“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ―J. R. R. Tolkien
“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He's a mile away and you've got his shoes!” ―Billy Connolly
Part I: Introduction
Journeys are dangerous, wonderful, dangerously wonderful things. And none is more wonderful nor more dangerous than deciding to become an author. A romantic mystique still surrounds this occupation for some inexplicable reason, with most folks envisioning the author hunkered over an old-fashioned typewriter click-clacking away in a vain attempt to get the barrage of words out of their head and onto the page. When this tortured genius steps away from the typewriter, it is only to dazzle rapt audiences with their clever bon mots, usually over a cup of coffee or, more likely, whiskey.
This depiction did not match my personal journey in the least, although whiskey certainly made a few cameos. I always had an interest in writing, but never pursued it outside of a single creative writing course led by a professor who considered any whiff of the supernatural to be “gothic dreck.” Yet without any background or inkling of the skills it required, I decided to pursue screenwriting a week after graduating college. And because the odds weren’t already long enough, I decided to do so while residing outside of Los Angeles, the beating heart of the entertainment industry.
But the real kiss of death to any potential career was that I wanted to write fantasy.
To put this terrible curse in perspective, at the time I made this decision, The Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter movies were both still being filmed, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire consisted of only three books that were considered unfilmable. Fantasy as a genre had not yet broken through to the mainstream as it would over the ensuing decade. It instead remained the domain of nerds, geeks, and the chronically uncool. Much of this stigma would be scrubbed away over the next few years, but this was the current I chose to swim against when I dedicated myself to screenwriting. Or perhaps it wasn’t a choice at all. Perhaps it was finally succumbing to my creative compulsion and trying to channel it in the right direction.
Not entirely a fool, I shelved all my big high-fantasy ideas in favor of urban fantasy stories akin to the Vertigo comics I grew up reading. This was because I knew filmmaking to be an expensive endeavor, one requiring millions of dollars spent on production before even considering the post-production special effects, whole sets that would need to be constructed, and talented designers for creating new creatures and cultures. With no name or popular preexisting intellectual property to adapt, I sought to keep any potential budgets on the smaller side by adding magic to the world around us rather than creating new worlds from scratch. Then, like most aspiring screenwriters, I took a series of day jobs to support my creative endeavors. Fortunately for me, my career and creative interests intersected as I managed a team of a dozen coverage readers assessing screenplays for seven years, totaling several thousand scripts in that period. It’s a cliché in Hollywood for people to brag how they’ve read thousands of scripts in their tenure, but in the case of my team, we had the hard data to back up our boasts.
Yet while I peddled my urban fantasy stories, one story set in another world would not let me go, and for over a decade, I kept adding bits and pieces to the idea. Invariably it would rear its head at the most inopportune times, usually when deadlines loomed for other projects. And so it festered until I finally decided to exorcise myself of the demon by writing it out. So while awaiting a new set of notes from my producers, I began outlining the characters, plot, and world for my own edification. My producers, being European, did not tell me they decided to take the entire month of August off, and by the time they resurfaced with the next set of notes, I had already filled out over a hundred pages. With that groundwork laid, the rough draft of what would become my first series appeared in six weeks. I wrote as if possessed and even relearned how to type after breaking two fingers. But the pain and splints would not dissuade me, and soon enough I could count myself as one of those few people who had completed a novel.
After a few editing passes, I now had a finished fantasy reimagining of the American Civil War. Having had all my big ideas shot down by producers wise enough to run screaming from anything that smacked of high fantasy and unwilling to begin the querying process anew with a slew of traditional publishers, I turned to self-publishing. A few more weeks of online research, a disastrous first cover, and calling in every favor I accrued over the years, I released my book to a whole thirty sales that first week.
And thus began my inauspicious introduction into being an author.
But my journey into worldbuilding didn’t begin until I entered my first book in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. An outgrowth of Lawrence wondering how many quality self-published fantasy novels languish without ever being discovered, he teamed with ten brave bloggers to judge 300 applicants. Each blogger would whittle down their thirty novels to one champion, with the ten finalists then pitted against each other. Established in 2015, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (or SPFBO to those in the know) has succeeded in bringing some much-needed attention to self-published fantasy authors, burnished away many negative connotations, created a vibrant online community, launched several careers, and (ironically) led to several authors becoming traditionally published.
