too, if we use staples like elves, dwarves, and dragons. It takes considerable work to invent species that favorably compare to those. If we do a lot of work but only use it once, is it worth it? We’ll have to repeat much of that work every time we invent another world. This could cause world building fatigue when we’re on our twentieth world. The risk of repeating ourselves also rises. If a story becomes very popular and our audience demands more, we might find that our less developed concepts have caused problems we struggle to resolve in later works.
One World for Many Stories
The alternative is to build one world for use on those twenty books. Just doing it once means not repeating ourselves. Greater depth and realism can be created by inventing more detail, which is needed to make new concepts, like species, more believable. This approach becomes worthwhile if we’ll use the setting for years. If we invent new life and use only those, we’re no longer bound by the expectations that familiar species cause. We have freedom to follow our own rules. Our books will stand out, and if the setting is popular, this alone can draw fans back with each new product released. We might even be able to license the world for product development, from action figures to role-playing spin-offs.
This much attention to detail is a considerable time investment, which The Art of World Building will reduce. We need a diverse world to avoid audience boredom over so many tales, and this requires months, even years of development. During that time, we’ll benefit from friends who are willing to provide feedback on the world we’ve created, but this is hard to get. People want to comment on a story, not on our world building. If we know other world building authors, they might help and are our best resource. If we never get published, we never reach an audience and have arguably wasted time, but having multiple stories to set in that world mitigates this, as does the ability to self-publish. Time spent on this is also time not spent on our writing craft. World building fatigue can creep in from inventing so many things, but everything is optional and some elements have higher priorities than others.
On the surface, creating one setting per book may involve less effort at the time, but if we have to create a dozen worlds over the years, is that more or less work than one more detailed, reusable setting?
We can split the difference—create one planet that’s intended for many stories while also creating less developed ones for single stories. This hybrid approach is the best of both worlds. We might need a break from our “main” world (for lack of a better term) or just want to do something different or new once again. We can utilize a single-use world for more extreme risks, keeping our main world more accessible.
If we create a main world to use many times, a mixed approach will ease the upfront time investment. This is discussed in more detail in volume three, Cultures and Beyond, “Getting Started” chapter. What we can do is create our continents in rough form, then the gods of that whole world, and any species, animals, and plants that are found mostly everywhere. Then focus on a continent and some nations on the large scale and some basic history, including wars and animosities. We’ll also need a major city or two in every kingdom. At that point, we’ve created a basic framework for the rest. As needed when writing a story, we can flesh out details of any given city.
At later times, we can develop other continents, cities, and add more monsters and other creatures as we go along. If we have a new book series, we can set it on the world we’ve created but in another kingdom or continent we haven’t used much, or even in another time period. And yet we still have our species, our gods, or a system of magic. We can reuse much of what we’ve already done.