World-building: Extensive, Minimal, Top-down, and Bottom-up

Philip Overby has a new post up at Mythic Scribes about that perennial topic among fantasy writers, world-building. Philip lays out the pros and cons of both “extensive” and “minimal” approachs to world building, and he does it quite well. I’ll go ahead and state my preference for extensive world-building—as long as it doesn’t bog down the story.

I commented:

I think of it sort of like a flower garden. People who come by to admire your roses and petunias don’t really care what sort of fertilizer you use or how you decide when to plant or the brand of your favorite set of clippers. They care about the finished product, not the process. And yet, when the other members of the local gardening society come around, they love to talk shop, share tips, etc.

I’m not sure what proportion of fantasy readers are like the members of the gardening society and want to delve deeply into the appendices in the back of the book (or the Wiki or whatever). I am fairly confident, however, that that number is greater than zero. 🙂

In addition to “extensive” and “minimal,” I find it helpful to think in terms of either “top-down” or “bottom-up” world-building. Top-down world-building gives you the big picture of what is actually possible in this new, fantastical world—and why, given this broad context, things actually happen the way they do.

I’m thinking here of the basic mechanics of the world, the elements that inform the overall direction of the story. Top-down world-building looks at the sorts of broad subject matter one could study about our own world: history, technology, geography, religion, politics, etc. Add to this the things that would be a part of a well-rounded education in our world if, in fact, our world was a fantasy setting: How does magic work? What sapient species (elves, dwarves, fauns, talking animals, etc.) exist, and how do they all get along?

It’s a good idea for writers to have a pretty firm handle on these sorts of issues. Philip is right that at least some of this work really should be done before writing commences. I would urge, however, that writers spare us the info dump. If the world is engaging enough, I’ll certainly ask for more “behind the scenes” information. But I don’t want all this fascinating detail to get in the way of a great story. Rather, let these kinds of issues bubble up organically from within the story itself.

Bottom-up world-building is different. These are the elements that lend a certain tone or “color” to the narrative. They may very well be the sorts of things writers dream up on the spot to give their world a greater sense of verisimilitude or simply to entertain the readers.

One good example of what I mean by bottom-up world-building is the in-universe terminology characters use to talk about the various features of their world. What sort of slang, shorthand, technical terminology, or even profanity grows naturally out of the way your world is put together? You can develop an entire magical system using generic terms like “non-magical person,” but doesn’t it add something to the story’s texture to call such a person a “Muggle” (if you’re Harry Potter) or a “straight” (if you’re Harry Dresden)? For me, bottom-up world-building usually begins when I say, “I need a term used by group X to refer to concept Y” or “I need a weird or magical way people in my world would perform ordinary activity Z.”

I’ll be honest and admit that some of my bottom-up world-building takes the form of puns and gags. My purpose is to entertain, after all. So maybe my protagonist is listening to a country-western song in which the cowboy-wizard’s three-headed dog runs away. Or maybe my elves fire “elf-shot” from a twelve-gauge rather than a bow and arrow. (I actually decided to include that last one in Children of Pride fairly late in the writing process. Fortunately, I already had enough of the magic system worked out to explain [to myself!] how it could work. Maybe someone will explain it to my protagonist in a later volume…)

Top-down and bottom-up complement each other. In fact, the two can even build upon each other as the writer reflects on how his or her world is taking shape.

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