The short and unsatisfying answer is it depends.
If you’ve ever written a fantasy or sci-fi novel, you know that how much worldbuilding you need can vary wildly depending on the complexity of the world and the story you’re telling. And chances are you may have heard the term Worldbuilder’s Disease thrown around here or there. It’s a devastating illness, that can come about suddenly and cut down unsuspecting ideas and manuscripts.
Maybe I’m being a little dramatic. But it is a potential pitfall when you’re worldbuilding, and it can be a big threat to your productivity and your motivation.
So what is it?
Worldbuilder’s Disease is what you call someone who spends all of their time building a world to the point where they ignore or even forget about the story that started it all. You get stuck in this fun, idea-driven exploration of your fantasy world, and get wrapped up in all the little details. Many of which won’t actually be that relevant but it’s still fun to play with these new ideas. Put simply, it’s too much worldbuilding.
It’s a hole that’s so easy to fall in. Building a world is a massive undertaking, and if you’ve read my worldbuilding philosophy you know how highly I regard worldbuilding as part of the outlining process – you have to have a believably built world for the characters and their motivations to be compelling.
Take a look at Game of Thrones – Westeros is fictional and the Iron Throne is not a realthing, but how many people are invested in this final season to see who finally gets to sit on it? That’s good worldbuilding right there. Westeros has a complicated history and lore, and it keeps the audience engaged. It informs all of the characters and their relationships with each other and everything that happens is far more compelling as a result.
You get where I’m going with this. Worldbuilding is important and it’s obvious to understand that, but it’s not obvious where to stop. Because there is no stopping point. You can create indefinitely, and that’s both the fun and what makes it potentially dangerous.
Of course if you’re not writing a story and just worldbuilding for fun, then there really isn’t a limit to what you want to work on. This is more a warning for the writer’s out there, especially the newbies who might get sucked into the lure and appeal of creating a map or a world bible and the like.
When I first became serious about writing, I was SO inspired and excited and I spent all of my free time developing these fictional worlds I would eventually use to tell stories. One in particular I spent the better part of five years building, and in that span of time I did next to no writing. Eventually I figured out I was far too obsessed with the world, so I pulled back and tried to write a story but I was overwhelmed by my own worldbuilding, so the final product was all over the place. I didn’t want to risk falling into the pit again, so I had no choice but to shelve it. It’ll surprise no one that anything I started in this period of time never made it past the first draft, if the first draft was completed at all.
And it kept happening. It wasn’t until I took a step back and thought about my process that I found a method that worked better for me. And that was not filling out a lengthy questionnaire. As fun as that can be, I’m pretty sure that makes you more likely to get the Disease™. The method is fairly simple – sift through the fluff to find the most important elements of your world. That will be your foundation, and I build from there, keeping those core influences in mind. As long as I remember those, it makes it easier to improvise in the middle of a draft.
Sound like something you might want to try it out? Well it just so happens I wrote a post explaining this method with a bit more detail and a worksheet to go along with it:
Now that I’m editing, in fact, I’m going back again to the basics of my worldbuilding with a better idea of what the characters are like and what the story is about. I can go in and develop the world more faithfully than I could have when I was just in the planning stages. That used to be a big fear of mine – that I didn’t know enough. I needed to know more to be able to write, when the truth is that you don’t. It’s a first draft for a reason. It can change. Don’t be afraid to write without having all the answers.
So how do you avoid falling into this trap?
There isn’t an easy answer for this. As much as necessary is honest but unhelpful. I’d start with as much worldbuilding as you need to inform character backstory and explain why the conflict matters and how the world works. Even if its very simple. Stick to a paragraph. You have 500 words to explain this concept and why it matters. And then move on, regardless of how rough it may be.
And I think that’s the key – keep it rough. Let the story change the worldbuilding and don’t force the story to fit the world. Keep some paper or a notebook handy to scribble notes and ideas if you feel the temptation while you’re drafting. You can always go back to worldbuilding afterwards, and these notes will give you a great place to start.
If your a plotter like I am, use your outline as a guide for how much worldbuilding to do. Do the conflicts make sense? Where can you flesh out the world to support them a little more? If you need to do research I would limit it to the bare minimum, or leave it to the end if you can. Research is another one of those big pitfalls, especially if you’re writing science fiction or a historical fantasy. You can always fact check and edit AFTER the draft is done.
Worldbuilding is SO much fun, and that’s the biggest problem. It can feel like work, fun work mind you, and it can give you that illusion that you are being productive when you’re really not.
In the end, like literally everything that is creative, you need to find what works for you. Maybe you need a little more worldbuilding than most to start writing. Maybe you don’t need any. Think of this post as a warning with a bit of helpful advice to keep in mind as you figure it out. And of course, happy worldbuilding!
Got Any Advice?
Have you suffered from the Disease™ before? What did you do to get yourself back on track? Do you have any hard and fast rules to keep yourself on track? Let me know down below?