The worlds we construct inside our stories, especially in speculative genres, carry our readers to new possibilities, new ways of thinking about life and what is set and normal. Worldbuilding is one of the great excitements of the writing process, as our minds, omnipotent in the world of the story, trace out societies and structures which our characters inhabit.
Today, we’ll explore some of the challenges, joys, and necessities of effective worldbuilding. The ideas in this post exist very much in the planning stage of the writing process. Next week, we’ll delve into how to present (or suggest is probably the better word here) these worlds in our texts.
Whether we’re writing Tolkien-style high fantasy, steampunk, space opera, or postmodern metafiction, basic principles of construction can help us all. Let’s see what worlds open up before us.
Worldbuilding as societal commentary
Especially evident in dystopian novels from The Handmaid’s Tale to The Hunger Games, writers frequently enlist their worlds as a central part of social critique. Future societies depict the elements authors perceive as dangerous in our own and magnify them to monstrous proportions, warning us against the dangerous road we are marching fiercely down.
Fantasy worlds, perhaps not as explicitly derivative of our own, can be equally directed at critiquing society. The beloved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland explores social issues and politics through Wonderland’s Victorian-England-esque political landscape; Harry Potter comments on prejudice, unjust class systems, the politics of education, and more through its Ministry of Magic and the subjugation of House Elves.
By no means is such worldbuilding a new phenomenon if one considers Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which roundly lampooned British politicians with its multiple imaginative lands in 1726. Far earlier, master worldbuilder Dante Alighieri used the Inferno section of his La Divina Comedia to excoriate everyone from corrupt popes to his political rivals.
How recognizable, and how different?
In the case of Swift, the roundabout mode of criticism afforded by speculative fiction enabled social critique with a reduced threat of reprisal, yet it’s worth noting that fictional worlds ultimately gain their power of social commentary through the ways they reflect reality. It leads to one of the first considerations we must undertake when crafting worlds: how much should the world draw from the real? How much should it diverge?
We might consider a continuum of speculative fiction, ranging from realism at one end to, perhaps, absurdism at the other. Obviously the graphic I provide here is an approximation at best, and individual texts of any genre may slide their way along.
The farther away a world is from the reader’s, the more elaborate worldbuilding may need to be, and the more explicitly it may need to be shown. At the same time, high fantasy like The Hobbit can draw on existing cultural ideas about magic and fantasy. Although we may not see unicorns in real life, Harry Potter need not explain them too much (aside from developing its own spin on the concept) for us to understand. Totally new elements (such as the thestrals) need more explicit explanation.
If we’re considering how the story’s world might differ from the world of the reader, then we must remember that sometimes even realistic fiction will require a substantial amount of worldbuilding if its cultural setting varies significantly from that of the supposed reader’s.
What makes a world?
But what are all the pieces we assemble to build these worlds? Not only the physical places must be designed, but also all of the cultural and societal structures that animate them.
Let’s look at a couple speculative worlds and the various pieces that fit together to create them:
Ursula LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
LeGuin’s gorgeous Earthsea novels, high fantasy in genre, take place in a sprawling archipelago, each of whose islands has its own peculiarities, cultures, and ways of life. The medieval-style metropolis of Havnor rules over the others, and the hero Ged who hails from the rural island of Gont travels from island to island chasing a shadow.
Take a look at this brief scene where Ged first arrives at the school for wizards on the island of Roke:
Ged slept that night aboard Shadow, and early in the morning parted with those first sea-comrades of his, they shouting good wishes cheerily after him as he went up the docks. The town of Thwil is not large, its high houses huddling close over a few steep narrow streets. To Ged, however, it seemed a city, and not knowing where to go he asked the first townsman of Thwil he met where he would find the Warder of the School on Roke. The man looked at him sidelong a while and said, “The wise don’t need to ask, the fool asks in vain,” and so went on along the street. Ged went uphill till he came out into a square, rimmed on three sides by the houses with their sharp slate roofs and on the fourth side by the wall of a great building whose few small windows were higher than the chimneytops of the houses: a fort or castle it seemed, built of mighty grey blocks of stone. In the square beneath it market-booths were set up and there was some coming and going of people. Ged asked his question of an old woman with a basket of mussels, and she replied, “You cannot always find the Warder where he is, but sometimes you find him where he is not,” and went on crying her mussels to sell.
