When worldbuilding for a fantasy or sci-fi story, one of the biggest dangers is getting caught up in the details, creating more and more minutiae about your world, and never getting to the actual writing of the story. Or, if you do manage to write, there’s a risk of trying to cram in as many worldbuilding details as possible and swamping the reader with fascinating but irrelevant information.
Many people advise that you avoid this problem by only worldbuilding the aspects of the world that are actually relevant to your plot. But this in turn can create the opposite problem: a narrow world, where the characters’ hometown or native land feels isolated, as if nothing else exists in the world around it. So how do you find the middle ground, where a world feels fully realized but not overly detailed?
This is a question I’ve been struggling with for years, but I think I’ve finally found the middle ground that works for me, along with a phrase to help describe my view on the matter: the best worldbuilding sketches the unseen.
There are two ideas in this phrase: first, the idea of worldbuilding as a form of sketching, as opposed to a complete and detailed image. Just like you wouldn’t want a portrait painting where the background is so detailed that it distracts from the subject’s face, you don’t want a story where the background information is so layered and complex that it distracts from the plot and characters. You should think about the whole world, not only the immediately relevant places, but most of the world should merely be sketched in, with just enough detail to reveal the general shape of things.
This will actually make your world seem more realistic rather than less, since this is how most people see the world around them. You meet a few rare people who might as well be Wikipedia with legs, but most people are intimately familiar with one area of life and only generally aware of places, peoples, and areas of study beyond their expertise. Thus, sketchy worldbuilding also becomes a form of character building. For example, if your character owns a tavern, she probably doesn’t know much about politics between nations, but she knows very well that imported wines are more expensive recently. From her point of view, the political situation is just some sort of complicated squabble happening far above her social tier and making her life harder — you can still give the reader a clear sense that there’s a bigger world with a complex political system and ongoing problems, but the scraps of information you reveal say as much about the character’s knowledge and values as about the world.
This leads to the second point, the idea of the unseen. One of the most powerful techniques of good writing is the ability to make the reader feel that they know or understand something without needing to spell it out. In the context of worldbuilding, this means giving the reader just enough information about the surrounding world that they feel aware of it even though they’ve never seen it. If your main character is never going to visit the far-off kingdom of Blob, the reader doesn’t need to know a ton of details about Blob’s political structure, education system, and unique flora. But drop an occasional comment about those crazy Blobians who think men are cool-headed enough to rule a country — oh, and did you hear the Blobian mage-colleges are competing to create an enchanted weed-killer to get rid of undead dandelions? — and the reader will feel like Blob is a real place somewhere beyond the border, never fully realized or clearly seen, but always there in the distance.
Different writing styles and different types of stories will require more or fewer background details, of course, but I think this idea of sketching the unseen is still valuable no matter what kind of story you’re telling. Lavish worldbuilding details have their place, but only in a context where the main character actually knows or cares a great deal about those details. Most of the time, sketchy glimpses of the world are more effective than piles of facts, both in terms of engaging the reader and developing the character and plot.