With the no-entry fee being exactly what my meager marketing budget would allow, I entered the third year of the competition and found myself in Fantasy Book Critic’s group, headed by Mihir Wanchoo. Since Fantasy Book Critic had been around for nearly a decade and helped discover Michael J. Sullivan, who would go on to reach numerous best-seller lists, this was a lot of pressure. Mihir soon reached out, and although I was not ultimately chosen as their champion, I did receive a wonderful review and advocates in their team. Other sites took notice, and more reviews came streaming in, all complimentary of my worldbuilding. One reviewer in particular postulated that I knew my world so well that I could probably tell her the best regions to grow wine. She said this in jest, but when I answered her with very specific regions, it amused her to no end. And even those reviews that did not care for my female anti-hero or non-linear storyline still mentioned the strength of the worldbuilding.
So, like any opportunist author seeing a chance to stand out from the pack, I pivoted my marketing strategy to drill down into my unintentional “brand” with the hope of weaponizing it. I intended, in a matter of weeks, to become “the worldbuilding guy,” the fellow others turn to as an expert on the subject. With any luck, I would soon be invited to panels on worldbuilding, where I would dazzle audiences with my clever observations, which would lead to me being invited to all the right writerly parties, which would eventually culminate in me buying a tweed sports coat and smoking a pipe to really hammer home my affected author archetype.
But I hit an immediate roadblock in that I could not put a finger on what constituted “good” worldbuilding. And what exactly was “bad” worldbuilding? Why did some reviewers praise mine while tearing apart others that I considered equally as good? How could I become THE expert on the subject when I couldn’t even come up with a serviceable definition of my topic?
Journeys are indeed dangerous, wonderful things, and after having stayed the path Mihir started me down for three years, I can confidently say that, despite its ubiquity in the science fiction and fantasy genres, there is no shared definition for what worldbuilding entails. Plenty of people bandy the word about, with most reviews at least making some mention of the stuff. Yet what exactly this mysterious concoction consists of still remains a mystery to most.
This is not to say there is not already a wealth of information out there. An entire library could be dedicated to books on writing fantasy and science fiction, and numerous thriving online communities exist for discussing worldbuilding. The Reddit /r/worldbuilding community alone boasts more than a half-million members at the time of writing, while constructing worlds is a critical component in game design. Yet there is no definitive underlying approach applied to worldbuilding for fantasy stories, which I find odd considering that worldbuilding originated within the medium of storytelling before spreading to the other disciplines. During my research, I discovered that there appeared to be as many theories on what constituted good and bad worldbuilding as there were fantasy fans and authors. So with that in mind, I availed myself to anything I could find on the subject, which quickly became overwhelming. But I soon divided the existing material into two distinct groups.
The first is academic, with such luminaries as Douglas Parker, who taught comparative worldbuilding in his Parageography course at the University of Texas from 1987 to 2007. Parker left behind a wealth of information on comparative worldbuilding in classical works as well as his outline for teaching Parageography, which required his students to create their own world as a final project, all of which can be found at douglassparker.org. Mark J. P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation is another treasure trove of information, with Wolf chairing the communication department at Concordia University Wisconsin and being one of the leading scholars on video game theory and worldbuilding. Each of these sources proved invaluable to me as a fantasy fan, with both being intensely interesting on the intellectual level, but neither terribly applicable to me as an author.
The other end of the spectrum consisted of other authors who put together how-to books, checklists, and workbooks on the subject. After just a few online searches, I quickly found dozens of worldbuilding tools, slides, and infographics. These included the well-known names of Hugo and Nebula-winning authors N. K. Jemisin and Orson Scott Card as well as anthropologist-turned-fantasy-author Steven Erikson. These tools also illuminated the way as the authors delved deep into their processes to recount their worldbuilding from inception to completion. But these resources, and the other dozens of books on the subject, all approached worldbuilding from each author’s own personal perspective alone. In effect, each book provided a distinct path to the promised land of good worldbuilding, yet each route was different, and none mirrored my own particular path. This personalized approach was compounded by including the role-playing community, who have been building intricate worlds for over forty years after the invention of Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Hundreds of different game systems now exist, with thousands of game masters fashioning their own unique worlds for others to explore. Before the invention of role-playing games, worldbuilding was mostly the domain of authors, but it has been effectively crowdsourced since then. No longer was it only authors attempting to get their individual worlds across but thousands upon thousands of worlds designed to interact and provide entertainment for millions of gamers across the globe. The internet provided a platform for these folks to share their worlds, along with best practices in designing them as well as several more books on the subject. But as with authors, each of these routes was based on personal experience. And they were scattered throughout the internet like so many clues along a scavenger hunt.
