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I'm having a very hard time justifiably spending lots of time building a world of my own.

On one hand-- I express myself very creatively, and even browsing through this site gives me a plethora of ideas.

However, whenever I start to consider what a world might look like, despite my fervent desire to create an intriguing and compelling history, I get lost in the dread that I could be doing something that isn't entirely productive or unique.

I understand that I might be looking for too much out of this experience, or that I could have already answered my question (world-building is used as a creative outlet-- it isn't supposed to be productive etc.), but I have such a strong desire to actively participate in this incredible community I've witnessed that it feels bad either way.

Is there anything that y'all have used to justify the amount of time that could be spent creating something like this?

Am I just looking at the concept wrong?

Note: Please tell me if this question is out of place. I'm very new to this website. Thanks!

Edit:

Thank you so much for all the responses! I believe I originally misconceived the notion of world-building as an all-encompassing creation, not a casually enjoyable, incrementally added upon, pass-time. Specifically, the responses that encouraged how the creation process is just as fulfilling as the finished result helped me decide to work on world-building as a hobby, rather than a full commitment. Perhaps my initial concern was just my inner completionist getting the best of me.

Thanks Again!

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    $\begingroup$ Hello and Welcome Uertmon, while I can see this question isn't about an actual world you are building I hope it stays open because its about worldbuilding as a hobby. I personally do it as a hobby because I enjoy it. You don't need a reason to invest time in a hobby. But sometimes a hobby can be pretty consuming with no benefit. Its a matter of self control so you can keep world building and living the life you want. Is there any reason in particular you want to stop world building? $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Sep 6 '18 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ Justify - to whom? $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 6 '18 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: I'd disagree that this is a meta question, as long as the focus is on justifying the time spent in the process of world building, not the act of spending time on this site $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Sep 6 '18 at 5:53
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    $\begingroup$ I think you'd probably get better answers over at the Writing stack exchange. $\endgroup$ – Jack Aidley Sep 6 '18 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ Only on Stack Exchange could you ask a question that specifically mentions the topic of the site that the question has been asked on and be told it is more on-topic else where. $\endgroup$ – RyanfaeScotland Sep 6 '18 at 12:06

13 Answers 13

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World building tends to attract certain types of people

  • People who like the process of world building
  • People who go the extra mile in making sure their story is accurate
  • People who want a single base world so they can have multiple, possibly interwoven, stories with the same setting
  • People who are anal about details

There's nothing wrong with only world building the bare minimum. Plenty of great stories have minimal world building, you just have to choose a balance that works for you.

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    $\begingroup$ It also depends on the type of story you're telling. Philip K. Dick, for example, sometimes appears to have put great effort into worldbuilding (The Man in the High Castle comes to mind) and other times just seems to throw in random world details that don't appear at all plausible or thought out but are instead symbolic or humorous. $\endgroup$ – tbrookside Sep 6 '18 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ One bad example: Where were all those wizards from other schools from around the world while Voldemort fucked shit up in the last three books? $\endgroup$ – Magus Sep 6 '18 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Magus have you considered asking that exact question on scifi SE or has it already been asked there? $\endgroup$ – Jan Nash Sep 7 '18 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JanNash it's already been asked: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/58575/59810 $\endgroup$ – Wildcard Sep 8 '18 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ The list in this answer missed the important category that fits me most: (x) all of the above. ;) $\endgroup$ – fgysin Sep 27 '18 at 13:14
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Here's the way I look at it; when you build a world (for your story / game / amusement / insert purpose here) you're not doing it for yourself per se; you're doing it for the experts in the fields you'll discuss that will also read / play your work.

The whole Skynet thing in the Terminator (for example) bugs the daylights out of me. Why? Because I'm an AI researcher (among the many hats I wear these days) and I know it just can't happen like that, and that if you're going to build machines that wipe out humanity, you don't need to make them smart.

Judging by the number of downvotes I get when I discuss this topic even on this forum, there are a lot of people out there who have a differing view, and that's probably why shows like the Terminator are so popular. But, to me it's not realistic.

So; you can build a world with minimal effort but write in engaging characters and an intriguing plot, and you'll produce something that has every chance of being popular. But, realistic? Well perhaps, but then not to the people who actually know the details of the mechanics behind the world you've created.

Ultimately, the effort you go to in creating a world should be commensurate with the level of expertise in the areas around which your world is created that you wish to engage. If you just want the laypeople, then it's a waste of your time and effort and you can (quite rightly) say that it's unproductive.

