There’s a guest post up on Chuck Wendig’s website that begins as follows:
I think Tolkien is one of the most toxic influences on speculative fiction. It’s not because of his dodgy racial overtones in making all the orcs dark, degenerate Elves, or the way he pounded Tom Bombadil’s godawful Vogon poetry into our eardrums.
It’s Tolkien’s maps. And his fancy-shmancy languages. And all his meticulous worldbuilding.
I don’t care that Ferrett Steinmetz, the author of the piece, and I are both happily married men, I want to kiss him full on the mouth for this. With his consent, of course. He goes on to argue that you shouldn’t try to write your epic fantasy or science fiction novel as if you’re writing a tabletop roleplaying game supplement. I’ve been arguing that you shouldn’t even write your tabletop roleplaying game supplement that way. I even wrote a damned best-selling book about it.
Worldbuilding as Afterthought
Everyone puts the worldbuilding first, and then cherry-picks ideas out of it to build a story with. There is some validity to that approach when you’re building a game. I prefer to start with an idea, a story and characters, and grow the worldbuilding elements from that. Focus on the bits that you need. They will create color and texture and context for the actions the characters take and the decisions they make. You might get more story ideas out of it. But story and characters should come first.
This is why I’ve started thinking of worldbuilding as an afterthought. If your story or setting is a house, the worldbuilding isn’t the foundation. It’s the interior decor. It’s the rug that really ties the room together. Worldbuilding is the reason why you chose that color paint for the living room, the reason you arranged the furniture the way you did, why you picked that painting to hang on the wall. It’s there to help explain things. It shouldn’t be the focal point of the endeavor.