We’ve all fallen down a rabbit hole. Get to watching videos on YouTube and soon realize you’ve spent 4 hours watching obscure European Psychedelic bands from the 1970s? Check out the ‘you might like’ at the bottom of an article and find yourself reading dubious facts about 16th century cooking? There’s a world of rabbit holes out there and the internet has made them easier than ever to fall into. When it comes to world building, they can be a ton of fun, but they can also be a way to avoid accomplishing anything or simply a pitfall into useless minutia.
Likely due to my age, I often look to the original Star Wars films for one of my prime examples of world building. How much of it was by design and how much of it was accidental, I can’t say. Back in the 70s, George Lucas surrounded himself with lots of young, creative, talented people who put their heart and soul into their work. What you ended up with was a world that felt lived in, felt real, felt like it existed outside the confines of the frame you were looking at. For my players in a tabletop role-playing game or for the readers of my fiction, this is the thing I most want to accomplish with world building. I want them to follow the story, be compelled by the characters and maybe be surprised by some moment or scene. But I very much want them to imagine the world existing outside of the page they’re currently reading. Some little detail or flash of background that implies a whole ecosystem or society. I want them to wonder, ‘who was that guy?’ ‘what was his deal?’ ‘where did he end up?’
It’s easy to fall into one of those rabbit holes when trying to think about all the little details you want to get right in your world. Don’t you need to know how the government works? Well, once you do, you need to know how the government of the neighboring world/country/dimension works too, right? What’s their history? Who is in control? When did they take control, from whom, how, why? How does that inform their fashion, their architecture, their religion? It will never end. You can keep asking questions and keep wanting answers and never reach the bottom of that hole. So ask yourself, what is important to know right now, for this scene, for this story, to this character? The rest can work itself out later. Only worry about what you need in the moment. We’re still thinking big and small. As long as it fits your big idea, it’s OK if you’re not completely sure how it fits into the small. That can be explored when the need arises. You don’t need to explain that the kingdom of black armored knights far to the west is evil and worships a floating potato if your protagonist isn’t going there or facing off against anyone from there. You could name drop the land, imply that they’re weird or shunned, and move on. If you want to explore more about it, take a protagonist there in another story.
Yet, you can always hint at more without falling into a rabbit hole of extraneous information. The Lord Chancellor of Balmak has put a price on your hero’s head. He did so because your hero has broken tradition when it comes to wearing color on the third day of the month. This has been outlawed in Balmak since the Rainbow Revolution of 1031 when the old Republic was overthrown and the first Lord Chancellor came to power. The current Lord Chancellor believes a faction of the Rainbow Revolution still dwells in Balmak, bolstered by the neighboring province of Talii. OK, frankly, that’s already more info than you need to cram into one paragraph, and I definitely wouldn’t explain that much to the reader all at once. But that’s also a lot to work with, a lot of info you can casually drop into some dialog. Yet, you don’t need to explore it if it’s not important in the story you’re telling. You have the implication of Balmak’s history, a sense that the government is both oppressive and paranoid, hints of a potential rival/enemy nation, and a bit of local color. Maybe your hero will never go to Talii, but knowing it’s there and that the Lord Chancellor is worried about what it might be doing, helps to give the sense of a wider world outside of the actions of your hero. Hinting at these things is often better than explaining them. A paragraph history of the Chancellorship and its political entanglement with Talii isn’t going to be especially interesting to read. Yet, a mention of ‘Talii spies have likely infiltrated the chandler guild’ gives information and setting color. Why the chandlers? I mean, who cares? But seriously. Why?
Along with the rabbit hole of too much detail, there’s the trap of too much research. If your characters are living in the Age of Sale and they’ve all spent months on a ship, chasing pirates around Puerto Rico, then absolutely you should have an idea of how a ship works, who was operating there, how the crew functioned, and that sort of thing. But you might end up reading book upon book trying to get every last ounce of specific detail and technical jargon down, and still feel like you need to know more. What if some expert on the Age of Sale reads your book and calls you out on some missed bit of information? The truth is that for the most part, it doesn’t matter. Well respected authors of Historical Fiction have managed to get things wrong, sometimes missing important items of interest. And history is anything but static, so what you find out now might be found to be inaccurate in ten years. What I’m saying is do the research, but unless you’re writing a doctoral thesis, don’t let the research become the story. Very few readers are going to care what the specific knot-type used by the Spanish in the Summer of 1721 would be. The one or two people who will write in and tell you that you gave the wrong answer are not worth the effort of getting it 100% perfect. Let the research serve the story.
There are many more rabbit holes you can fall into. This is where trying to maintain some level of focus is important. World building is fun. Asking all those million questions about why this happens or who did this deed is a wonderful process and exciting exercise. Research can reveal amazing things, fuel your creative juices, spawn a hundred new ideas. They’re all wonderful in moderation, with restraint. If you let them get out of hand, they will keep you from doing what’s most important. They’ll keep you from telling your story and from revealing your world to those who want to see it.
If you like what I do, you can buy me a coffee. Check out my Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads. And take a look at my Patreon page, where I’m working on a novel and developing a tabletop RPG setting. You can also read my fiction over on Amazon. I’ve been doing more over on my YouTube channel, too.