There is clearly a lot of middle ground between these two extremes, one being the comparative academic analysis and the other the intensely personal experience. And it’s within this middle ground where most authors and fans reside, even though we still can’t quite agree on shared definitions of worldbuilding. Yet we’re all exceedingly sure we know what makes for good worldbuilding. Similar to how United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to define pornography in his infamous quote, we believe we can identify good worldbuilding when we see it. But that’s like making a literary criticism without a literary theory underlying it. In effect, this is the realm of opinion, which everyone is entitled to. But it is not criticism, which has a consistent philosophical component to its process. Like a good story, good worldbuilding deserves to be poked and prodded, to be examined by the curious to see if it will stand up to the stress tests of intellectual rigor. Dozens of literary theories exist, some outright contradicting the others, and while literary critics might favor one theory over another, they are expected to be knowledgeable about them all so they can apply the right theory to the applicable text.
With that in mind, my goal for this book is to distil many of the existing worldbuilding theories and philosophies to create a shared vocabulary, to sift through the inordinate material, find the patterns, and compile them here. For fellow fantasy fans, the intent is to have a shared vocabulary for expressing what worldbuilding details did and did not work in fantasy stories. For fantasy authors, the goal is to be more mindful of our decisions before sharing our deeply personal creations with audiences.
In college, I was lucky enough to study anthropology at Durham University for a year, where I took a course on the anthropology of art. I entered that class knowing little about either art or anthropology, yet I felt confident I could define art if someone put a gun to my head. Several months later I exited the class with significantly more knowledge on both art and anthropology. However, with so much understanding now crowding my brain, even defining what “art” was became difficult in that I could spew numerous theories and analytical arguments at the drop of a hat. Ironically, by spending an academic year on the subject, I now proved incapable of explaining it succinctly.
By knowing more, I somehow understood less.
Such a situation is the opposite of my intention here, so I will open this book with a clear definition of worldbuilding. Firstly, as a verb, worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, which can consist of something as small as a room or large enough to encompass an entire universe with multiple alternative timelines. Worldbuilding as a verb is used when constructing a world for any purpose, be it for a narrative story, an interactive game, or even just a what-if mental exercise. That said, although we will draw from video and role-playing game sources, the rest of this book will examine worldbuilding exclusively for the purpose of narrative storytelling.
As a noun, worldbuilding refers to an authentic sense of space and time, such that the setting feels like it exists independently of the story being told. These are the vibrant worlds that critics claim “spring off the page.” This is a bit of a catch-22, however, in that effective worldbuilding elicits a sense that the created world does not serve the story when in fact the world was created explicitly to tell the story.
If that inherent paradox hasn’t frightened you off yet, we will spend the next several hundred pages picking apart this definition of worldbuilding as a noun so as to make the verb an easier process. However, please only continue if those two definitions ring true for you. They are, in effect, my fantasy conceit, my core concept that I will ask you to buy into and accept by investing your willing suspension of disbelief, a process we’ll (hopefully) discuss later in chapter eight.
But these are not the only conceits that I will expect you to swallow, all of which I’d like to get out of the way here in the introductory chapter. As we’ll discuss in chapter twelve, audiences hate a bait-and-switch, which happens when the story strays from the promise of the premise—i.e., when audiences start a story believing it will be about one thing, only to discover midway through it has veered off course.
As I stated, I come from a screenwriting background, where there’s a premium on page length. In my time in the industry, the standard page count for a speculative script has dropped from 110 pages to closer to 100, and it’s now not uncommon to see some under 90 pages. And the screenwriter is expected to get a full story across in those 90–110 pages, complete with character arcs, twisting plots, and intricate worldbuilding with room left over for a potential franchise. Fortunately for aspiring screenwriters, a wealth of information exists on how to accomplish this. Robert McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! are both best-sellers on the subject, but the most helpful resource for my own career was Terry Rossio’s blog post Death to Readers. For those unfamiliar with the industry, readers are also known as coverage writers, whose job it is to review screenplays so the executives don’t have to bother reading them. Readers are the first ones sifting the wheat from the chaff, and I had the distinct privilege of working with some of the most talented individuals in the business. Which should be expected since pretty much every writer in Hollywood has gotten their start as a coverage reader, including Terry Rossio and his writing partner, Ted Elliott, whom you might know for penning Pirates of the Caribbean. On his website, he provided a sixty-point checklist outlining what he learned while working as a reader, and #36 has always stuck with me:
“Every single line must either advance the plot, get a laugh, reveal a character trait, or do a combination of two -- or in the best case, all three -- at once.” (Rossio, 1997)
This single sentence best encompasses the relentless efficiency required of screenplays, which is something I’ve taken to heart as both an author and worldbuilder. As such, I’m adapting his adage to creating fantasy worlds in that all worldbuilding details must either serve:
And the best, most efficient worldbuilding will accomplish a combination of all three simultaneously. As such, the author should keep all three in mind when fashioning a fictional world. Yet it will ultimately be the audience who decides if these worldbuilding details succeed in the author’s intent. But the greatest irony of all is that most audience members will not notice when the authors succeed in their tasks, only when they fail.
