Everybody approaches worldbuilding differently, but knowing where you fall in the hard vs. soft worldbuilding spectrum can be really useful! It will help you avoid the problems that come with one or the other, and appreciate the advantages of both. We interviewed Andy Law, from Rookery Publications, to learn more about this!
Listen to the interview on Spotify or Youtube!
Hard vs. soft worldbuilding: What’s the difference?
Hard and soft worldbuilding describe the approach or method you use when worldbuilding—it’s not about where you start, it’s about the entire process. If you’ve heard of the terms pantsing and plotting when talking about writing, it’s a similar concept! Hard worldbuilding is more methodical, it has a defined process you follow, almost like a blueprint. Soft worldbuilding, on the other hand, is more organic and fully relies on improvisation and figuring it out as you go.
We’ll go into more detail in the next sections, but before you ask… no, there isn’t a best worldbuilding method. The best one is whichever one works for you—most people do a mix of both anyway. Some even use one or the other depending on what they’re worldbuilding for! For example, a writer could decide to use soft worldbuilding in drafts but then establish the setting in a hard way before writing the final version.
What is hard worldbuilding?
Hard worldbuilders are the plotters or architects of worldbuilding. They are methodical and, most importantly, they have most (if not all) the world figured out before they start writing their novel or running their RPG. Tolkien is an example of hard worldbuilding (he had the entire setting ready before starting to write the Hobbit), and so is The Expanse, whose setting had already been created for an RPG that was then turned into books.
So, as you can imagine, hard worldbuilders are great at consistency—since everything is already planned out before the story begins, there will be no contradictions. This is especially great for hard sci-fi worldbuilding and generally anything that has a grander scope or theme (and therefore, lots of moving pieces). And having set limitations is great to spark creativity too! It challenges you to find alternatives that you might not have thought of otherwise. But, at the same time, it keeps your creativity under control. Having limits means that you won’t keep worldbuilding to infinity and beyond. This will help you focus on the final product of your worldbuilding, whether it’s a novel or an RPG setting.
It has some pitfalls though. If everything’s planned in advance, writing could become boring! Since nothing will surprise you as you draft, you could stop having fun writing and run out of steam. And while limitations can spark creativity, too many of them can kill this spark. It’s a good idea to give yourself some wiggle room for new unplanned ideas!
What is soft worldbuilding?
Soft worldbuilders are the pantsers and the gardeners of worldbuilding. It’s all about improvising, going with the flow, and worldbuilding whatever you need at any given moment. Terry Pratchett is a fantastic example of this method, as Discworld was being built as he wrote more and more books. Stephen King is another clear example of a soft worldbuilder (as well as a pantser!).
One of the major advantages of soft worldbuilding is efficiency. Since the world is being built while you write, you will only build what you need, and nothing else. And since writing is such a time-consuming art, anything that can improve efficiency is a hit! Freedom and spontaneity are advantages to soft worldbuilding too—your worldbuilding will surprise you, which keeps it fun and lets you embrace unexpected ideas. Romance is a genre that fits soft worldbuilding quite well, as does any sort of serial story (although having a hard worldbuilding foundation is good for consistency and avoiding continuity errors).
However, this freedom can be a problem too. If you don’t have a pre-established plan, it’s very easy to plot yourself into a corner—i.e. reach a point you can’t get out from without a deus ex machina or huge continuity errors. “Mary Sue worldbuilding” is another common pitfall of soft worldbuilding. If you’re not familiar with this term, Mary Sue worldbuilding happens when the world is only as big as the main characters. This is a problem, because if there’s nothing beyond what’s needed for them to exist, there will be no consequences for their actions.
Listen to the full interview to learn more about hard vs soft worldbuilding!
Want to learn more about hard and soft worldbuilding and how to use the method that works best for you? Check out the full interview on YouTube and Spotify!
Who is Andy Law?
Andy Law is the co-owner of Rookery Publications, as well as an awesome Game Master and cartographer (he’s made maps for Critical Role’s Tal’Dorei setting!). Check out his Twitter!
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