Worldbuilding can be a crucial aspect of storytelling and can make or break a reader's experience. Whether you're creating a fictional universe for a role-playing game or writing a novel, it's important to prioritize well and avoid common pitfalls. Here are five of them that I think are the most important:
- Overcomplicating the world.
- Ignoring internal consistency.
- Stealing (and not stealing!) from other worlds.
- Failing to consider technology.
- Failing to consider history.
While it's tempting to add every intricate detail to your world at the start, too much information can quickly become overwhelming for the reader. Stick to the essentials and let the world expand organically as needed. Crafting an intricate fictional place is a fun and stimulating challenge, but it can quickly drift into procrastination and a sort of "Narcissus staring deep into his reflection, except it's his fictional world with 420 sub-species of elves and no interesting story to be found."
Imagine a world with 20 different species of intelligent creatures, each with its own unique abilities, cultures, and languages. How are you going to realistically manage 20 x 20 = 400 potential faction relationships? While it might seem like a rich and diverse world, the sheer amount of information can quickly become overwhelming for both the writer and the reader. Yes, our real world has tens of thousands of cultures and languages... Your world doesn't need that to be realistic. Your world is a vessel for your characters to live in and act out stories. If you want to simulate a full sub-reality, consider learning some programming instead.
If you're just worldbuilding for you, then sure! Go nuts! Do what you want! But if you intend to have players or readers, keep their perspective and capacity in mind too. The most popular worlds in pop culture grew from a small seed, usually starting with a single story, not a 1000-page wiki. That wiki is earned over time!
Ignoring internal consistency.
Make sure the rules and laws of your world are consistent and logically flow from one another. Inconsistencies can detract from the credibility of your world and pull the reader out of the story. You don't have to be perfect, and you won't be, but a little note-taking and constraint-setting goes a long way when it comes to keeping the suspension of disbelief.
Imagine a world where magic can be used to solve any problem. However, the rules for how magic works are never fully explained or are inconsistent throughout the story. This can work just fine depending on the vibe, but if you're using soft magic as a Deus Ex Machina all the time, this can lead to confusion and frustration for the reader. They won't feel like there's any stakes--Limitations, constraints, and tradeoffs are what breath life into narrative elements and make things interesting. You need to remember and stick to those constraints if you want to make a compelling setting.
Copying or not copying other worlds.
While it's natural to draw inspiration from other worlds, it's important to make sure your world is unique and original. Copying overused elements from other works can make your world feel drab. At the same time, the adage "great artists steal" holds some truth: drawing on familiar themes, works, and tropes can be a useful tool for building a world that resonates with readers. The key is to strike a balance between drawing on what's familiar and creating something original.
Imagine a world that is a direct copy of Middle-earth from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (surely no one would do that, right!?). While it's an easy worldbuilding shortcut, this lack of originality can lead to a stale and uninspired world that fails to capture the reader's imagination. They've already seen it a million times; they tuned you out the moment they read "elves and dwarves."
On the other hand, imagine a world that takes inspiration from Aztec myth or the roaring 20's. There's a sweet spot between intrigue and familiarity--a twilight zone where your world speaks to both parts of your reader's brain: the squishy frontal lobe where all that humanity is, and the lizard brain in the back that likes sugar and is scared of the dark. Tropes can create a world that feels familiar, but still captures the reader's curiosity of the unknown. This is the trick authors throughout history have used over and over, Tolkien included.
Failing to consider the impact of technology.
Technology has a major impact on a world's development and should be considered carefully when building your world. Be sure to think about how advancements in technology would affect politics, economics, and society. Your world might have alternate physics or an insane discovery that changes everything--If you bite off more than you can chew here, you'll easily start violating Rule #2 as your creation spins out of your control. The technology becomes no more than unconstrained soft magic.
Example: Imagine a world where transportation technology has advanced to the point where teleportation is possible. Surely no author has added teleportation and then completely disregarded it later... Right? The truth is, a world with teleportation would look NOTHING like what our world looks like today. It might even be unrecognizable to our dimensionally-constrained minds. All that to say... Tread carefully.
Failing to consider the impact of history.
The events and conflicts of a world's past can greatly shape its present and future. Be sure to think about how these events would impact the people, politics, and geography of your world. At the very least, throw down a sketchy timeline so you can visualize some cause and effect throughout your world's chronology. Don't go so deep you do pitfall #1--just enough to be believable. Your viewers will fill in the gaps with their imagination.
Example: Imagine a world that has been torn apart by a massive war. However, the writer fails to consider how this conflict would shape geography, how characters might view factions on either sides of the war, how characters would be impacted by loss, etc. The war becomes a "cool" movie set piece, instead of what it really is: a devastating socio-geo-political humanitarian crisis that upends the lives of millions, and in turn creates the needs and wants that drive the narratives in your setting.
Honestly, worldbuilding is a massive topic that covers... I think every discipline on the planet. That's why it's so fun! However, the same aspects that make it fun can make it a huge timesink. We forget to breathe life into what makes people connect with our worlds: complex characters in compelling situations.
By avoiding these common worldbuilding pitfalls, you can create a believable and immersive world for your readers, while still telling a good story. Remember to focus on the essentials, maintain internal consistency, strike a balance between drawing from familiar sources and being original, consider the impact of technology and history, and keep your world simple enough to understand without overwhelming the reader. Do this, and you can create stories that captivate and inspire your audience. Happy worldbuilding!