Worlbuilding – Epic vs. Simplistic?

First off, I daresay that whether to go with a vast and epic world in contrast to a rather simplistic setting is totally a matter of taste. Secondly, tastes like so many other things are liable to change. Thirdly, personally as an author I hate worldbuilding just for the sake of worldbuilding. Honestly. It’s dull, it makes things complicated and I mostly catch myself forgetting some totally inconsequential detail and it just bugs me.

Okay. Having said that, I’d definitely say that all three of the reasons mentioned above have resulted in the following kind of worldbuilding for Light:

Pretty much everything happens within one city. The world of the Empire of Light pretty much focus on itself and the City of Helos as its core. In fact, I’m not even sure if I’ll ever leave this godsdamn city to explore the country of Illyria beyond what characters know about it from their backgrounds etc. There are/may be some tangents that I’m including, but the main setting is really clearly-cut

There are no other non-human races. Nope. No fairies/trolls/orks or other mysterious (im-)mortal races of any kind.

Pretty much all of the plot is seen through two first-person PoV’s. No multiple characters that spend ages finding each other/building up a relationship etc. Ares and Damian start out together and their plotlines definitely diverge, but they remain pretty much close together.

Religion is a mix. Officially it’s a monotheistic supremacy over the rest of the ‘lesser gods’ so to say. This is sort of an element taken from more epic concepts, but I won’t spend pages over pages dwelling on it, trying to bludgeon my readers to death with creation myths (I’m personally really not a fan of vast tangents on creation myths, though there are novels like Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series with really good concepts, as a writer, it’s really not my thing and after some kind of trial&error process, I decided to stay the heck away from creation myths :p )

The setting is urban with a good dosage of medieval backlash. Light is set in a post-apocalyptic, urban fantasy world with modern technology, guns and even spaceships (though space travel never really worked out). Still, the Empire of Light has its medieval streaks despite its modern outset. It’s basically a faschist monarchy that still hangs its traitors, the Eye reigns from a palace in the center of the city, power is mostly inherited… you get the idea.

Generally, it’s been interesting how the ‘world’ Light is set in has changed over the course of two years. Back in 2006, the zero-draft consisted of some chapters set in close to the same kind of world that I ended up using now, though a tad more futuristic and rather reminiscent of The Matrix. It never really went anywhere, because neither setting nor the character cast of multiple third person PoV’s nor the initial rush of ideas worked out in a consistent plotline. Then in 2007 I changed it all over: One first person PoV, narrating the story set in a pretty much traditional medieval fantasy setting. The result was some sort of mix of Lies of Locke Lamora jumbled up with The Name of the Wind and Wheel of Time – and made out nearly half of my first draft until I finally figured out exactly how much and what I was doing wrong and we ended up with the setting and PoV’s mentioned above. With the second draft, I added Damian as second first-person PoV.  Even though some people initially yelled at me for my utter butchery of the concept of a first-person narrator, telling me what what I was doing defiled all rules of nice and shiny PoV logic, most of them ended up liking that approach and I’m personally having a lot of fun and new and shiny plot-propelling ideas with it.

On the aspect of taste, my own reading tastes of course totally influence my writing and those have changed pretty drastically since when I first picked up epic fantasies like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time etc. I don’t say that I don’t like an epic setting, I definitely appreciate intricate worldbuilding as long as it doesn’t bog down the plot and keep things moving. Excessive worldbuilding that makes books thick enough to bludgeon you to death with while the plot starts diverging into all directions while they lose themselves in insignificant details really make me want to throw the book to the room and I tend to start skimming to catch the interesting sections. Can I just say that I’m not a great fan of Tolkien et alia? An endless list of races, their backgrounds, describing everyone and their dog paired with vast lengths of travelogue just doesn’t do it for me – I prefer a mix there and would like my backstory fed to me in little bits instead of great, big infodumps, but I guess I’m not alone here, am I? 😉

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5 Responses to “Worlbuilding – Epic vs. Simplistic?”

  1. elizaw Says:

    I’d call it micro-building instead of macro, but then I’m a dork like that. 🙂

    Limiting your scope to just the one city looks like a great way to go. Frankly, that’s the problem with world building; it will eat you if you let it get too big. Better to have a smaller, but fully realized setting than a giant one that turns into ‘lessons about this imaginary place 102’.

  2. nymeria87 Says:

    Seconded 😀

    I’m honestly not quite sure where it’ll take me setting-wise in book 2 and 3, there might the the one or other tangent when my characters actually leave Helos and its immediate surroundings, but that’s really vague right now since I tend to use only rough outlines.

    Still, there are a lot of fun things you can do even with a condensed setting and like you said, I hope to make it as fully-fleshed out and detailed as possible 🙂

  3. Nils Says:

    I build worlds for the sake of building worlds, so I never worry about too much detail. But if you use them as the setting for a story/novel, then world building should be a tool, and not the primary purpose. I never liked Tolkien much, myself (The Hobbit was fine, LoTR bored me to death). On the other hand there are some worlds I couldn’t get enough of. Barsoom, Riverworld, and Ringworld are some quick examples.

    I agree that you should focus on the “points of interest”, but you’ll still want to have a good idea of how your city (in this case) interacts with the nation, world, other cities, etc. And the earlier you get that kind of thing settled, the less likely you are to make continuity or logical errors.

  4. nymeria87 Says:

    I totally agree with you on worldbuilding being one of the many tools a writer uses and I guess that’s why I like to take some time to focus on interrelations of setting, history, religon etc. with plot and characters. Often enough it’s just something that comes up spontaneously, but with Light it’s been a process and the general ‘frame’ for the worldbuilding has been existing for quite a while so what I’m trying to do now is work out some details that I’ve left aside before.

  5. world building showcase, part i « tales of a fantasy scribbler Says:

    […] Nymeria wrote an article about epic versus simplistic worldbuilding. […]


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