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On Worldbuilding

POSTED ON September 29th, 2010  - POSTED IN Writing

This is a post that’s been sitting around in draft form for some weeks now, but I think worldbuilding is an important enough subject that it’s been worth dusting the article off and completing it.

What is worldbuilding? Well if you play videogames, it’s your sandbox. It’s the fixtures and fittings of your world from houses to clothing. It’s also a lot more, including the ‘rules’ for your world, but we’ll get to that in due course.

Fantasy worldbuilding riffs off history quite a lot. From a lot of Western fantasy heavily influenced by medieval Europe right through to how the Tauren race in World of Warcraft borrows a lot artistically from native American Indians.

Good worldbuilding goes way beyond just the aesthetics. It looks at the how. And that’s where the real skill lies. It’s one thing to say a location is a vertical city on a huge cliff face and home to a million people, but how are heavy goods moved, where is enough food to feed the populace grown?

Writers want your readers to get lost in that world, for it all to seem so natural that the reader can visualize the world as clearly as their last summer holiday.

The real danger, though, is that the worldbuilding becomes so all consuming for the writer than the story and characters come second place. Tolkien was really guilty of this, and whilst I maintain he’s the greatest ever worldbuilder, some of the early chapters of Fellowship do read like a Hobbit tour guide.

Remember the act of worldbuilding is to cause the reader to suspend enough disbelief to invest emotionally in the world and the characters. Yes, Evil Lord Bob might be about to destroy the land of somewhereshire, but why does the reader care?

This is where Tolkien was the real master of worldbuilding (and his position has never been usurped). What he does is make those who wade through the Fellowship of the Ring invest in The Shire. And so as we follow Frodo and Sam and the landscape becomes bleaker and bleaker, we know this quest is worthwhile, because, just like Sam, we want The Shire to be protected. We share the beliefs of the main characters even if we do not possess the courage they do.

And this comes to a very important point about worldbuilding, and one of those points where I roll my eyes when this comes as a revelation to someone: Character always trumps worldbuilding. Now some will say a world is a character in it’s own right. I don’t strictly agree with that. Worldbuilding is worldbuilding, making comparisons to character just confuses the matter. But just like the words on the page, it’s there to serve the story, not the writer’s ego.

What I love about worldbuilding is that it is, in my honest opinion, the ultimate imaginative skill. There are so many things to consider, so many bits to slot together like some infinite jigsaw puzzle, that if you do it well, it can give you a headache.

So a writer goes and creates their world, considering the economy, the trade between different civilizations, the politics, the technology, the ecology, the history and a million and one other things. And then they try and make it so it all hangs together. The trick here is simply to make the world seem believable.

And this is where a lot of writers go wrong. Because Worldbuilding is not a side-dish, it’s a marinade. Long passages detailing the history of that castle over there might show off the worldbuilding, but they rarely really help the story. So a good writer builds a world, learns everything about it, and then leaves 99% of it out. In short, good worldbuilding is not about what goes into a story but what gets left out.

Now, you might think this is crazy, that after all that work building worlds, they need to be shown, but in truth it’s not wasted. It’ll seep through in the story. Description will be so much richer, because no longer will you have just “market stalls selling goods” but “market stalls selling spices from the Northern Plains, silks from the eastern coast, and monkeys from the jungles of the south”. The writer doesn’t need to explain all the trade routes, or give a detailed history of the trading between the North and the South, they just need enough to paint a picture and start the reader’s mind wondering. Serve only the story and nothing else.

Because when readers start losing themselves in worlds, a writer knows that the worldbuilding has done its job.