(Stands up, taps microphone, and says “Hi, I’m Crane Hana, and I’m addicted to world building.” Nine or ten other frazzled patients respond, “Hi, Crane.”)
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, here’s why I am addicted.
First off, maps. Maps are wicked cool. They’ve had a bad rap in fantasy publishing recently, because they’ve been associated with interminable high-fantasy epics. They can even seem to be a publisher’s marketing band-aid, skirting wooden prose and banal plots with ‘Hey, look at our really amazing and detailed map! Come play in our world!’
But for writers, maps can be essential. They show us climate zones, realistic travel distances, and geopolitical boundaries. They give a sense of place and order to sprawling stories with thousands or millions of characters. (WarCrack, I’m raising a tankard to ya.)
And they’re fun to make, even if one is not a trained cartographer. There’s a little bit of love for pirate treasure maps in most of us. Go here to the Hand Drawn Map Association to see how some creative folks are using maps to tell stories and make art: http://www.handmaps.org/
In 1983 I doodled a map for a D&D campaign. I liked the map above more than the campaign, and gradually a universe coalesced around it. That part of my little universe looks almost nothing like it, anymore.
Making maps feeds into the human tendency to find meaning and order. Our oldest myths and newest scientific hypotheses all attempt to explain fundamental principles behind the chaos of perceived reality. When a writer either stumbles into a new imaginary setting – or deliberately sets out to create one – they’re doing nothing less than creating a new universe. Within the narrow margins of a writer’s words, it can seem very real. No wonder many religious faiths have been suspicious of fictional worlds!
World building can be a hobby without any need for outside influence or validation. J.R. R. Tolkien is only one example familiar to many readers. Islandia is a classic utopian novel by legal scholar Austin Tappan Wright, who worked on a 2300-page manuscript and supporting material up to his early death in 1931. His family published an edited form eleven years later. Henry Darger was a reclusive janitor whose creativity was channeled into In the Realms of the Unreal, his bizarrely illustrated, sexually-charged 15,145 page fantasy chronicle of a family of heroic young girls who fight evil. The volumes of Realms were unknown until they were discovered after his death, and are cited as some of the most important ‘Outsider Art’ of the 20th Century.
Like a Mandelbrot set of fractal patterns, universe-building can fold in upon itself with ever-increasing detail, often without completing anything like a coherent, traditional story. Other addicts liken it to real-world historic research or journalism: the need to fill gaps, to explain cause and effect, to explore an essentially unknowable Terra Incognita.
But what comes first, the map or the story? How do each change in response to the other? Deeply imagined world building can take an absurd amount of time, often years, a good chunk of that million words of crap that most writers are supposed to hammer out before they are ‘discovered’. And world building is never really complete, even from the most-detailed of wonks. Today, many genre writers have strict publishing schedules, plus the financial imperative to ‘build a backlist and build it NOW’. They’re not interested in the ancient history of their imaginary setting, only how bits of it interact with a well-told, fast-paced story. Too much world building can be a deterrent to readers, who might just skip all that backstory if it gets in the way. It can be abused, and often is by newer writers; editors and agents beg for great world building, not info-dumps.
The ease of digital self-publishing may also be part of the change. With the difficulty of getting past literary agents and publishers, writers once gave themselves the luxury of isolated development and revision before they submitted anything. Now, it seems like books are being rushed to publication long before they’re ready, before their creators have really thought out the interactions of setting and character.
Finally, there is the ghost of doubt that must have haunted Tolkien, Wright, Darger, and so many others: ‘What if no one likes this but me?’ As a member of several very large online writers’ forums, I see posts from people who are so terrified of criticism that they’re afraid to submit their work anywhere. While their map and their universe belongs only to them, it can be their secret treasure. It will never be mocked, dissected, or dismissed in the public sphere.
But it may never strike a spark of interest or recognition in another human being. I’m happy sharing my silly old map. It is the bedrock of 29 real-time years, 120,000 years of imagined history, a cosmology, two published short stories, and one published novel. It has ensured that I have far more than a million words of crap to spin into gold, if my skill can ever match my imagination.