For mine however, I prefer the story worlds that go the extra mile to make it realistic to me and to other experts in the chosen fields of discussion. That effort won't be recogniseable to everyone and I have to say that your return on investment may be a lot lower than appealing to the masses, but quality counts, at least to me, so my view is that it's always worth the extra effort because your reward isn't the number of extra people you draw, it's the amount of knowledge you draw by virtue of that effort.

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    $\begingroup$ plausibility and internal coherency are very important to engage the user with the story. You create a framework where the reader can imagine outcomes and discard others. For most fantasy/sci-fi readers this is a MUST. :) $\endgroup$ – Onoper Sep 6 '18 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ +1, as a full time research scientist and fellow AI researcher; I agree. And to me, the only way Skynet in The Terminator could come to pass is if some psychopath with AI skills intentionally wanted to exterminate humanity, perhaps leading a cult of such coders and imagining themselves bringing on Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ and The Rapture or some other crazy idea. Then it is less about AI and more about successfully building a doomsday machine. Terminator would be more plausible with that plot, and in the series defeating the secret cult could be extraordinarily difficult. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Sep 6 '18 at 10:25
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    $\begingroup$ It's a good answer but it's missing Onofre's input. It's not just about realism but about consistency. Star Wars has sound in space everywhere, down to characters hearing a fighter behind them. This breaks realism but if kept consistent you can accept it. If they suddenly remarked there is no sound in space it breaks the consistency and becomes annoying. The consistency of "AI is out to kill you" (or a semi-insane support tool often found in Ancient Tech Is Always Better) is such a trope that people will readily accept it. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Sep 6 '18 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ I’ve enjoyed a lot of things that are not realistic. Star Wars, Star Trek, movies where trajectories of thrown objects visibly suggest gravity has changed, high-speed automatic firearms that fail to hit anything in front of them, mysteries where the genius detective figures out who the murderer is when there are only two people left, … $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Sep 6 '18 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ It's the difference between suspending disbelief and suspending logic. $\endgroup$ – John Doe Sep 6 '18 at 19:57
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World Building is Entirely Unnecessary.

What justifies the time is writing with consistency. If you have a map with terrains, towns, plausible climates and climatic cycles, etc, then your writing will be consistent as your characters journey through it; you won't accidentally write in logically impossible distances or trip timing. Using Earth as an example, you won't write that the trip from Las Vegas to New York City took 8 hours to drive. It is 2529 miles, they'd have to drive 317 miles an hour! Of course you wouldn't make that mistake on EARTH, even if you aren't great at division you would immediately sense these are further apart than 8 hours, and consult a map and calculator.

But when you are writing and inventing everything yourself, it can be easy to forget what you told the reader about places W, X, Y, and Z, and accidentally create a physical paradox like the above. It takes one crew a day to walk the path W->X->Y, stopping at X on the way, because that was convenient to your plot at the time. Then later in the book you send them from Z->Y->X for supplies, and it takes them FIVE days to walk from Y to X. WTF? They walked from X->Y in less than ONE day the first time!

You might have character Joe talking about being born in W, and growing up with snow, ice, and bitterly cold winters. Then three months of writing and ten chapters later, you forget about that. Joe and your crew end up in W during winter, and you write it as pretty pleasant and mild. But your reader just read about the winters in W a few hours ago, goes back to read that again, and wonders a) Why Joe and nobody else isn't saying a damn thing about this pleasant winter, and b) Was Joe lying?

In such a case you have broken the reader's immersion, your world doesn't make sense because your writing is glaringly inconsistent.

But I said world building is entirely unnecessary!

You don't have to do this kind of work up front; you can take notes of what you say and build a map as you write along, and if necessary revise your story as you go. If you know some of the elements of world building (what makes deserts, or rain forests, mountain ranges, lakes, etc) then you won't make obvious mistakes, but all you really need to avoid is glaring errors that won't stand up to scrutiny. You don't have to talk about the geology of what makes a seashore cliff; you can just plug in a seashore cliff. Just Google "seashore cliff" and you will find a few dozen of them, pick one that best fits your story as a reference for writing your own. Describe actual nature and you won't create any glaring errors.

Of course world building can also include fantasy religions, cultures, rituals, animals, magic systems, and so on. Some of these are for entertainment value, others are developed in order to maintain consistency, and impose limitations on what can be done. Not only in magic, but perhaps politically and culturally as well. In many fantasy and scifi worlds the culture allows one character to kill another in front of witnesses and walk away, never to be pursued or even charged; there just is no law enforcement in such worlds other than vigilantism.

