Last summer, I wrote an essay on creating characters with purpose and how adoptable culture seems to miss the point of having lads in the first place. At the time, I remember wanting to do an entire series on these kinds of creative pitfalls, and recently, I’ve been reminded of another stumbling block–this one affecting me probably more than anyone else, amazingly enough.
Let’s talk confidence.
You’ve pledged to write more. You’ve had nerves about it in the past, but it’s time to push past those and get some words down. So of course, you take your idle ideas, some loose rambles you’ve had with friends, a bunch of characters you’ve half-developed, the prerequisite overcooked worldbuilding involving six countries and their systems of government, their religions, their wildlife, their culinary traditions, their musical traditions, their magic, their technology, and…
Fuck, you have no interest in any of this. And you have no clue where to start.
It seems like everyone wants to be Tolkien and write stories where the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. For the sake of brevity, I’ll call it Middle-earth Wannabe Syndrome, MEWS. It doesn’t just apply to the high fantasy stuff, but rather, any overwrought worldbuilding used to back up a much smaller piece of media, traditionally webcomics. MEWS is born out of one of three things: arrogance, barely-discernible inspiration (the “that’s just what you do” mindset), or insecurity. And these three are not mutually exclusive.
I’ve felt it firsthand, I’ve seen it in friends, I’ve seen it idly as an observer on places like toyhou.se. We have a hard time conceiving of stories where big things don’t happen. The urge to write big things only gets exacerbated the less you manage to get out. What a cruel wait it would be for your readers, your subconscious tells you, for months without any kind of writing, only for it to be something dumb. Nothing happens, so it’s not worth reading, therefore it’s not worth writing. Go big or go home, eh?
Logically, it does follow: reading’s a form of escapism, and I can go stumble through the woods or chatter idly to someone myself, so why write it? It’s an odd double standard between writing and drawing; some people make their entire livelihood on mostly drawing characters standing there, and plenty more make hobbies out of it, but every story needs to shake the earth?
Yet, in the head of the inexperienced writer, MEWS is mental emphysema, utterly debilitating. You’re overly cognizant of what’s wrong with your work, and you try to compensate with the bigger picture, sapping the fun out of it all the while. You haven’t even made writing a habit, and yet, you’re trying to make your efforts count. You develop more and more lore that doesn’t matter, making up more people that don’t matter, you miss out on writing what you love, who you love, and practicing with the characters that matter to you, and the end product looks further and further away. Like I said, it can be hubris stemming from a lack of confidence, or it can come from having no comfortable starting point. Either way, MEWS saps your confidence over time.
This is the part where I get into my personal history with MEWS. For about four years up until fairly recently, I worked on a fantasy world involving anthros I called Calelira. (Alternatively known as Elinar, but that’s just the main country.) When I started, I had really no experience writing, and certainly no confidence in my work. While it was fun for a few years, I couldn’t escape the fallout with the girl I put it together with and a slow realization that all that lore amounted to no better of an end product. On the contrary, it simply overwhelmed anyone who tried to look into it, myself included.
I think the worst part is that all that worldbuilding simply put me off Calelira altogether. There’s this innate tendency in humans to learn and to explore, and it extends to every single corner of the worlds we put together. At the end of the day, though, I simply had more fun when most things were left unsaid. As a species, we’re storytellers, and we like oddities. It’s more pleasing to make things up as you go along, to wonder what’s at the bottom of that lake or in that cave or somewhere else in the world. What happens when you take an ultra-skeptic mindset to a fantasy world? It kills the fantasy.
Calelira developed into a mass I was never truly happy with and was too opaque for anyone else to get involved in. I still wasn’t writing. I was still scared to write, if anything, more so. Constantly checking for characters’ hometowns and asking myself the land area of a country in the Southern Isles, when none of that’s conductive to what I set out to do, felt less like a fun escape and more like work. I had this eventual goal of going back to it “when I was more prepared for it”. That meant knowing how to draw, but it soon morphed into an epiphany, a mindset shift on my part.
I wanted the fantasy and the vibe of Calelira without any of the lore. Oh, I still loved the idea of guilds, magical plants, humming crystals, but I wanted to go smaller. I wanted to return to the way Calelira was when it was still embyronic, way back in the inky days of 2015, back when it was just Elinar and three lads wandering, looking for treasure and adventure. I wanted to have fun again.
Escaping MEWS is like escaping quicksand, really. Take deep breaths and avoid the urge to struggle. Try to wriggle out from your mess of ideas. Focus on one small, neat idea at a time. Make it something self-indulgent. For me, I like vivid descriptions that add up into a vibrant scene, so I did that. If you like dialogue, put two characters you think about all the time together and get them interacting. Don’t worry about it being anything important. Don’t worry about your word count either; most of my stories don’t go over 1,000 words, and a single scene for me is around 600. This is plenty long. Redistribute your weight and float, letting it happen and enjoying what you enjoy about the process.
The real goal with starting small is to lessen the impact of that inevitable feeling of failure. A 600 word story you hate is gonna take you down a much smaller step than a much larger story. On the contrary, if you love it? You have something to build off of, you start to gain momentum. Eventually, after a few months, you’ll have a body of work to look back on that you can use as the foundation for gradually bigger work. Even if you hate 90% of it, you’ll still guaranteed have a small pile of descriptions, sentences, lines of dialogue, and other widgets that you are fond of. (If you really, truly don’t, you have some complexes to work through. Try to take it easy.)
A related effect of MEWS is this feeling of being watched and needing to prove yourself, feeling like there’s an audience you need to deliver to, even if that audience consists of only your close friends. Caby calls it Chris Chan Syndrome, as Chris would explicitly write Sonichu to a then-nonexistent audience, but you don’t need to be as clueless as him for the comparison to work. Like MEWS, I’ve dealt with this a lot; kinda infamously, I refused to write Pennyverse stories out of order (read: in the order I had neat ideas in) because I didn’t want anyone reading it to be lost in the details.
Problem is, no one but me is reading it. And that’s not a blackpill, that’s the most freeing thing I can say. There is no audience to please just yet. It’s cool to write stuff only I like, and the same goes for you.
There’s plenty of time to look at your work on the critical, objective, steely level that most everyone does after you learn to enjoy it. Believe me, I’m still learning to. Mindsets take time to shift, but genuinely conquering what you’re insecure about makes the grind of actual improvement much, much easier.
And seriously–stop worldbuilding so much. Your lads and your stories matter much more.