If you’re a fantasy fan, or simply appreciate a well-crafted story, you should know the name Patrick Rothfuss.The Ferrets and I had the good fortune to meet him in person at the OWFI conference this year.
I followed my personal writing credo: Ask interesting people crazy questions. You never know what will happen.
Rothfuss answered many questions on world building. He was such a good sport he even agreed to take a photo with us in the elevator.
If you’re a writer, a DM, or a builder of worlds by pen or pixel, you would do well to heed his advice.
Q: Where do you start with world building?
I can give you lots of rules of thumb. There’s no should; there’s just what works for individual people. If it works, then you have succeeded.
I do secondary world creation, which is what Tolkien did: create a different world, then tell a story in it. But even if you write in our world, you’re still creating a particular world for your particular story.
World building has two parts. One is the actual creation. The other is bringing the world into your story. Everything you create should not be in your story.
The impulse is to say “Before we start: The earth cooled…” and we’ll go forward from there.
You will create parts of your world–coinage, magic, religion, sexual deviancy–that you’re especially proud of. And because you made it, you want to tell someone about it, because we are storytelling creatures.
But most of your world building should not show up in your story. I encourage you to really ride the brake.
Rule of thumb: 10 percent of what you know should be in your story. For me, it’s about 4 percent.
Q: What are your world building strategies?
There are two strategies for world building. Two ends of the spectrum. One is obsessive over-creation, and the other is set-building.
I’m on the obsessive end. World building is my hobby as much as building model trains might be someone else’s. Luckily my hobby dovetails into my profession, which is writing.
A hobby is something you do because you love it, not for professional or monetary gain. People pour time and energy into their hobbies above and beyond what is entirely sane.
Tolkien is a great example. We are all in Grandaddy Tolkien’s shadow. He was the first big fantasy thing to happen. He was a linguist; he was that flavor of geek.
I’m not a linguist. I’m just a dabbler; I fake it up as well as I can. I don’t get English grammar, let alone being able to make up another language. Instead I’m an anthropology, religion, psychology, and sociology geek. So I create those things for my world in the same way Tolkien built languages.
This style of world building gives a grittiness, a gravitas to your books. Whereas sometimes you read a book that feels tissue paper thin.
The downside is mine takes a ton of time.
You don’t have to spend 1,000 hours writing your world. The other end of the spectrum is that you’re banging together a movie set. Hammer some plywood together, throw some paint on it, and bang! There’s a city.
Your world building might be, “There’s a dragon, and we’ve got wizards and shit.”
Q: Where do you begin your world building?
It’s a spiral into madness. I think, “He’s going to need to spend some time in a really big city. Industrial revolution Londonish.”
Where do big cities happen? At a confluence of trade routes. That’s influenced by rivers.
Where do rivers come from? There’s aquifers and stuff.
I ask these questions. I go “Why, why, why, why, why?”
You should have a good idea about the cultural differences between your world and the world you’re living in.
It’s much harder to write about the real world. If you write about France, people have been to France, or read about it. I know all of you have not been to my world.
Q: How do you reveal your world to the reader?
As you’re writing, you know your reader needs to know certain things. You might want to tell someone about this cool religion or system that you’re created. But there are certain things readers need to know for the story to make sense.
The temptation is to put it in the beginning, and get it out of the way. But it’s the worst option.
My advice is to withhold information from the reader. Because if you tease with a little information early on, they’ll get curious. And if I can get them to go “How does this work?” and lean in a little bit, then I’ve won.
Then I’m going to not tell them. Then when I give them info in a couple chapters, they’re excited to get the information. If I gave it to them at the first, they’d be like “Shut up!”
Q: How do you organize your story building?
I have a rough atlas, I take notes, and I think about things. I don’t keep formal notes. I don’t have a checklist for creating a country.
Mostly because I’m not an organized person and the thought of having a checklist horrifies me.
Q: What’s the best/worst way to reveal world building?
Don’t have someone go “I’ve been wondering about dragons…” and another character vomits up a 20,000 word paragraph about how it works. The lecture-dissemination method is awful.
I like to have people argue about something. It’s happening in dialogue; it’s more interesting, more dynamic. You can start an argument between two characters about whether dragons are real or not real.
It’ll take more time, more words, more work. But hopefully at the end of the chapter, you know something about the world: one culture thinks this, another thinks that, and these two guys really hate each other.
Q: What’s your favorite bit of world building you haven’t used?
An elaborate currency system tied into the roots of the cultural development of this particular part of the world.
It’s a truly organic, old UK-style money: 20 pennies in a shilling, 3 pennies in a groat. You look at the conversions and think, “How did this ever happen?”
That ties into the feudal roots of this area, this whole vastly different country… and no one even goes there in the story.
Q: How do you know what to keep and what to cut?
Story is the king. If what you are doing is not in service of the story, you have failed.
They say in romance, if you can tell the point where the writer started to touch themselves, then they’ve gone too far.
That is also true of world building. If you stop doing it in service of the story and start trying to please yourself, you’ve gone too far.
That’s all for now folks!
Thank you Patrick for taking the time to chat! If you guys enjoyed reading this, take a minute to support his mission to make the real world a better place.