In other worlds more like our own, like the Mr. Robot series, law enforcement and how it works is central to the story, the hackers are breaking the law and in constant fear and danger of being caught.

World building can be an entertainment in and of itself, but (IMO) it is just a setting, not a story.

To me, I would rather write a story. I am a discovery writer, so I do my world-building on the fly, with a map I sketch as my story demands new places, towns, or features like rivers, oceans, forests, deserts, etc.

I also do several passes through my finished work, and along the way ensure my elements are consistent and there are no glaring errors.

The advantage of world building up front is your story maintains consistency and you don't have to invent settings on the fly. However, you can do these things on the fly without ever sitting down to invent your world. If your story is character-driven, like mine, the settings are not necessarily a big part of the story; and (for me) the main thing to keep straight is distances, travel times, and at times for the physicality (traveling or fighting) and dress of characters, whether it is freezing, sweltering, or fair weather, open terrain or forested, watered or dry, etc.

If setting is a major "character" of your story and often plays the villain (heroes versus nature, or culture, or politics) or has entertainment value (tourism for the reader, by terrain and/or cultures) then it should probably be planned and made consistent.

The time justification is in whether it is more efficient to design the setting and then write a story in it, or to write your story and design the setting on the fly, keeping it consistent with notes and sketches. That all depends on how important the world is in your story; and for many stories that focus on the emotions of characters (a relationship, falling in love, coming of age, dealing with loss, etc) the setting is not terribly important.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Whether you do it up front or not, world building happens. It is really annoying to have to go a few pages back in a book because you're like didn't they?........ That totally breaks immersion. $\endgroup$ – Pieter B Sep 6 '18 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ +1 Worldbuilding is a great way to help maintain consistency for settings-driven story telling. From an efficiency standpoint, I think it largely comes down to individual writing styles. For me, when I write a scene in a novel setting, I constantly find myself stopping to think about how things work in the setting. Thinking through all those details interrupts the flow of my writing, so I'd rather get as much out of the way through worldbuilding background notes. That way, if I decide my scene needs to be in a seedy futuristic dive bar, I already have a good idea what that looks like. $\endgroup$ – Beofett Sep 6 '18 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ I'd really rather replace "you would instinctively know these are far apart" with maybe "you would immediately know these are far apart", but it's your answer. It just irks me when people use the word "instinctively", because in the huge majority of cases where humans are involved, it's not about instincts at all. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 6 '18 at 19:35
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Think of it like learning the skills so you can build your own house, and then you start building a house that you poke away at when you have the time. It seems like it takes forever. You might never finish the house.

But then, one day, you're visiting a friend and they mention they've got a leak and are going to have to call a plumber. As they describe the problem, you realize you've learned enough doing your own plumbing that it's an easy fix. No need of a plumber, you can show your buddy how to fix it themself.

Never could have done that if you hadn't worked on your own, seemingly never-ending project. Working on your own gives you skills that you can use in other situations.

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Building a world often leads to more story options.

The first example that comes to mind is the Star Wars universe. Stories have come out of that "world" since 1977: movies, books, TV specials, animated TV series, fan films, board games, card games, etc. (Don't get me started on merchandising!)

Another world that led to story options was mentioned in the answer Caleb Koch offered: J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. The Hobbit set up the world, and then it was explored in amazing depth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Fans can probably list other LOTR works that I don't know about.)

There are many current examples of worlds spawning stories as well: Game of Thrones, Transformers, Star Trek, Stephen King's Dark Tower world and series, the Marvel and DC Comics universes, and on and on.

So the process of building a world is not frivolous or a waste of time. It can be a "primordial soup" that spawns life and aids your creativity.

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  • $\begingroup$ When it comes to Star Wars, let's not forget, and then quickly actually forget, Christmas specials. $\endgroup$ – Williham Totland Sep 7 '18 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @WillihamTotland Yes, worlds sometimes lead to really really bad ideas too. ;-) $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA Sep 7 '18 at 22:02
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Depends on what you are using it for? a book, game, personal. For me anyway, I like detail and realism about my worlds. I like my worlds to feel like they could be lived in, but I do this not for myself but for other people to enjoy, that will change how you build your world. If it’s for yourself then you don't need to get hung up on too much detail because you know the world rules all ready (you built it after all) but if it for others then you need to act like they have no idea what your world is, so you need to show them. Don’t go for too much detail (been there) too much detail can drag your story too long and that will bore your readers. The time is your to spend, build whatever fits YOU and most of all have FUN

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There are few excellent answers, but there is one point I see missing in them. World building is a real challenge for your creativity. You have to enforce yourself to think of multiple ideas that will make your world interesting in some way. As you have mentioned, one of the things you'll be trying to achieve is to have a world that in some way is unique (that is no-one else came with this idea yet). So it has to be a creative process

This is a benefit that works for you in general. The very same creativity can later work when thinking of finding some real-life problems. And creativity and imagination like every other skill gets better when trained. So even though you might be doing the world building just for your own sake and the world you build is not going to be shown to anyone, you will benefit from it anyway.

