14.01: Worldbuilding Begins! Up Front, or On the Fly?

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Season 14 is all about worldbuilding¹, and we’re kicking it off with a discussion of when you do that bit of work. Do you handle worldbuilding before you write the story, as you write the story, or after you’ve finished the story? We’ll talk about how we do it, and the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Benjamin Hewett, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

¹ The question of whether this term should be a closed compound (worldbuilding), an open compound (world building), or hyphenated (world-building) is an open one. Our decision to use the closed compound “worldbuilding” in our episode descriptions this year is a matter of personal preference. 


Dan collected these three worldbuilding elements from Brandon, Mary, and Howard. Your job? Work them into a scene.

  1. Red food is taboo
  2. hairstyles are important
  3. Different species/races of sophont who cannot interbreed or share food.

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi, narrated by Wil Wheaton

12 thoughts on “14.01: Worldbuilding Begins! Up Front, or On the Fly?”

  1. I’ve seen so many works of fiction, particularly film and television, that clearly did their worldbuilding “on the fly”, and suffered horrendously for it, that I’m always going to say that at least the framework and “rules” of the world need to be established up front.

    1. From scratch on the fly worldbuilding would be a problem. Personally, I’d say start with a basic idea: This is the gee whiz, this is a cultural aspect or two, and this is a world to put it in. Then you can continue to elaborate it on the fly.
      It also should be noted that most people are there for the characters, not the world. It’s far better to have a bad world with good characters than to have a good world with bad characters.

      1. Tentative agree:
        If I love the story enough to forgive things that try to knock me out of the story, it’s likely going to be the characters I love.

        Ultimately, on-the-fly worldbuilding is a great way to make sure you start writing, AND ensure you have lots of fun editing on your second and third passes.

      2. I sortof agree with this, but I’ve also seen many many instances where the “world” functioned as a character itself. The world a character lives in will impact that character to a significant degree, but in subtle ways that might not be immediately obvious, to either reader or writer. I believe the critical thing is to know how the unique aspects of a world has affected the characters that live in that world. In terms of writing skill, I believe character development and worldbuilding go a bit hand in hand. As someone gets better at developing characters, they will also get better at the contexts they put those characters in.

  2. Can someone explain the Mary vs Mary Robinette? I either am too dumb to comprehend or they alluded to it without fully explaining. Is our host’s first name “Mary Robinette” and we’ve known her as “Mary” this whole time, for simplicity/not fighting that battle, and now she has decided to go by her proper, actual name? Apologies. I searched the Internets but couldnt find the answer.

    Second, on world building, Sean T Collins and Stefan Sasse did a podcast on GRRM’s Fire & Blood and they posed that it could signify a new approach on world building, keep the exposition and world building in volumes outside the main story, and let the novels proper focus on character/plot. Apparently The Expanse does something like this too?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal wishes to be addressed as ‘Mary Robinette.’ It’s not an uncommon name construction in the southeastern United States, and it’s one she used for many years prior to entering spheres in which a larger group of people necessarily had occasion to say her name. Setting aside personal history and the history of the name, the salient point here is that ‘Mary Robinette’ is how Mary Robinette Kowal prefers to be addressed.

    2. Re: “new approach to worldbuilding,” I believe it’s important to make a couple of distinctions up front.
      1) There’s the worldbuilding that gets done by the author, and it’s similar in many ways to outlining, in that none of it appears in the final text.
      2) There’s exposition, in which bits of the story (setting, plot, character, whatever) are laid out for the reader in the text of the story itself. Exposition is where the results of worldbuilding often show up.

      With this in mind, creating companion volumes to describe a setting isn’t a new approach to worldbuilding. It’s a new approach to exposition. Except it’s not all that new. Science fiction has been doing that since around the time I got my first book of deck plans for the Starship Enterprise (if not earlier, obviously).

      The worldbuilding activity hasn’t changed much. We’ve just gotten thorough enough with it that companion volumes are more fun.

  3. Happy New Year! This season, the cheerful foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, tackle setting, also known as worldbuilding. They started with the ever-popular question of whether you should lay it all out beforehand (a.k.a. design, then build) or patch those holes as you go! Or maybe even write, research, and revise? Whether you are worldbuilding upfront, outlining and researching, or patching holes as you go, watch those ripples and ramifications and hang a flag on them if you need to! Lots of interesting discussion that you can read now in the transcript available in the archives and over here:


  4. I love worldbuilding – maybe too much! In my WIP, Nature herself is a character in the story and is felt through the particular (though not magical) empathy of the protagonist with other beings. But this can clearly lead to a lot of exposition. Which is fine as long as said exposition moves the story forward, but it’s tough to always do that. So I hope you fine folks talk a little about these aspects.

  5. I am so glad that this year is all about worldbuilding. As for world building in my stories 90% is on the fly, while the remaining 10% is planned. Depending on the setting some of that 10% comes out of research, while other bits come out of figuring things out like how the currency works, or creating a map(s) – I love creating maps – or in very very rare cases comes out of a desire to create a homage to a video game, book, or audio series or just a certain actor. My current WIP has a character named after a certain side character from the audio series Jago & Lightfoot (played in my mind by Colin Baker) and a disease named after a character from CW’s The Flash.

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