Way With Worlds: Worldbuilding As A Skillset


So you want to be a good world builder. You want to improve and evolve.

Maybe it’s because you like to write, and you’ll be crafting new worlds regularly – because you don’t want to repeat yourself. Maybe you want to dive deep into a world and deliver your ultimate work. Maybe you’re a game developer and it’s part of the job. Maybe you build settings for your friends to game in. Whatever the motivation, some of us want to be better at worldbuilding than we are now.

Of course you’re reading this column, so you probably want to get better at it. Or be less worse at it, but i’ll just assume you want to be more awesome than you are now.

But this raises an interesting question – is worldbuilding a skill you can improve? Is it a skillset or is it something else?

Start With The Results

So when we take a look at the settings people have built, we can notice a few things that give us a clue to our question.

We can comment on world quality: It’s easy to talk about quality of setting when we look at a game or a novel or a film. Clearly some worlds are simply better built than others – even if that opinion is entirely subjective. There is some difference between world builders.

We can comment on change in quality of setting: It’s not hard to look at an author or a writer or a game developer and comment on their skill in delivering a setting and how it changes over time. Something improves . . . or degrades.

We seek to be better: The very fact people obsess over their worlds and setting says there’s something there we can improve – because we’re seeking to make it better.

So I’d say, at least on an instinctive level, it seems that worldbuilding is indeed a skill. At the same time, it seems hard to classify. Is it the excellent genealogies? The compelling economies? The coherent languages? We can discuss the quality of a world, but it seems that’s only in pieces.

And that’s where the clues start coming together.

Having a Project And Getting WIth The Program

Allow me to digress a bit into my career. Trust me, this is relevant.

I’m a Program Manager, which in non-business terms means I’m the guy that figures out how to keep various inter-linked projects working together across teams. Before that I was a Program Manager, who worked on individual projects – the guy beneath the Program Managers as it were. Both jobs are about getting a lot of things to happen and making sure everything is coordinated.

However, if you were to ask what each job is about, it requires two answers. There’s a core set of skills you have that you use on the job, common terms, and so on. But also there’s a lot of things that involve all the stuff you coordinate; people skills, technical knowledge, budgeting, and so on.

Project and Program Management is a set of skills that let you put other skills and knowledge together.

There’s few Project and Program Managers who don’t have some kind of speciality – some skillset that enhances what they do or define them. I’m a former engineer and big on writing and meeting people. Others ae accounting wizards and statistical geniuses. It seems we’re often defined by these skills that aren’t distinctly part of what we do.

And that taught me what Worldbuilding is – it’s like management. It’s a skillset that lets you put the pieces together.

Worldbuilding: A Skill about Other Things

Worldbuilding, in short, is the ability to tie together a lot of knowledge, skills, instincts, and so on into building a setting that is compelling and believable to people. Just as I and my fellow Program/Project Managers juggle a lot of pieces into a whole, so must the Worldbuilder. I produce software – Worldbuilders produce settings.

Worldbuilders may use their own skills and knowledge, they may enhance them, or even outsource them. They may learn history or use references. They may read up on psychology or employ their own gut feelings.

Worldbuilding is the skill of using other abilities to build a setting.

But, what are those traits of the Worldbuilding skill? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I think we can detail them here.

What Worldbuilding The Skill Consists Of

So what can you do to improve these core worldbuilding skills? Well, we need to identify what they consist of, and here’s what I’ve been able to identify so far.

Worldbuilding consists of:

  • Causation – The ability to understand cause and effect on your world. You understand how actions and results work.
  • Origination – the ability to understand when something in your setting comes into being distinctly. Causation can cause origination – a war produces a new country, a love affair produces a birth, etc.
  • Termination – you understand when things end. You know when distinct pats of your setting are over with. A character dies, a poet falls into disgrace, a mountain crumbles.
  • Relation – You understand how the parts of your world relate together and affect each other.
  • Inquiry – You know how to ask questions of yourself, of experts, in your world. In fact you know when to ask questions.
  • Communication – The ability to communicate your world to yourself, to others, and to preserve the information in the proper way.
  • Terminology – You know how to store information, relate information, and understand terms relevant to your world. Vital to Relation, Communication, and Inquiry.

However, you’ll notice something’s missing here – all the other skills that relate. Knowledge of science and psychology, of language and history, of people and of place. That’s because these are core Worldbuilding skills – the ability to tie things together into a believable world.

But you also need other skills . . .

The Details Are The Devil

See, much as a manager has core skills in planning and organization, but needs other skills – and other people – to make things work, you need many other skills as a Worldbuilder. These are skills that your core worldbuilding abilities lean on – but are distinct.

They’re also something where we’re going to vary widely in our abilities to use. Some of us are great at biology and bad at psychology, other people are great at understanding mechanical issues but don’t get history. In short each of us has a set of skills that lend themselves to our worldbuilding.

But we’re each radically different.

This means even people with the same worldbuilding skill may produce radically different settings – or have radically different inclinations. That’s simply because no matter our core worldbuilding skills, the other abilities we leverage vary widely among us.

In fact, that may be a very good subject to cover, say, next column . . .

But For Now . . .

But for now, keep this in mind – to be a good Worldbuilder you need to develop core worldbuilding skills. These skills allow you to tie together information, knowledge, and ideas in a manner that builds a coherent setting. In turn these core skills rely on other abilities to work – so you need to develop both.

Not easy? Well, if this was easy I don’t think we’d find it as enjoyable . . .

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers 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 https://www.stevensavage.com/.