That's particularly my reason to participate in WorldBuilding StackExchange. I don't feel a need to build a world as such but I like stretching my creativity answering others' questions.

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The answers already here are great and valid, but I just wanted to add that when writing a story, having a complete, believable world for your characters to live in helps to make the characters themselves more believable and complete.

Even if the characters never really understand why they can't jump into hyperspace near a large planetary body or what the consequences might be, with a complete and consistent world, you as the author know exactly the reasons why. Those reasons will be ever present in the back of your mind as you write, and will influence the events in the story as well as the characters actions, leading to more well-rounded characters, and makes it that much easier for a reader to lose themselves in the story.

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You could make it a part of your story building progress.

Every time you come up with new ideas for your world, they're probally joined with a few basic/rough ideas of what could happen in this part of the world. If you write those down you could use that as material for your story.

More prep could create a more stable story, less plotholes and some depth. Even if a reader doesn't really care about all the lore around it, they'll still feel the story being solid.

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I think the real question is, why does it need to be justified? There are a plethora of hobbies that have much less to offer as far as what you have to show for it. If there are things you should be doing instead, do those things and come back to your world when you have more free time.

However if your world is the setting for a story you're writing, then I would consider that a justification in and of itself (assuming this is a legitimate goal and not just a hobby in it's own right). If you find yourself filling out your world more than is necessary for your story, then get to a stopping point, work on what needs to be done for your story, and again, come back to the world when you've got more free time, or need to flush out more of the details.

Source: I have quite a few hobbies and very few have much to show for the time I put in, especially compared to world building and writing. It all comes down to what makes you feel productive.

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Tolkien, arguably one of history's greatest world builders, seemed to have a similar question. May I direct you towards his work Leaf by Niggle, or at least towards Wikipedia's summary of the work (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaf_by_Niggle)?

I won't ruin the story for you, but I will say that Niggle's life is essentially an allegory of Tolkien's own life and work. Leaf by Niggle can be interpreted as an "illustration of Tolkien's religious philosophy of creation and sub-creation. In this philosophy, true creation is the exclusive province of God, and those who aspire to creation can only make echoes (good) or mockeries (evil) of truth. The sub-creation of works that echo the true creations of God is one way that mortals honour God." An interesting view indeed, wherever you fall on the God debate.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you summarize what is in the link? Your answer doesn't provide an answer; links can change over time so make sure the content of the link is summarized in your post. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Sep 6 '18 at 13:40
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What do you do with your world?

  • You might want to tell stories in it, and hope to become the next great SF/F writer. You need good prose, a riveting plot, believable characters, and also a memorable world. Usually two or three out of four is not enough.
  • You might be the game master of a pen-and-paper roleplaying group. You sit around the table all Saturday until 0-dark-30 with a bunch of friends and many gallons of chips and cola. Those pesky players, they get ideas you never had. The best way to improvise along with that and keep it fun for everyone is if you know your world and if they understand your world.

"Does the castle have a rear exit? How is it locked?"

"No rear door." (I want the big fight in the castle yard.)

"How about the garderobe? Can we hack the planks out and rappel down?"

"No garderobe." (I still want the big fight in the castle yard.)

"What!?"

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  • $\begingroup$ Okay, so no garderobe, but how about a wardrobe? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 6 '18 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling ... If you build your world so that the wardrobe has holes over the moat? Many garderobes did, and would-be fantasy storytellers should be aware of such messy details. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Sep 7 '18 at 5:17
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My viewpoint may be a little different in that many people tend to work from the top down. They start with a world and fill in the details. I work the opposite way. I have an idea and then think what I need to know about its world to make it plausible. I may never go on to develop the world more than that.

For me, being challenged by the community to make my ideas clear is a great intellectual exercise that offsets my bubbles of creativity. By researching the subjects and discovering similar previous questions, I improve my knowledge and hope to find myself better at answering the questions of others.

I'm sure you don't have to justify enjoying yourself as long as it doesn't become an obsession that interferes with your real life.

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