One of my least-favorite things is when a reader asks me a question about my work that I can’t answer. This is usually in terms of worldbuilding or character back story, and the questions are usually incredibly detailed or thoughtful, which, hey, I get it: I do the same thing. I sit there and watch Twin Peaks and I spend a truly shameful amount of mental energy pondering the meaning of disappearing windows on a jet plane, and part of that is this innocent faith that David Lynch actually has a master plan, actually knows what all these things mean, and could clearly articulate it all if he had to.

But man, I usually can’t answer the questions. Because it’s okay to be the writer and not know every little thing about your universe, your characters. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s beneficial.

A Little Nonsense Now and Then

On the one hand, yes, you are correct: I created these worlds, these people. I am the god of my fictional universes and if anyone is going to be able to explain to you why a character wears a certain hat or makes certain life choices, it ought to be me. But the fact is, I usually don’t, because when I’m writing I tend to focus on the details that I need for each scene. I don’t worry about the Known Unknowns, because that knowledge is on a need to know basis, and I simply don’t need to know.

Until I do. And that’s the key here: Even if it never makes it into your draft, fixing every detail of your universe and character can tie your hands later—sometimes later in the same manuscript, sometimes later in the series. The fact that I don’t know exactly what my characters were like as kids, or what the story behind their tattoo is doesn’t mean I’m a lazy, dumb writer (although, of course, I’ll stipulate that I am pretty dumb and lazy). It means I’m leaving my options open for inspiration later. If I haven’t defined that tattoo today, I won’t have to retcon something next year.

Finding the balance between the right amount of iceberg under the surface when it comes to world building and character development isn’t an equation. It can’t be taught. You just have to play with the levels until you get it right. And then get comfortable admitting you have no idea why your character has that tatt. Yet.

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