In the great building, near one comer, there was a mean little door of wood. Ged went to this and knocked loud. To the old man who opened the door he said, “I bear a letter from the Mage Ogion of Gont to the Warder of the School on this island. I want to find the Warder, but I will not hear more riddles and scoffing.”
“This is the School,” the old man said mildly. “I am the doorkeeper. Enter if you can.”
I love the worldbuilding here. LeGuin gives us physical details–docks, the small town of Thwil, high houses crammed into the narrow streets, the slate roofs and the large school building of grey stone that dwarfs all else, its tiny wooden door, the market booths abustle–yet this is a surface only.
Present here too is a functioning society: we’ve got economic activity (the market, mussel-selling), transportation (ship), architectural details (chimneytops – these people heat with fire; building materials of stone and wood – this further suggests a medieval world).
Lingering for a moment here, note that by gesturing at the medieval through the castles, ships, and market towns (and more obviously through elements elsewhere in the book), LeGuin conscripts our cultural concept of the medieval world and need not flesh out every aspect of the society. In so doing, she taps into a trove of cultural shorthand that, on the one hand, deepens her world, though on the other hand, runs the risk of casting it as unoriginal. LeGuin’s task, then, becomes to differentiate hers from other imagined medieval societies to show why Earthsea stands out (which she accomplishes brilliantly!).
More difficult to pin down in the above passage but clearly evident too are a couple of cultural elements: the cryptic, riddling responses by both townspeople suggest a standoffish attitude where strangers are loath to involve themselves much in the affairs of others. A similarly opaque attitude by the doorman is our first introduction to the magic school and suggests a culture in which everything gained must be hard fought.
It’s worth noting that our perceptions of Roke are not necessarily objective characteristics; rather, these are Ged’s impressions. In a first- or close-third-person narrative, worldbuilding is mediated through the main character, which adds another layer to the worldbuilding, as we learn at every moment both about the world and about Ged.
Haruki Murakami: “The Dancing Dwarf”
Often classified as magical realism, Murakami’s worlds range from the mundane to the bizarre. This marvelous soft-sci-fi description of the main character’s workplace shows up near the beginning of this short story:
Making elephant heads is tremendously rewarding work. It requires enormous attention to detail, and at the end of the day you're so tired you don't want to talk to anybody. I've lost as much as six pounds working there for a month, but it does give me a great sense of accomplishment. By comparison, making ears is a breeze. You just make these big, flat, thin things, put a few wrinkles in them, and you're done. We call working in the ear section "taking an ear break." After a monthlong ear break, I go to the trunk section, where the work is again very demanding. A trunk has to be flexible, and its nostrils must be unobstructed for its entire length. Otherwise, the finished elephant will go on a rampage. Which is why making the trunk is nerve-racking work from beginning to end.
We don't make elephants from nothing, of course. Properly speaking, we reconstitute them. First we saw a single elephant into six distinct parts: ears, trunk, head, abdomen, legs, and tail. These we then recombine to make five elephants, which means that each new elephant is in fact only one-fifth genuine and four-fifths imitation. This is not obvious to the naked eye, nor is the elephant itself aware of it. We're that good.
Why must we artificially manufacture--or, should I say, reconstitute--elephants? It is because we are far less patient than they are. Left to their own devices, elephants would give birth to no more than one baby in four or five years. And because we love elephants, of course, it makes us terribly impatient to see this custom--or habitual behavior--of theirs. This is what led us to begin reconstituting them ourselves.
To protect the newly reconstituted elephants against improper use, they are initially purchased by the Elephant Supply Corporation, a publicly owned monopoly, which keeps them for two weeks and subjects them to a battery of highly exacting tests, after which the sole of one foot is stamped with the corporation's logo before the elephant is released into the jungle. We make fifteen elephants in a normal week. Though in the pre-Christmas season we can increase that to as many as twenty-five by running the machinery at full speed, I think that fifteen is just about right.
In this example, emphasis is on the singular cultural practice of manufacturing elements, which the narrator describes as matter-of-factly as I imagine it possible to describe. We get explicit mention of the culture’s impatience, but also a clear view of their economic model involving monthly worker rotations, product quality control, assembly-line manufacturing, and corporate ownership.
Not far below the surface here is ample social critique: the society’s attitude towards nature (exploitive and self-serving, indifferent to the elephants’ best interests) is all too evident in the world today. The narrator praises the efficient, productive assembly line while neglecting any of the abundantly pressing ethical considerations of the industry. Here again, the narrator’s perspective is key: he is both our window into this world as well as an enthusiastic participant in it. His casual acceptance of his employer’s practices influences what it occurs to him to tell us, and thus character and world are intimately bound together.