I wanted to state this tenant of mine at the onset because I expect many will object to the idea that something as creative and deeply personal as worldbuilding must serve a purpose, particularly one judged by others. Having perused the online worldbuilding forums for a long while now, I fully understand that there are those who create worlds for the sheer joy of it, fashioning them alone like Emily Dickinson and her poetry. To these worldbuilders, creating an imaginary world serves no other purpose than personal pleasure. This is certainly a laudable mental exercise—one I’ve availed myself of numerous times. But once an imagined world makes its first contact with someone, it shifts from being a mental exercise into being a work of art. And one thing I do distinctly remember from my anthropology of art class is that all art is a sense of self-expression aimed at eliciting an emotional response from an audience. This audience can take many forms, from a single friend offering a few notes, to the expansive franchises inundating all of our forms of entertainment these days. So while anyone can worldbuild alone, thus acting out the verb, once they show it to anyone else, it is no longer entirely theirs and thus transforms into a noun.
It is no longer an act, but a piece of art that audiences will now interpret.
Artists traditionally search for an audience in one of two manners: they find the largest audience possible or seek out a very precise niche. The first method wants anyone drawing breath to see and marvel at their work, which is what we in the film industry call a “four-quadrant movie”—it appeals to everyone. A precise audience, on the other hand, encompasses niche groups, who presumably have more of a deep, personal connection with the material. It could be argued that this is a quantity over quality dichotomy, but there is no reason to believe the popular worldbuilding worlds are qualitatively lesser because they are so popular. In fact, the inverse is most likely true.
Which leads us to the biggest pill I’m going to ask you to swallow if you continue past this introduction: The vast majority of my worldbuilding examples will be drawn from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George Lucas’ Star Wars, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and I will hold them up as exemplars of effective worldbuilding. All four have, in the span of a single generation, changed the fantasy genre by being paragons of worldbuilding.
To these four, I will add Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar: The Last Airbender for comparative purposes. I do not include Airbender because I personally consider it the best of these examples (although I certainly do), but because it fulfills all my other subsequent criteria but does not yet stand shoulder to shoulder with these titans in terms of audience awareness. However, I will note that in the case of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Martin’s Westeros, their fame did not come immediately. Drawing from their examples, it can take over a decade for a project to reach terminal velocity and escape the confines of genre fandom, which is why I have included Airbender for now, to see if audiences will eventually elevate it into this pantheon.
Which means my argument basically boils down to audiences.
All five of my exemplar worlds, especially my core four, have transcended the fantasy genre to captivate mainstream attention. My totally anecdotal proof of this is my mother, who has never cracked open a fantasy book outside of my own novels. Yet she still knows what Jedi and hobbits are, that Hogwarts is a school, and that Lannisters always pay their debts. These four works have slipped their genre bonds to suffuse popular culture and are therefore the easiest examples to cite due to their ubiquity.
Now while this may seem like I’m advocating fantasy worldbuilding for non-fantasy consumers, this is not the case. After numerous interviews with fantasy authors, these four core worlds came up again and again, with dozens of authors citing them as the inspiration for their own writing. They offer something universal, something that can appeal to the non-fantasy fan as well as the die-hards, to the point that they are used to market other products. I can distinctly remember scratching my head after seeing a commercial of ring wraiths chased down a Kia Sorento to promote free DVDs given away with a test drive. Walking through a hardware store not long ago, I found Star Wars licensed refrigerators, while my front door sports a welcome mat featuring Han, Leia, and a baby Vader given to us as a housewarming gift. Each of these intellectual properties has something specifically iconic about them, be they lightsabers, the One Ring to rule them all, house signs and sayings, or pretty much anything Harry Potter related. This sets up the classic chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Are they popular because they’re iconic or iconic because they’re popular?
