The Power of Worldbuilding

If you're a fan, geek, otaku, what have you there's a good chance you're into SOMETHING that has a well defined world. It could be the World of Warcraft, it could be the Trekverse, Middle-Earth, what have you.  You could have several properties you like.

You may even work on them.  Perhaps you write fiction, make MMO's, etc.  You may be crafting the setting for a multi-part RPG right now, or designing the starships for a futuristic combat game with a detailed timeline.

Worldbuilding is very important to us geeks, and even more important to the fictions and worlds we build.

Ever wonder why?

This is a question that has obsessed me for awhile because I am a person who gets deeply into worldbuilding.  I like a setting, a good setting, and often argue that a setting is truly the main character of any story.  At the time I am writing this, I am enjoying Dragon Age: Origins, which has a very well-crafted setting, and recently finished Brutal Legend, which attempts to realize a fantasy world based on Heavy Metal album covers and mythology.  (For those of you reading this years later, Brutal Legend is a TIm Schaffer game, which probably doesn't surprise you).

Why does world building draw us so?  I think it's important to answer that question, both for our own self-understanding, but also for the fact many of us work in areas of fiction and maybe we want to know WHY.

REASON ONE: Comprehensibility
Worldbuilding means that you have a setting that makes sense (at least in its own way).  This is very important to being able to make the fictional world accessible.  If there are rules, histories, etc. as you learn them it makes the setting make sense.

Thus there are certain terms that do not change (or if they do you know why) that people can learn.  There are histories that do not change (unless there is a great revelation).  People can get what's going on.

I think a part of worldbuilding is actually the comfort of a comprehensible world, so one can enjoy the stories in it

A detailed worldsetting also is meaningful.  It is not just that it makes sense and is comprehensible – it's that the elements we know of in the world hang together to provide meaning to events, characters, terms etc. in a way that makes it understandable.

Thus a term character use has a rich history related to the world's history.  A starship's voyage turns out to be complicated by politics involving a well-known alien race.  The elements of the world combine to give each other meaning.

Context is the partner of Comprehensibility.  There is not just meaning, there is deep, related meaning.

REASON THREE: It's fun to play with
Worldbuilding that is consistent and has context also, frankly, is fun to play with.

It invites speculation – because we have the tools and context to speculate with.  We can read books and guess at what's happening because we get the world.  We can act within an RPG
having an idea of what actions our results will have.  We can dream up fanfic or speculate.

Good worldbuilding involves us.

REASON FOUR: It allows for communication with others
Having a setting that is comprehensible, has context, and is just interesting it then becomes fun to discuss, play in, or otherwise interact with others concerning the setting in question.

The social aspect of worldbuilding is extremely important to the long-term survivability of the property.  Having a setting that people like, relate to, and get means they can enjoy it with each other.  They can discuss their favorite characters, speculate on the setting, and so on because of the amount of worldbuilding being done.  In short they can discuss the setting and its elements with confidence, with common ground, and enjoyably because of the effort made.

REASON FIVE: It is commitment
Perhaps the most missed part of worldbuilding's importance is that good worldbuilding represents a commitment on the part of the creators.  You get the feeling what you like is going to be around for awhile and are safe making a personal, emotional, and financial commitment to the property.

This I feel is important.

You know Star Wars is not going away.  Nor is Lord of the Rings.  I get the impression Dragon Age: Origins will spawn sequels in the same interesting setting.

You can make a commitment as people care about the world.

Worldbuilding is important to many of us, and it's important to understand why: it is about Comprehensibility, Context, the enjoyment of play, the shareability, and the commitment.  Those elements come together in good worldbuilding to make something that can stand the test of time.

– Steven Savage