Way With Worlds: Why Worldbuild?

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Years ago at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st I began writing a column on worldbuilding and fiction – Way With Worlds. This was the age when people were suddenly able to get their works on the internet, via websites and journals and email. There was a slow simmer of amateur writers, should-be-pros, would-be-pros, fanficcers, and more. A column on worldbuilding seemed in order.

I’ve always had ambitions to write fiction, had worked on shared-universe newsletters, played RPGs, and more. Worlds were part of what I liked to do, and a good setting, a good living world/universe made things come alive. So I expressed my theories in hope of helping people, to use my knowledge gained over the years, and of course because I’m not overly good at shutting up.

The columns sat online for years when I decided not to continue them, and every now and then someone will read one or mention them to me. Over the years I do less fictional work directly, yet am still involved in worldbuilding when I help friends with games, edit books, and when I run the inspiration site Seventh Sanctum. Of course, I still have plenty of opinions.

Now even more people are writing, and making videos, and self-publishing. So I decided to revisit the columns and rewrite them, expand them, and use what I learned in over a decade.

And the first question is still as burningly relevant as ever? Why Worldbuild?

A Definition Of Worldbuilding

First of all, let’s define worldbuilding here for the sake of discussion and possibly argument. I consider worldbuilding to be the following:

  1. Creating a stable setting . . .
  2. . . . where stories take place in . . .
  3. . . . that is consistent . . .
  4. . . . and works by its rules.

In short, worldbuilding in a way creates something independent of a story (be that story in a comic, novel, game, etc.). It is the setting the story occurs in and has its own rules, principles, and so forth.  In turn the story abides by these rules and doesn’t violate them.

Now most worldbuilding is a continuity between “Its Own Rules” and Whatever “I Want At The Time” where continuities may be altered by whim, for marketing purpose, to update them, and so forth. Mostly when people talk worldbuilding they skew towards an inviolate “Its Own Rules” setting, but I think this rarely reaches 100%, such is the nature of imagination. However, the aspiration towards a consistent world is important because of the benefits . . .

The Benefits of Worldbuilding

So what are the benefits of world building. The ones I’ve found are . . .

A Relatable Setting: A well-designed world that has rules and locations and such that are stable is one people can identify with and enjoy (unless of course they’re not interested in your subject matter). There is the thrill of familiarity, the recognition that histories and principles and side comments are indeed valid, and a strong sense of place. A world that feels real is one that is enjoyed, explored, and remembered.

Preventing Errors: It is extremely easy to start running with an idea and then forget all sorts of details – and quickly make your writing unrelatable, contrived, or incomprehensible. By thinking about (and recording) your world’s information you write a better tale, avoid plot holes, and make a better story.

Find Inspiration: There’s something about a world design that, past a certain critical point, it seems to inspire you to do more. An obscure city mentioned in passing could be explored as part of a new chapter or an entire new tale. Answering unanswered questions can move your narrative forward or even surprise you with new story directions. Just looking over the world you’ve designed may let you free-associate new and inspiring ideas for your stories.

A Bulwark Against Bad Writing: When you know your world you’re less likely to engage in contrivance or doing half-baked stories – because the world itself drives you on, fills in the blanks, and explain what’s going on. When you know that world, the answers are in its constructions, and you avoid the temptation to just slam on a few plot elements.

Avoiding Favoritism: When you take an active hand in worldbuilding, the world’s continuity becomes a large part of your writing This is another bulwark against bad writing – you’ll be less likely to play favorites with a character (the infamous Mary Sue/Gary stu comes to mine), plotline, etc. because you’ll be thinking about the setting and its consistency, not your own biases (well, as much). If for some reason you decide to consciously include something that might break continuity (say not killing a characters as exploring their backstory would be fascinating) then working out how your chosen path works into the world inspires better writing because you have to work within the framework you created.

A Different Form Of Writing: Writing fiction, or a game setting, etc. is one thing. Writing a world up is quite another; and it can be great practice for a different form of writing – that which is more archival and documentarian. Worldbuilding and recording the information requires makes you think about what to write down, how, and so forth. It’s essentially “non fiction writing” about a fictional universe, and can be a useful skill.

An Additional Piece Of Work: I adore books on fictional settings, dictionaries of characters, maps of imaginary realms, and so forth. If the world you build becomes famous – or if you just want to release some work for free – release the documentation of your world. It may be fun, it may inspire others . . . and there’s the chance it may make you some money if your fictional works become popular.

A Contract With Readers: Worldbuilding is a kind of social contract between writer and reader. The writer, by working on a strong continuity, imbues their work with meaning because they are saying there is an element of reality here. The reader, in turn, can trust the author to make a consistent, involving tale because the setting has that element of being thought through. If you’ve ever seen people upset with a bad bit of writing, illogical plot twist, and so forth, you know how strongly people feel about this social contract.

Its Time To Build

As you can see there’s quite a few benefits to worldbuilding; I’m a big advocate of it. I find a well-build setting makes more satisfying work, inspires me, and increases the depth of enjoyment. I find writing and creating one inspires me, makes me works more believable, and provides many advantages.

Now with that being said, onward into the next column . . .

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers and community at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.