Because, make no mistake, they are incredibly popular, with the Harry Potter book series having sold more than 500 million copies, Star Wars 160 million, The Lord of the Rings 150 million and The Hobbit another 100 million, and A Song of Ice and Fire 90 million, for a billion copies between them. They are no slouch when it comes to the box office, either: as of the writing of this book, the Star Wars franchise has grossed $10.3 billion dollars, Harry Potter $9.1 billion, The Lord of the Rings $5.8 billion, and Game of Thrones $3.1 in HBO subscriptions alone, for a combined total of $28.3 billion USD.
To put that in perspective, a million dollars is considered a lot of money—at least to me. But a million seconds is only 11.5 days. A billion seconds, on the other hand, is approximately 31.5 years. And these four franchises have amassed that amount multiple times over without even including income from video games, toys, or any other merchandising.
I mention these movie adaptations and merchandising outlets for a reason, which is another of my criteria in choosing these core four: they are TRANSMEDIAL in that they are not constrained to a single medium. In addition to the obvious books, movies, TV shows, and video games, their outlets include comic books, trading cards, role-playing games, action figures, and sourcebooks outlining material not even included in the core canonical works. This demand for additional material and outlets demonstrates these properties’ expanding reach, with each of them created by only one or two individuals but eventually employing hundreds if not thousands of others to produce enough material to meet the demand of millions of fans around the world. Both Harry Potter and Star Wars have theme parks, where fans can walk down the same streets as their favorite characters. Meanwhile, the shooting locations for The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are also popular tourist destinations, bringing in crowds from all over the globe.
I should state that this focus on worldbuilding is not to take anything away from the strong plots and characters of these series, but the magnetic draw of their worldbuilding cannot be ignored. It should also be noted that the criteria of being transmedial and influencing popular culture does mean my examples are rather high and epic fantasy focused, with only Harry Potter being an outlier. This reflects the fantasy genre to a certain degree, with a recent survey of Our Gateway Into Fantasy at The Fantasy Inn website showing that 47.5% of fans classify the book that drew them into the genre as epic fantasy (2020). These results were borne out in the Fantastic Insights 2020 Survey at The Fantasy Hive, where 60% of readers listed epic fantasy as their preferred subgenre regardless of age or gender (2020). This attention paid to epic series is also due to the subgenre’s focus on worldbuilding due to the nature of quests in these narratives: the characters invariably traverse new and strange lands, thus acting as tour guides for the audience. This, in turn, is a great example of when the worldbuilding details serve the plot, characters, and world simultaneously. This is most likely why the fantasy genre has cleaved so closely to the high and epic fantasy tropes over the decades, but that is not to say an author cannot create a new world equally vibrant and in-depth as The Lord of the Rings spanning no more than a single location. Harry Potter has demonstrated that fans will return to the same school year after year if the location is compelling enough.
The third criteria in selecting these series as worldbuilding exemplars is that the worlds support multiple timelines by their initial creators. Although Star Wars infamously began with Episode Four: A New Hope and completed that initial trilogy with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, two new trilogies have appeared in the intervening years, examining approximately 20 years before and 30 years after the initial trilogy. The Hobbit preceded The Lord of the Rings by seventeen years; A Song of Ice and Fire has the Dunk and Egg prequels as well as other prequels currently in development at HBO; Harry Potter has the Fantastic Beasts prequels as well as the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; and Airbender has its sequel series The Legend of Kora. And while all five of these examples overlap with the original series in terms of characters and events, they are also independent plotlines complete with characters acting out their own unique stories. This demonstrates again the power of great worldbuilding in that these universes were initially created as vehicles to deliver the original stories, only for the world to outgrow the initial tales when fans demanded more and more adventures.
This is one of worldbuilding’s greatest strengths in that, while it’s possible to enjoy a book, show, or movie multiple times due to the characters or plot, the law of diminishing returns makes for a short entertainment half-life. This is because, although we may still appreciate the artistry of the execution, we cannot be surprised by the plot or characters a second time. No matter how great a moment, learning that Vader is Luke’s father cannot pack nearly the same emotional punch a second time around, no more than Eddard Stark’s fate, nor the relief when Gandalf the White appears. These moments can certainly be revisited and enjoyed for the craftmanship it took to pull them off, but the initial shock and sense of wonder can never be recaptured.
