Got an email yesterday, basically asking: in light of the recent ending to the Wheel of Time series and Robert Jordan’s mammoth experiment in worldbuilding that was that series, did I create the world for Al’Rashad in advance or write it as I go, and do I have a preference – both for that work and generally when I write? The answer is “a bit of both.”
You will hear all sorts of stuff from many, many people about how their characters “surprise them” and how they interact with the world. And let me be clear: I’ve got nothing against the idea of writing a character consistently. That’s just basic sense. But writing is not like DMing a roleplaying game: you determine what your characters do. If something is out of character, well, change the character. You’re the writer, you’re allowed to do that – I am getting a bit off-topic here and it is partially the fault of my memories of this past NaNoWriMo – or, rather, other people’s NaNoWriMo – still not having entirely faded. But the roleplaying game thing is actually fairly apt, because writing a story isn’t like writing an RPG. You only get to peek at the faintest corners of the larger world, unless you want to do, like, a bonus Almanac Of The Universe Of Your Story or something on the side. (Which some people do. Tolkien certainly did. You couldn’t stop Tolkien from writing about the obscure side histories of his world. But Tolkien also had the luxury of more or less inventing a genre, which you will probably not be doing.)
The bottom line is that, if you are writing a story, you probably aren’t writing a travelogue or a guidebook, and thus details get left out. Go back and look at yesterday’s comic page. Alric mentions six countries there that haven’t been mentioned yet in the story. It is entirely possible1 that you will never know anything else about them ever again in the course of the story. They are little more than window dressing at this point. Conversely, however… you know a lot more about the Free Kingdom of Gundring and the Rashadi Caliphate, if you’ve been following the story.
Gundring, for example. You know that Gundring’s government is, effectively, a sort of broad combination of an Althing/parliament and a clan-based monarchy; you know that the Gundring use gunpowder (and you’ve probably noticed that the Rashadi don’t, and suspect that there are reasons for that) and place particular importance on engraving runes into anything they think is important. You know that they’re probably undergoing something of an Enlightenment at present. You know they’re probably not too keen on slavery. All of this informs Alric’s character, and pointedly so because he is very much the primary viewpoint character for the story, so, yes, he comes from the society most analagous to yours.2 The Rashadi? Well, you know they *do* have slavery, but there are deep divisions within their society about it. You know that that society is also tribally based, and likely much more cosmopolitan than the Gundring are – but survives basically on a system of mutual distrust. You know it’s a fairly brutal, dog-eat-dog social structure, and more overtly religious than the Gundring are by far. And you know their architecture is elaborate, even fantastical – which probably says quite a bit about how historically powerful they’ve been. And all of this informs the character of Kahal (who by appearances isn’t even of traditional Rashadi descent like Rayana or Fezay – were this comic in colour, his skin tone would be much darker than theirs – and that tells you something, both about him and about them) and the other Rashadi characters.
The point I am trying to make about worldbuilding is this: you can always bullshit when you need to, and nobody will ever know. If somebody asks me something about some aspect of Pizarri culture I will cheerfully make it up on the spot if need be, and HEY PRESTO it’s canon until I decide otherwise. But your world is an onion. You don’t care about the outer layers – that’s dead skin. You care about the core, which is your characters, and what immediately surrounds them. That’s what you need to know in advance, what you need to build. Everything else is a luxury, and quite often a waste of time.