Now that we’ve seen a couple of examples, let’s examine two core components that can make or undermine a world’s success.
First, convincing, captivating worlds must be internally consistent, logically constructed, so that all their elements fit together. What this means is, every element we include in our worlds must be thought through to its logical conclusions.
To illustrate, let’s consider Gabriel García Márquez’s short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The worldbuilding in this tale is simple: a rural village, a Catholic community, subsistence economy, and Márquez, just like LeGuin above, draws on our existing understandings of how communities like these function. And then, into this world, Márquez drops the story’s catalyst, a very old man with enormous wings, who appears randomly one day in a family’s garden. Here is the opening paragraph of the story:
On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.
The story proceeds to trace this new world element through its logical implications as the villagers seek to discover the nature of their visitor:
The news of the captive angel spread with such rapidity that after a few hours the courtyard had the bustle of a marketplace and they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down. Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel.
The curious came from far away. A traveling carnival arrived with a flying acrobat who buzzed over the crowd several times, but no one paid any attention to him because his wings were not those of an angel but, rather, those of a sidereal bat. The most unfortunate invalids on earth came in search of health: a poor woman who since childhood has been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers; a Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him; a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake; and many others with less serious ailments. In the midst of that shipwreck disorder that made the earth tremble, Pelayo and Elisenda were happy with fatigue, for in less than a week they had crammed their rooms with money and the line of pilgrims waiting their turn to enter still reached beyond the horizon.
The village’s economy rapidly shifts to accommodate the marvelous newcomer, and the whole situation is integrated because this turn of events is, somehow believable.
In the worlds we craft as writers, we must carefully think through the implications of whatever elements we introduce to our worlds. If artificial intelligences control a society’s basic functions, how do the human citizens relate to them? What attitudes support or rankle in such a situation? How does education change? If it comes that humans are no longer working for a living, what new definitions of worldly success arise? How do citizens pay for goods? Is there a need for a fully new economic model?
Thinking through such questions, whether or not all the implications make it into the final text of the story, enables us to write with verisimilitude, to lend our worlds a greater authenticity than a hodgepodge assemblage of unconnected elements. This encourages the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The world starts to breathe. We’ve done our work.
A brief counterexample, and one that I must confess I am not well-versed in: when I have seen episodes of Dr. Who (and again, I have seen only a few), I have struggled to get lost in the world presented to me. Although perhaps the world of each individual episode contains internal consistency, there are enough random, bizarre aliens tossed in and a small enough amount of follow-through that I am left feeling like the world is trying to entertain us with its randomness more than construct a cohesive whole. The Doctor and Tardis are the link, and I think I’m supposed to find enough continuity in them and their missions to not need an internally consistent, developed world. For me, as of yet, they haven’t succeeded. I’d be interested to hear a rebuttal from a self-acclaimed Whovian. I’ve often been told I would love the show. I’d really enjoy my doubts being proven wrong.
A story of this world; the world of this story
The best piece of worldbuilding advice I have received, or the one I most remember, is that the world we construct is ultimately in the service of the story we want to tell, not the other way around. In speculative fiction, we have the unique opportunity to step outside existing paradigms of life and tell stories that simply wouldn’t function in the everyday world. When we are creating the new world in which our story will take place, it makes sense, then, to hone that world to complement the story.
This is to say, the worldbuilding choices we make are far from arbitrary: they set the stage for and enable, perhaps even necessitate, the story we are telling. Return, for example, to Earthsea. The standoffish attitude of the islanders is a part of this world, yet it is chosen in order to heighten the mood of mystery; it further allows Ged to show us his determination as a character, as he pushes through challenges to find the school anyway. In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” situating the tale in a different world might not have allowed for the religious back-and-forths the story gestures at. These worlds are the contours against which our stories take shape, and we should build accordingly.
The worlds of speculative fiction are broad, deep, marvelous, and strange. They are worth exploring in our minds, fleshing out logically and thoroughly, and they can take on lives of their own as vivid as our characters’.
Next week, we’ll take the worlds we’ve created and stitch them into our stories, exploring how, and how much, they might best be painted in. What are your favorite speculative worlds? What elements do you consider as you plan? Thanks for reading.
This post is part one of two in a series on worldbuilding. To read part two, click here.