The Why of Worldbuilding

Once upon a time, a fellow of my acquaintance challenged someone to be a full Marie Brennan fanatic and get everything, including all four Worldbuilding books (but not Cold-Forged Flame, the best thing she’s written). This got my attention right away. Did I love worldbuilding? Yes. Did I know Marie Brennan is an academically trained anthropologist and highly talented writer? Yes. Did I sense a great possible marriage between those two elements? Yes.

The actual reading experience… well, you’ll have to wait for something beyond “interesting but I’m torn”. However, it has got me thinking about something that seems relatively untalked about in the fantasy genre: Why We Worldbuild and What’s The Desired Goal?

After all, there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding advice out there, but how often does it stop to talk first about to what end the advice is aimed? Personally, rarely, which mildly irks me and seems out of line with how writing advice is (slowly) moving to acknowledging there’s many different types of writing. There seems to be a general assumption with most worldbuilding advice that the aim is for watertight logic and internal consistency, along with high “this did happen” historical fidelity. I would like to ask – why is this so? Is this helpful for everyone?

Let me lay out my biases clearly. I have multiple books on worldbuilding. I have an MA in military history. I read academic textbooks and RPG sourcebooks for the joy of reading them. I appreciate worldbuilding for its own sake, and academic knowledge, and intellectual achievements. I also think writing advice needs to be married to ultimate end goals, and prefer a non one size fits all approach, and think the main goal of most fantasy book is entertainment and the shape of entertainment is an amorphous thing.

Here’s a super obvious example. Harry Potter is about as big as it gets. It’s worldbuilding, while clearly a delight to many, also features a great number of features that people complain about as lacking rigour. Other examples of highly popular works that have flaws pointed out recently to me includes Lord of the Rings (the mountains, agriculture) and The Poppy War (rivers).

Obviously every work can have mistakes and handwaves. That goes without saying. But I think the interesting questions that arise are

  1. How much handwaving, mistakes, dramatic embellishments, and so on can a story get away with?
  2. With ever limited page space (even in the most grandly sized of tomes), how much world can a storyteller expect to show, particularly if their focus in on characters and plot?
  3. If there’s only a limited amount of space in which to show the world, to what extent is getting things coherent as important as getting them cool?

Or to put it all together – if someone just wants to write a big fun fantasy adventure that’s aimed at a wide market, to what extent is rigourous worldbuilding necessary? Or maybe even desirable?

The same question applies to unusual worldbuilding too – something we’ve got even more data on due to the experiences of authors with non-Anglosphere cultural backgrounds writing about their worlds. There’s only so often you can read those – to read, say, an author explaining that not everyone using the term sister is in fact blood related so no the relationship isn’t incestuous – without realising this isn’t straight-forwards. And that’s in books where looking up cultural contexts is easy for those so inclined, where an awareness that we’re dealing with someone else’s culture should cause more curiosity and sensitivity (should). I apologise for any crassness in the comparison, but I hope the point is at least clear.

For me, an important part of writing that is rarely mentioned is that an author does not have to be excellent in every facet of their work to be considered excellent, and that it is rare to be so because there are only so many words and pages. Maybe I am completely wrong. Maybe it is rarely mentioned because it is a fool. But I do not think so. Which creates a minor problem when we present writing advice to a writer with “consider everything, be excellent everywhere, no mistakes in even the smallest details”. It sets unrealistic goals and maybe focuses attention away from the most important details.

Of course, there’s a reason students are rarely taught “you’ve only got to do good enough, don’t bust a gut”. So many reasons, obvious enough I’m not going to go into them.

But perhaps there should be thought about what fields of excellence matter most? Articles on how best to link a world into its biggest features? Or at least an acknowledgement that not every writer will have the same priority, and that the work for the hyper-detailed explorer beyond the boundaries mightn’t be the work for re-imaginer of the archetypal who is arguably taking risks in creating a detailed and/or different world? Maybe I’m wrong about that latter. But it’s hard to say when nobody seems to talk about it – at least, not in my favourite corners – and various approaches to world building that much.

This is all off the hip. So much of it could be wrong. But it’s stuff I’m considering.

10 thoughts on “The Why of Worldbuilding

    1. Don’t know about the rivers. Mordor’s mountains shouldn’t be that square; apparently it is notable that there are no signs of the fields/farmers that should supply the lembas in Lothlorien.

      Which on the latter point, I have to admit, seems somewhere along the lines of “Why do they never go to the toilet?”

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      1. I’ve actually thought that myself about Mordor’s mountains haha, but never to the point where I’ve actually cared or it’s diminishes my enjoyment. I also really love realism in (certain kinds of) fiction), it’s probably what I enjoy the most when it’s done well actually but, as you say, fiction is primarily entertainment and there is a tendency among some to try and suck all the joy out of entertainment.

        There’s also people who talk about worldbuilding inconsistencies and impossibilities from a place of love and in an interesting way though too and I also enjoy that. You can always tell which angle someone’s coming from I think, and while the former is just tiresome I do enjoy the latter.

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      2. I think you can tell where individuals come from, but sometimes it feels like there’s a general sentiment that mixes up the jokesters and the miserabilists and the overly sincere and what not altogether. And then maybe the sentiment gets overstated because you’ve got people arguing for it in every way possible.

        But in any case, yes, it does feel like some people forget about joy and entertainment – or maybe that their method is not universal.

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  1. ” I have an MA in military history”: wow, I didn’t know/expect that (not sure why)
    Does this mean that you don’t then like to read military fantasy, you keep finding mistakes?

    This is an interesting article, and I don’t know how I feel, because I’ve loved different books with very different levels of worldbuilding.
    I’m going to create a thread linked to this article…

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    1. I pick and choose when it comes to military stuff, but mainly because it can be quite difficult to keep interesting rather than any inaccuracy. Not that my Masters makes me incredibly well placed to spot it anyway; there’s a huge amount of military history, too much to cover in a year, and our focus was modern (even if my personal study and collection veers medieval). I certainly can’t think of a military fantasy or military history story that I’ve dropped due to inaccuracy.

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  2. When someone asks for advice on writing description, a common recommendation is that the description should be from the character’s POV–notice what the character would notice. Easier said that done, but reach should exceed grasp.

    I can see applying it to this question about worldbuilding. Peat asked what ought to be considered most important; I say, that which the character needs to get through the scene, the chapter, the story.

    This doesn’t mean it’s sufficient, only that it’s necessary and arguably is the most necessary. The other necessities should arrange themselves around this. But pay attention to that first, young writer.

    I’d like to propose the other end of the spectrum could use some attention and discussion as well. What is *least* important in worldbuilding? What ought be left for last? I can think of at least a couple of different answers for this and will leave as an exercise for the student. I mention it because it deserves to be on the list of “things as what don’t get discussed much, but ought.”

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