At last, the post at least three people have been waiting for (if I count myself. Twice). Time to see what all the fuss has been about as I’ve been researching for my worldbuilding book. But before we get to the results, a few tidbits. This poll was preceded by a focus group over at /r/worldbuilding, where I got a little over 50 answers. To these I added all the author interviews from the beginning of the year and the questionnaire I did with them to create the final survey. It was answered by 402 people, mostly drawn from /r/fantasy, Twitter, a few fantasy Discord/ Slack channels, as well as folks who answered a Facebook ad poll I was running from April to July.
This sampling is in no way meant to represent the entire fantasy community. The focus of my book was for hardcore fantasy fans (they type who think about stuff like fantasy worldbuilding), which is why I sought out the type of people who discuss and post about fantasy online. These are my potential victi—er, demographics, after all.
All the options were randomized in each survey and people could write in their answers. Any write-in that received more than two votes were then added to the survey. This only happened twice.
And now, without further ado, here are some results. Some of these charts will be used in my upcoming worldbuilding book, but some will just live here.
Top Fantasy Worlds
Respondents were asked to select their top five fantasy worlds out of the top 25 picked by the open-ended questions from the focus group. That Lord of the Rings placed first is really no shock, although I have to say I was surprised how high Airbender placed. It’s my favorite world, but I didn’t think it would have done as well as it did against the big dogs. However, there’s an article going around how it’s having a second life on Netflix, which is good since it deserves all the attentions.
You’ll note that I’ve divided them into two different colors. This is because for the book I took a page from Mark J. P. Wolf’s textbook on worldbuilding and added a few criteria for picking my worldbuilding exemplars for reference. They were:
The world is transmedial, meaning it exists in multiple mediums (books, movies, games, comics, etc.).
It has supported multiple series within the world, meaning it doesn’t deal with just one main througline.
The ones in yellow did not meet these two criteria, while the ones in blue did, which is why I draw from them as my examples in the book.
The next question asked if the respondent had consumed their favorite world in multiple mediums, and there was no surprise that 93% said yes. This was testing Wolf’s assertion that strong worldbuilding (what I call inspired worldbuilding) leads to multiple consumptions via multiple mediums. In effect, the audience loves the world so much they seek it out however they can.
Top Five Aspects of Worldbuilding
I wish I had thought this question through a little more, not because the results weren’t great, but because I could have got a lot more out of it. Alas, hindsight. But it’s interesting how they group:
History (68%), Depth (52%), Immersion (46%), and Sense of Scale (33%) give a visceral sense of immersion within the world and that it exists before and after the current story ends. This fits exactly into what my theory of what good worldbuilding is, and it’s interesting how they all grouped at the top.
Magic Systems (39%) at first appears to stand alone, but it makes sense it placed so high since magic is why people come to the fantasy genre after all. And the fact that “systems” implies that the magic is not random makes sense that it gets the same score as Consistent (39%). As we’ll explore in the next post, inconsistencies are where most people lose their sense of immersion.
Diversity (32%), New Cultures (30%), Complexity (29%), and Interconnection (28%) all deal with a sense of newness, exploration, and how these new experiences all fit together within the world.
Politics (25%) and Conflicts (21%) are pretty much synonyms these days, as are Specific Details (19%), Realism (14%), and Grittiness (5%).
It is also interesting that both Familiar (4%) and Alien (3%) rated at the very bottom since they are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. So it seems audiences want something in the middle, or as I like to say, “something new I can relate to.”
But after considering these groupings further, as well as a recent post about why people want “realism” in their fantasy, I’m beginning to wonder if there is a ranking to what audiences want in fantasy worldbuilding.
A world that feels fleshed out and that exists before and after the events of the story take place.
A fantastical element (magic) that is understandable and consistent. The audience may not understand the rules, but they want the sense that the world abides by something underlying.
New cultures and creatures and how they fit together and within the world.
How these new cultures and creatures order themselves in terms of power structure and how their worldviews clash against each other.
A sense of realism.
I have to say, this graph has some of the least to do with my book, but it’s the one I’m most excited about. I want to do some follow up questions to test this theory.
Fields Used to Assess Fantasy Worldbuilding
My initial theory was that fantasy fans use soft sciences—particularly history—to assess the effectiveness of their worldbuilding, whereas science fiction fans use the hard sciences. And, to a certain extent, this was borne out by these results, with History (75%) taking the lead, followed closely by Religion/ Mythology (67%), and Politics/ Governments (61%). Geography (42%) is the only real hard science in the top half, despite not breaking 50%. Then it’s another long list of “-ologies,” with only Technology (26%) having any showing.
Fields Used to Assess Science Fiction Worldbuilding
My hard/ soft dichotomy for sci fi/ fantasy broke down a bit here, although it was heartening to see Technology (70%) take the top spot. It would have been better for my theory had Physics (45%) taken second place, but Politics/ Government (62%) and History (49%) spoiled this. Then it’s a pretty even mix of hard and soft sciences all the way down.
So I did have to modify my initial theory and incorporate more soft sciences in my estimation of science fiction worldbuilding. Turns out that people care about power structures, even in a galaxy far, far away.
I also find it interesting that Chemistry (11%) is the bottom of both fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding, which backs up a choice I made early on not to address it in my book. Huzzah.
That's it for now. Come back in a week when the second half of my graphs will drop and we learn what it requires to be recognized as an elf.