(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 26 January 2020.)
While going through my old browser bookmarks, I found a write-up on worldbuilding from many years ago. It's a very detailed checklist, reason enough to keep it around for all this time; but as it turns out, the advice contained within has aged badly.
At first I wanted to write a critique of the original text, but there's too much negativity in this world already, and after so much time, what's the point? So instead let me use it as the jumping point for some fresh, up to date thoughts.
(By the way, while the original is about tabletop games, most of the same techniques apply just as well to static fiction.)
First of all, conflict is an unfortunate reality, that occurs when individuals and factions with opposing goals meet. In real life, we do our best to avoid it, because it only ever brings waste and suffering. It doesn't "spice things up", it makes everything bitter. Treat conflict the same way in fiction, out of respect for all the people who are hurting somewhere right now.
For that matter, dare to imagine a world where people are tolerant of their respective differences. We need that kind of vision. And forget realism. The genre is called fantasy. If you can more easily imagine flying mountains than tolerant people, have a mirror.
Second, too many adjectives cheapen the text. Luckily, you need fewer than you might think. Consider:
The ocean stretched in front of the travelers, all the way to a horizon shrouded in haze.
Look, ma, no adjectives! Yet it could be an epic opening line for a story.
That said, don't avoid adjectives either, like other writers wrongly recommend. Just one, well-placed, can change your text dramatically. Contrast:
The ocean stretched in front of the travelers, all the way to a horizon lined with dark clouds.
This is why I love the craft of writing. Long fancy words matter much less.
So yes, don't lean on the writing. Make the world exciting instead. How? Look around you, dammit! There's so much color and strangeness just in the reality we inhabit that we've been taught to think of as banal. And for that, learn about the real world! Geography isn't about knowing by heart the tallest peaks in South America; rather, learn what kind of people live there and how they've managed to survive for thousands of years. You'll find them more fascinating than most fantasy races.
Conversely, the Standard Fantasy Setting exists for a reason. Don't try to make your fantasy races different for the sake of "being original". By the time you're done explaining how your totally-not-elves aren't like Legolas or Drizzt Do'Urden, your readers will be long asleep.
Nobody cares. Common fantasy races are shortcuts: save your virtual breath and get to the point. You can bring up any relevant differences as needed.
Last but not least, while pointy ears are just dressing, people matter. Pretty rocks only testify of someone's dreams, hopes and hard work. If alien explorers a million years from now find the rusty print of the Eiffel Tower encased in rock, the first question they'll ask will be, what kind of people built it? What is their story? Yes, their story, not the tower's. Though engineers used to moving planets might wonder what it would have taken to build something so far above the state of the art at the time, much like we used to wonder about the Great Pyramid a century or two ago.
So focus on the people. As I've said before, if you succeed in making the reader care about your characters, it won't matter if they are peasants in a medieval village, or kings in a palace. Their world will become interesting by extension.
And because I mentioned the all-important reader: leave room for the audience to self-insert into the story. Yes, even if you're writing a novel as opposed to a game to be played. Leave unanswered questions; your characters aren't all-knowing about their own world, so why would the author be? Or do you fancy yourself some sort of god?
Be humble. Your own imagination can't possibly measure up to that of all your potential fans working together. So nurture them and their creativity.
After all, if you were writing for yourself, why bother putting your work out there for others to read?