Good Enough: How to Know When You’re Done
One day you woke up, sat down with paper and pencil or typewriter or computer, and words began appearing on paper or screen. An Earth-like world, because that’s what you knew. Set at a time far ahead of now, 2500 AD. But now you have questions you can’t answer on your own:
· How would general society evolve if personal fusion reactors became a common thing?
· What current theoretical technology could be used in a future time to allow the existence of a flying city?
· Why would people choose to live in a flying city despite the inherent hazards associated with altitude?
So you did some searching online and found yourself at this weird little site full of people who could provide insight to your problems. You joined, asked your questions, and waited for feedback. It came, you incorporated and adapted, adjusting things that didn’t quite work as you first envisioned, and you were off.
Congratulations. You’re a Worldbuilder. You’ve taken your first steps towards a beautiful product, the culmination of your ideas and dreams. Every time you ask a question to your favorite community, your world gets a little bigger and a little more real. Six months later, the bill arrives for a $3,000 USD, custom-made table to help you model the drainage basin for your coastal cities and you suddenly realize just how crazed you’ve become over your world.
When did it go wrong? When should you have stopped?
There are two likely causes of this problem. Either you set a plan and failed to stick to it, or you didn’t set a plan at all. Just like a military should have a battle plan that details the final objective before stepping into a war, so too should a worldbuilder have a plan going into his/her new project.
Take for example Carl, a world-renowned novelist who needs to produce an 80,000-word novel for a new world called Oskeron in four months. He doesn’t have time to describe all five continents, or even the eleven countries on Burmilieda. He can, however, describe the country of Nosta, where his story will be largely set and jot down some notes about the surrounding countries. He can then focus on laying out a simple geography of the region, describe in brief the political scene, jot down a few notes about history, and do some other high-level description. So he spends a few days to lay out the basics and jumps into his writing.
On the other hand, Judy is working on a world called Oskeron for her local gaming group. She has all the time in the world and plans to take time to provide a detailed world for her players to explore. However, she knows the game they play doesn’t really care about being true to physics, so she decides to mostly skip over how the world came to be and just go with what makes for good settings. She lays out the geography she wants, describes major cities and roadways, jots down some major players in the world, works out a robust history, and otherwise defines the game-level environment.
Both of these worldbuilders have a plan going into their project. Carl needs a quick view of Oskeron, while Judy will provide a detailed look that’s specifically targeted at a select group of people she is familiar with.
So what is an end goal? How do you define it and know when you’ve reached it?
Whether you’re starting a new project and want to know when you’ve reached the end, are hard at work and want to ensure you haven’t gone too far, or are just winging every moment of development, here are 5 questions that will be major factors in determining what defines the conclusion of your masterpiece.
What is the purpose of my world?
Are you building your world for the setting of a tabletop game? Do you need to know a magic system for a software game? Are your main characters lacking a connection to the history that everyone around them seems to know? The purpose for which you are creating your world will determine just how much of it your audience will see. For example, while a novel might mention a country on the far side of the world, the characters are unlikely to venture there.
Who is my intended audience?
Are you writing a novel that’s heavy on calculations and formulae and scientific laws? Is your magic-heavy computer game aimed towards 9-year-olds? Your intended audience will determine how stringent you need to define your physical and magical laws, or whether you need to define them at all.
How much does my audience need to know?
You’ve placed your Earth-like world in a system with six other planets and a yellow star. Does your audience need to know the star’s temperature and size or the distance from it to your world? Do they need to know how long a planetary rotation or revolution is? Planet density? Radius? Average surface temperature? Percentage of surface water? The number of chromosomes in a certain species? If your purpose is local to the planet, most of this is unlikely to be needed by your audience, but it may behoove you to define the solar system-level details for a space opera. If you find yourself working out the flow density at high tide of the Gagnes River that has a high tide discharge of 83,000 m^3/s through a 10-meter-wide channel for a picture book intended for 5-year-olds, you’ve gone too far.
If I add more, does my world suffer?
You’ve defined a laid back magic system that lets you get away with most things and has few rules. Nowhere have you revealed calculations about surface temperature or planet revolution. Cities are a loose product of a simple timeline. However, you’re working on describing how an out-of-the-way shrine to a less-than-prominent deity came to exist outside a town you haven’t even bothered to name. The level of detail given to this one piece of your world stands in stark contrast to the more prominent parts of your world and may overshadow what you want people to see.
Am I only adding something because I like the idea?
Over the past few months, you’ve poured 50 hours into crafting your Earth-like world. During a break, you were browsing the Internet and came across a forum where other people were discussing something you liked. You liked it so much, in fact, that you wanted to adapt it to your world. As you begin to introduce it, you notice that some things about your work need to change to allow it, so you make a few tweaks, but that has a rippling effect and soon you find yourself rewriting huge swaths of your world to incorporate a concept that wasn’t even yours to begin with.
As you start a new project or continue working on an existing one, keep these questions in the back of your head. Review a piece you’re currently working on to ensure it fits the style and intent of the rest of your world. You can build a plan for your worldbuilding or not, it’s your choice. And, ultimately, when your world is done is entirely up to you.
Just remember that, more often than not, “Good enough” is good enough, but there’s nothing wrong with coming back later with a fresh perspective to add a little more detail.