Playing God Part I: The Why of Worldbuilding — Fiction Basics

a red galaxyHello, my darklings!

“It is to be all made of fantasy, all made of passion and all made of wishes…”

Thus spake Silvius in Shakespeare’s As You Like. But while Silvius was speaking of love, I feel fairly confident in saying that no truer words have been spoken when it comes to creating fantasy worlds from scratch, which is the topic for today (and probably the next day, as well).

So, without further ado, we’re going take a good hard look at worldbuilding.  We’re going to look at why it’s important, differing opinions on the topic, and then, in the next few articles, we’ll get into the meat and potatoes of what goes into creating fantasy worlds, alien planets, or alternate Earths.

First, though, I thought it more appropriate to start with why worldbuilding is, in my opinion, a necessary tool that should be in your writer’s toolkit.

Why? Because I realized recently that this might not be clear to some new writers who get bombarded with advice from all sides.

Two Competing Schools

If you’re a new writer, you need to know that there are at least two schools of thought out there on the subject of worldbuilding. If you’ve been poking around any writers groups anywhere or taken a creative writing course, chances are you’ve run across a proponent or two of each.

The first school argues against its necessity. In fact, Lincoln Michel, former editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, presents an interesting argument against worldbuilding. In his view, authors tend to gloss over style, voice, and structure in favor of heavy worldbuilding even though most stories don’t require an immense level of detail, such as “goblins’ favorite baby wipes.” And fans of worldbuilding, he says, often ignore plot and story arc, zeroing in instead on what they see as holes in the worldbuilding itself. Michel offers instead the idea of worldconjuring, in which the author “uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps.”

In contrast, the second school of thought wholeheartedly supports worldbuilding. In response to Michel’s article, Emily Temple wrote a fantastic counterargument in support of the practice in fiction. In summary, Temple argues that worldbuilding and Michel’s worldconjuring are essentially the same thing, and points out that even he clearly states that his problem isn’t with worldbuilding but with “the tyranny of its application, particularly in the form of advice columns for beginner writers,” which do tend to bludgeon new writers with the idea that worldbuilding is all-important. We’ve all read more than our fair share these types of instructional articles, I’m sure (of course, I’m hoping that this one, the one you’re reading right now, doesn’t become one of them).

To be completely honest, this does, unfortunately, have the nasty side-effect of influencing new writers to the point that they do often eschew plot, structure, and character.

But does this mean that worldbuilding is bad? Absolutely not!

My “Why of Worldbuilding”

In case it’s not clear already, I side with Temple.

I see no difference between worldbuilding as I understand and practice it and what Michel is calling worldconjuring.

At the end of the day, writers need to understand the internal logic of their world. It’s something of a requirement for good storytelling. While this doesn’t mean creating hundreds of pages of detailed notes on every individual aspect of a culture, it does mean that you need to be able to explain your world’s logic with some authority—nearly as much as with the story’s logic. As Temple points out, it doesn’t matter if that logic itself appears illogical at first glance—it still follows a form of logic. For example, to prove his point that creating a world for your story is a waste of time, Michel states that Picasso created a “chaos of objects to summon the horrors of Guernica.” What he fails to understand, however, is that in painting “Guernica” or any of his other works, Picasso still followed a line of logic in its creation. Not a single element of that painting is there by accident.

The same should be true of your writing.

I think Chuck Wendig sums it up the best when he says that story always comes first and that worldbuilding should be done to support the story, not the other way around. And while there’s value in having a story bible (I mean, I have one), you don’t want to spend so much time on it that you never get a word on paper. Worldbuilding is every bit as important as story, plot, character development, style, and all the other elements of writing but it should never be your only focus.

And trust me, I know just how tempting it is to get lost in the creation of your world and its cultures without ever writing a word of the story! I mean, there’s a reason I titled this article series “Playing God.”

Putting It into Practice

Now, you might be wondering how to put all of this into practice in your own writing and worldbuilding?

Well, let’s say you’re writing a science fiction story set on a planet with an atmosphere that contains a high concentration of helium, a relatively rare gas on Earth. Is your planet populated by organic life? Then you need to know how that atmosphere has affected the evolution of life on your world.

That doesn’t mean you need to write an entire scientific treatise on the subject in your notes, however. On the contrary, you just need to know enough about how such gases might affect physiology. So you do a bit of research to get an idea and jot down a paragraph or two on how this atmosphere influences the physical features of your characters.

Or maybe you’ve already got your characters in mind. In that case, build the world around them!

Believe it or not, your characters are not just static 2-dimensional creations. They have wants, loves, and dislikes (and if not, they should have!). Without those things, they have no motivation to act in your story.

But that’s not all!

They also have culturally-ingrained beliefs, habits, and quirks—just like you do! These things are going to make them act, react, and interact with their environment in certain ways. Thus, you need to have some idea of how culture (the establishment of which is part of worldbuilding) informs their actions. You don’t need to know the ceremonial aspects of Gusupian marriage rites if that’s not part of your story. But if a Gusupian marriage takes place in your tale, then you should be able to provide enough detail to describe what it looks like, how your character views the event, and how they and those around them will act during it.

In short, contrary to what Michel says, your world does need to feel real to your reader and good worldbuilding is how it’s done. It’s what allows them to suspend belief and get lost in your prose. It’s what lets them escape into the page.

Just remember not to overdo it when it comes to what you details you put into the story itself. As with all things, moderation is key and you really do want to let the reader fill in some of the details themselves. The days of long-winded descriptive passages like those found in classic works have gone the way of the dodo. Include what details are necessary to breathe life into your world and get your readers oriented in the story but let them do some of the work, whether the “crazy internet fan theorists” like it or not.

Now, tell me—which camp do you fall in?  And if you’re ready to get to creating, check out the next article in this series.

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