I’ve wondered about this, as I think conworlding can become an end in itself, even if it was begun in order to provide background for stories.
Well, I’m writing a novel set in Xurno, and I can report that yes, all that conworlding helped a lot. I have a country with a few thousand years of history, a unique form of government, and a well developed religion, to say nothing of ancient and modern languages. It makes for a vivid world with the sort of depth of allusion I’ve always valued in stories.
Some caveats, though.
- It doesn’t directly help with plot, though a complicated enough history suggests overall stories. E.g. this book deals with the Prose Wars, a period of ideological and governmental turmoil which some very specific issues– i.e. a generic civil war wouldn’t help much with character or plot choices.
- The more generic your choices, the less help the conworlding will be. Xurno is one of the stranger cultures on Almea, which makes it fun to explore and write about. A Generic Fantasy Kingdom doesn’t provide that kind of motivation.
- I maintain that conworlding shouldn’t overwhelm the reader. Readers start to squirm and complain if the exposition is too heavy or if they’re snowed under by unusual terms and names. (The trick with exposition, I think, is to make sure the reader is already interested in the characters and their predicaments.)
Whether it actually works as a story I can’t say yet, but I’m not even worried about that yet.
I started this book years ago and put it aside when I ran out of plot. I had a set of characters but didn’t know what they would do after page 50. What helped most with that was thinking about terrible things to do to them, and about how each of them needed to change. For instance, a key figure is a would-be scholar named Enirc; he’s a main driver of the plot largely because he’s so needy and nerdy. His low social skills alienate one character but draw another one in (helping him, she becomes a major proponent of the new Salon of Prose).
What kind of conworlding info has been the most useful? The cultural and religious stuff, mostly. Some general history– e.g. an actual war in the timeframe of the novel turned out to be useful, so of course it was good that my history said who the opponent would be. (Cuoli, as it happens.) Anything visual is great– e.g. my page on the clothing styles of Xurno. Things like the technology timeline are useful for knowing what the world is going to look like (e.g. do they have printing yet? spectacles? cannons?).