Sorry, but it’s true!
In the past, for fantasy-related stuff, I’ve done some very extensive back story. In for the first (very terrible) novel I actually had the strength to finish, I probably had DOUBLE the text in back story, histories, short stories, genealogies, timelines, and the like than I did for the novel itself … and that clocked in at 130,000 words. (I’ve since decided that one of the back story tales, existing in a 30,000-word narrative, is far stronger than the actual story I finished. Sigh
I don’t do much of that anymore, for several reasons. One major, MAJOR reason is that it too easily becomes a distraction for me. Rather than sit down and write
, it’s easier to fiddle with all that stuff and justify it to yourself as “working on the story” … and, well, no, after a certain point you’re really not. All you’re doing is AVOIDING WRITING.
Another reason is that I revel in the “exploration” of people and places. Stuff like discovering the scar on the bartender’s head
and that Ted has dreams of dying
is a big part of writing’s joy. It’s little stuff unplanned for, yet it’s also very BIG stuff when it comes to building character. I feel as if that is best “discovered” rather than sketched out beforehand. After all, when you see these things in real people, the observations don’t come at sensible times or in sensible ways. They are totally random and unexpected. I like when that comes across in a story. You then make notes as you “discover” these things and allow yourself to “find” new character traits and ticks and such, all springing from the unexpected groundwork you’ve already laid.
The same can hold true for the worlds these characters inhabit. Sketch them out in too much detail and you may not afford yourself the ability to adapt to new “discoveries.” Run blind, however, and you may find you have no focus. It’s a delicate balancing act.
Of course, fantasy worlds are a unique beast. By and large, fantasy readers demand a rich and detailed world with history and dozens of unpronounceable names and all that other stuff. You can “find” the little things as you go, but the big brush strokes are probably best laid down beforehand – and with some degree of detail, lest inconsistencies creep into the text. If you’re making it up as you go along, I feel as if that comes across. Just don’t stray too far into “naming eight million kings and countries in a big mass of exposition just because you made these names up, so damnit, you’re going to USE them,” as I have. That’s AWFUL! VERY easy trap to fall into. I wish I had learned sooner than just because you made a bunch of shit up doesn’t mean you have to USE it.
When you create the way in which the peoples of your world interact, the political nature of its nations and all that, the only place it NEEDS to be is in the back of your head. That way, it can inform your writing and influence your characters without you, the writer, falling prey to clumsy infodumps. Very amateur mistake, infodumps (I’m still prone to them if I’m not careful), and something that sticks out like a sore thumb in fantasy novels. If you just treat this information like common, everyday knowledge for your fantasy world, it will come across as very natural to the reader, which is huge
for allowing them to suspend disbelief.
That there is my current philosophy. Who knows what I'll say another five years from now?