Compare this to experiencing a fantastical world, which can inspire the same sense of wonder again and again with each revisit. And with each induction, new details about the world emerge, increasing the appreciation with each exposure, such that it becomes a haven from the real world. So while a strong story may invite multiple viewings, strong worldbuilding ensures fans return again and again to uncover new details in their sanctuary.
Although I will lean on these five series while ignoring others than fit these same criteria, the contribution of other fantasy authors cannot be ignored. Ursula K. Le Guin, Orson Scott Card, Robin Hobb, Patrick Routhfus, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, Naomi Novik, C. S. Lewis, Tamora Pierce, Philip Pullman, Mercedes Lackey, Tad Williams, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Octavia Butler, and Joe Abercrombie are just a few who influenced my personal understanding of worldbuilding. However, Brandon Sanderson, N. K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, and Steven Erikson all bear some special attention for deconstructing worldbuilding as a subject, and I cite them quite a bit alongside Tolkien and Wolf. I have also interviewed dozens of fantasy authors about their worldbuilding process and heard these same five series appear again and again when describing their favorite fantasy realms.
I realize if this book were instead about recording a rock album, it would seem that all my examples would be drawn from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and U2. And while I am a huge rock fan, I personally own only one album between all these artists. My own tastes run much more experimental, and so I avoid these bands like the plague. But I still know many of their songs by heart because they are mainstream. They have reached the widest possible audience, whereas I would instead seek a very niche audience made up of individuals whose own tastes are as eclectic as my own.
The same holds true of the philosophies and insights contained in this book. While the aim appears to be reaching the widest audience possible, I am by no means advocating aping these authors’ worlds as the pinnacle of fantasy worldbuilding. They are by far the most popular, but that does not make them any more valuable than any lesser-known authors aiming for a smaller and more personally aligned audience. As an author or fantasy fan, if you do not agree with my selected exemplars, please choose your own canon and rigorously examine how they accomplish the worldbuilding you so enjoy. Study their strategies by comparing and contrasting them to those I put forth here so you can forge your own worldbuilding path.
Because that is the ultimate philosophy of this book: tools, not rules.
Like battleplans, no adage or literary rule holds up in the thick of reading or writing. What works for one author falls apart in the hands of another, which is why the goal of this book is to give you all the tools in the box, let you know how best to employ them, then set you loose to do as you choose.
So, with all that out of the way, let’s get to work.
“All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to depreciate imagination?” ―Carl Jung
Part II: What Is Worldbuilding?
OVERVIEW: In this section, we will examine what worldbuilding is and how it is indelibly tied to fantasy and science fiction, although not limited to these genres. This is due to their roots in speculative fiction, as well as genre expectations, which originate in the distinction between literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction. We will then delineate science fiction and fantasy by which fields they use to establish their worldbuilding credibility. We then will dig into how fantasy worlds most often manifest themselves as either extensions of our own reality or their own distinct reality in overlaid and secondary worlds. Last, we will examine two author worldbuilding strategies—top-down and bottom-up—to see how they align with the audience’s subjective experience of worlds from the inside-out.
1. Literary, Upmarket, and Commercial Fiction
Early in my novel writing endeavor I considered going the traditional publishing route and researched literary agents. And as I scoured their online wish lists, I kept coming across the same terms over and over: literary, upmarket, and commercial. These terms confounded me until I came across a helpful infographic by the P.S. Literary Agency.
LITERARY FICTION, they explained, were those books intent on earning awards and therefore focused their energies on the strength of their prose. Famous examples of literary fiction include pretty much anything you were forced to read in school (especially James Joyce). UPMARKET FICTION, on the other hand, seeks to highlight universal experiences to spark discussion and are character-driven. Examples include Water for Elephants and The Lovely Bones. COMMERCIAL FICTION intends on entertaining its audience by focusing on plot-driven stories. All genre fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, romance, thrillers, horror, historical fiction, and dozens of others, fall under this umbrella. These are the books that, unlike their literary and upmarket peers, care more about sales than awards or spirited discussions.
As the name connotes, commercial fiction is in it for the money.
Although this infographic proved exceedingly useful, it is also rather reductionist in that the best genre fiction incorporates great characters enacting an engaging plot comprised of prose that resonates. Prose, plot, and character together make up individual legs of this literary table, and when any one leg is longer than the other, it wobbles.
