Worldbuilding Is Not Velvet Skull Wallpaper

Yesterday’s writing ended up being less about yesterday’s scene than I would have liked, so today I finished that one. (I write these posts around noon when I exhaust my 4 a.m. supply of creative steam + caffeine, so I will sometimes fail to rise to the rest of the day’s aspirations set forth therein.) On the bright side ☀️, when I get to the scene where the heroine reads the third-party message the hero delivered in this scene, I’ve already written what it says and can get right to her reaction. Tomorrow I’ll be shoving the heroine toward a future she has explicitly declined on more than one occasion.

Yesterday, I saw someone complain that a worldbuilding guide written by a novelist/anthropologist contained good food for thought but failed to explain how to integrate those thoughts into a story.

Sweetie, that’s called “writing.”

You can pay a developmental editor a ton of money to highlight appropriate places to stick worldbuilding in a specific story. You can enroll in a writing clinic for less money and get suggestions about a specific story from a variety of people you don’t get to choose. You can find a crit group for free and get feedback about a specific story from people who may not know any more than you do (and who are often aggressively misguided). But it’s ridiculous to expect a $4 book written by someone who’s never heard of you to tell you how to insert your ideas into your story.

That’s your job.

Here are some things that have made that job easier for me:

  1. Plan. (Sorry, pantsers. I can’t help you here.) You don’t have to draft The Silmarillion of your world, but at minimum, understand the everyday lives of the characters you’re writing about and what systems of power shape those lives.
  2. Make your characters a product of their environment. An intricate religious structure is meaningless if the characters’ lives never rub against it, but if they pray for luck or don’t pray because they’ve been disillusioned or the gods manifest along their journey to help/hinder their progress, a grasp of the theology is required. How does the character’s socioeconomic situation limit/provide resources and access to things the plot demands? Where do characters blend into the crowd and stick out like an infected thumb? Build the world you need to enhance these characters and their actions.
  3. Accept worldbuilding is an ongoing process. No matter how thorough you think the plan is, the act of writing will open up opportunities to reveal more of the world. Revision, once you have a tangible version of the whole story in front of you rather than a nebulous aspiration, involves a lot of going back to the beginning to set up information you didn’t know would be important until you wrote Chapter 50. The good news is you don’t have to get worldbuilding right in the first draft. The less-good news is the less attention you give worldbuilding in planning and the first draft, the more attention it will need in revision (and the more likely you are to have written something else that contradicts the worldbuilding you want to add, so one or the other will have to go). You can pick when you want to do that work, but nobody’s going to do the work for you.
  4. [Insert worldbuilding here] isn’t a thing. Worldbuilding isn’t wallpaper, a decorative but insignificant afterthought on the cardboard stage where your characters deliver their dialogue. The world is where they’re born, live, love, fight, die. It’s their home. Hold the gravity of that in your head from the moment you begin thinking about the story, and much of the “integration” will occur naturally because it’s baked into the characters and plot.

(Here’s the velvet skull wallpaper referenced in the post’s title. If I could afford to build my own world, at least one wall in it would be covered in fuzzy skulls. But not in the same room as the octopus chandelier. That would just be tacky.)

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