If you didn’t already know, I am a HUGE fan of science fiction and fantasy and an obsessive worldbuilder. Since I was a kid I’ve loved immersing myself in fictional worlds and I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy writing and playing video games as much as I do. What makes them so immersive and compelling? What makes Hogwarts feel like home? What makes us want to see more of Westeros?
Worldbuilding is a huge part of my writing, of my creative journey and of my adoration for genre fiction and movies. It would be wrong to neglect something so essential to who I am as a writer and creator, and so I’m making it a more regular feature. Also, I just really like talking about it, and I have a lot to say. And isn’t that the point of a blog anyway?
But, what sort of things am I going to be talking about? There are already plenty of amazing worldbuilding resources out there, but I do have a few introductory posts to get us going. Sort of like worldbuilding 101 to get us started and introduce some of the core concepts and ideas that I feel are important to understanding my approach to something as vast as worldbuilding. After that, it’s free game. I might discuss some of the worldbuilding in my own work, share resources for fellow worldbuilders, discuss different approaches and concepts, and take a more in-depth look at the fantastic worlds of others. All in all, a hodgepodge of fun and genre-rich goodness.
Let’s get this thing started with a little introduction.
What is worldbuilding anyway?
In the simplest sense, worldbuilding is the process of building a world, whether that be through words, pictures, audio, or video. It can be a reimagining of our world or something completely new. You see the word thrown around a lot more with science fiction and fantasy than you do other genres, but it’s certainly not limited to them. It’s an imaginary playground for stories to take shape, and it can be minimal or it can be vast and complicated. It can be historical or completely implausible. Worldbuilding allows you to create whatever you want, and however you want to create it.
This actually might sound a little vague as a description but worldbuilding is kind of a big concept, and covers a lot of ground.
Is it the same as setting?
Yes, and no. I wouldn’t call them interchangeable, but you could probably get away with using either or in a conversation and people would know what you were talking about. I consider them separate but related. Worldbuilding is about more than just what shows up on the page or screen. It’s all of the background information that informs that setting. But where a ‘setting’ is a solitary entity, like a school or wizard’s tower, worldbuilding is about the relation that those settings have to each other. You can have a bunch of different places, but if they don’t make any sense together, you don’t have a cohesive world. You feel me?
Imagine if you started a movie in a medieval style town, entered the second act in a modern day high school, and the finale took place on a spaceship drifting the cosmos. What do these very different settings have to do with each other? How do they connect? What impact do they have on the other? That’s worldbuilding right there.
The person who is experiencing this world you have created is going to want to see and understand these connections, even if they aren’t stated plainly on the page. What people see on the street, how they act around people of a different station, what they say to their contemporaries – these are all examples of things that are informed by your worldbuilding. While the setting is a big part of it, there is a lot more to it than that.
What purpose does it serve?
Beyond what I’ve already explained, one of my favourite things about worldbuilding is the ability to explore unusual concepts and circumstances. This is what science fiction is known for, after all. Taking an unusual idea and pushing it to an extreme and seeing what sort of world would be created from it.
It’s essential to building characters as well. It defines their backstory and their values. It helps us understand what they like to do, what they fear, and what they want to do with their lives. These are all things that are influenced by the world around them. Just as people are shaped by their environment, characters are a product of their world.
Also, it’s just fun. How else can we experience what it might be like to travel on a spaceship or fly through the sky on a dragon? We experience it through stories with amazing, well-constructed worlds. It can add a layer of depth If you are constructing this new world with a theme or concept behind it, but it can also be purely for the escapism and the entertainment value. It doesn’t have to be deep to be compelling or enjoyable, and I don’t think those worlds that are purely for fun are worth less than those that tackle those larger topics. Stories are fun. Genre is fun. Worldbuilding is fun, and if someone is enjoying it, isn’t that what matters?
Why is it important?
I feel like worldbuilding is this tremendous, nebulous thing – both hard to define and so intimidating when you’re starting out. Even writing this post attempting to ‘introduce’ the concept has been a little daunting for me. But for all the fun I have with it, I also think it’s important, and the reason is simply that its part of why we care.
For instance, a character might have unusual magical abilities. It’s a fun and intriguing concept, but when you realize this character lives in a world where magic-users are persecuted, their struggles and the conflict that is central to their story arc becomes clear. Suddenly you’re a little more invested. The way they act makes sense. Their motives become clear. The stakes feel more pressing. The characters feel more real, and as a result, you care what happens. You want to know their story. I will always believe that good characters are the most important story element – after all, the craft of storytelling is about people, about understanding ourselves and others and exploring what it means to be human. But good characters need to feel real and giving them a robust world that they feel like they belong in is a huge part of that.
What makes ‘good’ worldbuilding?
Now, this is going to be a little subjective. For me, I have to feel immersed and I want to be almost obsessively curious about what is happening in the world, beyond what is being shown to me. It shouldn’t distract me from the main characters or their story – storytelling will always be about characters, and worldbuilding should serve to enhance that. A compelling world just makes me want to know more about the people who live in it and vice versa.
But that’s just how I like my flavour of worldbuilding. For some, it’s all about the cool factor. For others, it’s about plausibility. It all depends on you, your values, and what you find enjoyable. But if it evokes a deep sense of immersion and curiosity, then I definitely consider it a well-crafted world.
Hopefully, this has been a comprehensive and easy to follow introduction to such a big topic. It’s always been something that has fascinated me – how we are compelled to tell a story, and create these amazing worlds, all from our creative brains. And no matter who does, the product is never quite the same. They’re all unique, and that just makes it even more enjoyable for someone like me, and for many like me who love this sort of thing. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them. There are infinite playgrounds for our minds to wander in, and stories to captivate our hearts.
It sounds intimidating. And maybe it is. But one of the things I hope to do with a regular feature on this blog is to break it down piece by piece. Explore what it means to create a world all your own and identify what makes it work and what doesn’t. Not only do I want to make it accessible, but I want to make it fun and interesting. It’s the strange and fascinating worlds that make genre so enticing after all.
Got any food for thought?
What are your thoughts on worldbuilding? Are you as obsessed with it as I am? Tell me all about your worlds down in the comments below! Or, if you’re new to all of this, let me know what you find intimidating!