However, genre fiction has a fourth leg, one that is contingent upon its specific genre. This is the GENRE EXPECTATION, wherein the audience decides if the story fulfilled all their presumptions of the genre. Many of the genre expectations are eponymous—e.g., is the thriller in fact thrilling, the romance romantic, or the horror story horrific? Just like their upmarket and literary fiction kin, commercial fiction has its audience in mind and intends to give them what they want. But for the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and (to a lesser extent) historical fiction, the genre expectations take on more nuance. For historical fiction, we expect an authentic representation of the time period. Contrast this to science fiction and fantasy, which are often both uncoupled from reality in terms of time and place. Yet the genre expectations for all three are intrinsically linked to their worldbuilding because all three rely upon their setting to fulfill their audience’s expectations.
As Wolf points out, “Worlds can exist without stories, but stories cannot exist without a world” (Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation, p. 27). A story certainly needs a setting, a canvas to paint the characters and plot upon, but the setting alone is not worldbuilding. Worldbuilding extends beyond just the location and geography to encompass everything the characters encounter on their narrative journey. Worldbuilding as a verb is therefore constructing an authentic and credible canvas to splash the story upon.
That said, while worldbuilding is crucial for fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, it is by no means limited to those genres. Police procedurals live or die by their sense of credibility in capturing the feel of the precinct and criminal underworld, from Dragnet on through Hill Street Blues and into the many iterations of CSI and Law & Order. The same is true for courtroom dramas, where they create an authentic sense of space through knowledge of the criminal justice system in whatever county or time period the story takes place in. A lawyer that does not know when to properly object or a judge who does not challenge them on their knowledge of the law deeply damages the sense of credibility because of a weakened sense of worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding also exists in Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, Maine, a spot that does not exist on any real map, but a place that audiences have visited for over 30 years. The same is true for Springfield from The Simpsons, a town defined by whatever the episode requires at the time and thus includes nearby mountains, oceans, forests and deserts. Despite its mercurial nature, familiar landmarks such as the Kwik-E-Mart, Krusty Burger, and Moe’s Tavern next to King Toot’s Music Store are so familiar that they have received their own theme park. Even the staid and stolid literary fiction contingent contains examples of worldbuilding, such as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Joyce’s Dublin, while classic examples include Milton’s Dis and Dante’s Inferno. Worldbuilding is not confined to narrative stories, either, with Tom Waits painting an authentic picture of Puntum County, whereas Bruce Springsteen credibly conjures images of New Jersey. Over 100 million users have visited World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, and fans have been electronically exploring iterations of Hyrule for decades to adventure along with Link and Zelda.
Yet while many mediums and genres employ worldbuilding, the genres of fantasy and science fiction cannot exist without it. For the other genres, strong worldbuilding adds to the story, but does not diminish the genre expectations when not included. In fact, literary fiction authors are advised to not list specific locations or brands in their stories to keep the setting generic. The logic behind this is to make the story feel more universal in that the audience can imagine the events taking place anywhere in any time period.
Compare this to fantasy and science fiction, which both MUST produce an unfamiliar world for their audiences to explore. Stripped of all subtlety and artifice, Star Trek: The Original Series encapsulated the genre expectations best in the show’s introductory mission statement: “To seek out new life and new civilizations.” It is this sense of exploration, of discovering new living cultures and biological creatures that is the beating heart of both genres. Without a fantastical world to discover or a new fantastical way to reexamine our own world, both genres lose a leg and topple under the weight of the story.
Yet while science fiction and fantasy share this same core genre expectation to the extent that they often get lumped together on the same bookstore shelf, fantasy and science fiction are in fact very different beasts. They share similar histories and external traits, such that even luminaries like Orson Scott Card distinguish between them only by if they occur in the future or the past. Arthur C. Clarke stated the difference was that “science fiction is something that could happen—but you usually wouldn't want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn't happen—though you often only wish that it could.” Rod Serling echoed this distinction a bit more succinctly: “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” Both genres break the laws of nature as we know them, but these similar traits result from convergent evolution, meaning they carry out and succeed in their genre expectations in entirely different manners.
 Dystopian/ utopian fiction and alternate history also distinctly depend on setting as a core conceit, but both are frequently considered subgenres of science fiction or occasionally literary fiction, which is why they only get a mention here in the footnote.
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