You are hungry, but there is a bakery near your place, so you go up and leave your home [you are a ratman, and you live in the sewers], following that delicious smell.
“Hello, Mr. Ratman,” says the fine lady behind the counter. “May I help you?”
You can choose one of these answers:
a) Just ask for a classic butter croissant.
b) Ask for the same croissant, and explain to her why you like them so much, perhaps illustrating the point with a humorous or beautiful short story about your croissant-filled past. It’s a small town (but with big sewers!), though, so people don’t mind a bit of small talk.
c) Ask for the croissant, and then go rambling for half an hour about its origins during the Siege of Vienna, and about all the European kings who have ever suffered from lactose intolerance.
A) is the writer who simply doesn’t believe that scene has much to do with what truly matters in the story. B) is someone who uses that mundane scene to explain something relevant about the character and the world in which he lives. C) are the worldbuilders, the writers who
want have to tell you all about the fictional world they have created, even if it has nothing to do with the character and what he is doing right there. In other words, it’s those writers who understand the setting as if it were another character or, in fact, the most important one.
Worldbuilding seems like a contemporary phenomenon, and I’m quite certain we can pinpoint its origins on Tolkien. The difference, of course, is that Tolkien spent an inordinate amount of time (30 years?) building that fictional world, with its cultures, languages, and encyclopedic historiographies, so the result was a quite coherent whole.
Some writers had created something close to a fictional, second-world universe before, but nothing quite like that. R. E. Howard would be an example, but the world he created is nothing more than what the readers have been able to deduce from the short stories and the shared themes and references between them. It’s almost an exercise in fictional archaeology, which makes it (I believe) much more exciting and mysterious than just reading an encyclopedia about a fictional world, which is what some contemporary novels seem to aspire to.
It’s also ironic that worldbuilding has become such a prominent feature of fantasy and science fiction since it undermines the charm of both genres. Fantastic fiction is about the discovering not the discovered, and if everything is already discovered, like a museum artifact, a great deal of that awe and wonder of exploring a mysterious place disappears. To a certain degree, it’s not unlike the “show, don’t tell” issue. Worldbuilders tell. A lot.
It’s even more ironic because one of the most overused themes in fantasy is the “Chosen One,” and there is a strong tension (if not a contradiction) between worldbuilding and the Chosen One trope. A good worldbuilding tries to create a breathing, apparently real world, with its cultures, conflicts, religions, geography, and so on. Basically, an alternate history in an alternate geography and time. The Chosen One, however, is a universal archetype, and they are all almost the same, and when a Chosen One appears, the “secular” realities of the fictional world become moot compared to the transcendental conflict in which he or she is involved.
Like most things, worldbuilding is not inherently bad, and you can successfully pull it off (and it works quite well in certain mediums like video games.) But it’s not easy, which is why it has many pitfalls that should be avoided unless you are willing to spend years (or even decades) working on them.
But why do so many contemporary writers fall for that? I don’t think I’m being exhaustive, but here are various reasons I believe explain it:
1.Because you can: How expensive is paper? Do you write using a word processor of some kind, perhaps even a grammar corrector? Do you have to start all over again if you make a mistake? Now, try to imagine if Tolkien had tried to write his Middle Earth cosmology during the 5th century BC, when stories were mostly oral (memorized) tradition. Unless he had had an eidetic memory, it would have been an impossible (and meaningless) project.
That is not unlike modern art. Materially speaking, why do artist paint stuff like that on the right? Sure, you can write a long academic paper about modernism, abstract expresionism and its limits, and then rant about whatever philosophical point you want for the next 200 pages, but the material explanation is the simplest one: because paint is dirt cheap. It’s not a coincidence that impressionism (usually considered the first modernist style) started just when synthetic pigments and dyes became mass-produced.
For the first time in history, many people (and not necessarily rich) could buy paint without having to slave for years under the tutelage of an old master. And just like that, the monopoly of the old ateliers and guilds was destroyed.
To a certain degree, the same applies to writing. Do you want to write a 5000-pages 12-volume fantasy saga? Sure, why not, just type and keep typing. There are always word processors, online dictionaries, thesaurus, proofreaders, editors and, if you can’t find a publisher, you just self-publish it on Amazon.
2.Imitating the masters: Even transgressors start imitating someone. Tolkien was the great worldbuilder, so people want to imitate him, directly or (which is more common) indirectly through his many second or third-generation imitators who may have not even read him.
3.Forgetting what a story is all about: You start thinking about your fantasy world and you forget what a book, a short story, or a novel is about: A conflict. There is no conflict in a list of nations, kings, mountains, rivers, and countries. Even if you add a small, background conflict to each of those references, you will end with a Wikipedia-like jumble of mini-stories with little or no connection between themselves or with the protagonist’s inner and external conflicts, the stuff that really drives the plot. On the other hand, if you are playing a game, that’s not a problem if you are not forced to read all that (like a cutscene or huge expositions.) After all, nobody forces you to read all those in-game books in Morrowind.
4.Confusing the creative process with the final, creative product: Let’s be honest, writers are a somewhat egocentric bunch. It’s inevitable, though, because they spent a lot of time inside their heads. Thinking about a fictional world, creating its characters, and to imagine how they look, the cities in which they live, what they sing, and so on, is inherently exciting. It’s a form of mental play, a game you play with yourself. Therefore, many writers end up believing that because they had a good time creating all that stuff, the reader will also enjoy the final product, right? Well… no. The reader does not care about your world unless you can make it somewhat exciting and relevant.
There may be more, but I think these four are the important ones. Now, a little worldbuilding is necessary if you want your reader to believe the characters live in a real, even if nonexistent, world. But there is a difference between insinuating a background world (which is what the pulps did) or building a believable setting, and sperging about all the kings and forests (and how many battles were fought there) of a certain unpronounceable fantasy kingdom. Sure, you may have created the whole lineage and ancestry for Cho’Rizo Ironbreaker, the sausage-eating dwarf of your 10-book saga, but we (the readers) don’t really need to know it.
How to avoid those pitfalls? Well, keep in mind those four points. Remember, the reader did not have months or even years to think about all that stuff. To him all of that is new. Do not forget that the basic unit of a story is the scene, which is a conflict or something setting the scene for future conflicts. For a writer, thinking up stuff (like a huge, wall-of-text kind of prologue) may be fun, especially because he may already know how the story will end and he sees the connection, but the reader doesn’t have access to that classified information. They are like babies who are just discovering the world, but unlike babies, readers don’t find everything inherently fascinating. After all, you are fighting for their attention; they could be reading another book, listening to music, or doing who knows what.
Also, although I don’t want you to write stories as if they were epic poetry to be recited (unless you are into that,) try not to use words as if they were free building blocks and you can put millions of them at no cost. There is such a thing as an economy of words and meaning, and like a building, a story has a certain function -a purpose- and a basic structure.