Forging a Universe: The Whats and Whys of Worldbuilding
For a long while now (hell, since I started this thing), I've been wanting to do a blog series on worldbuilding. It's easily one of my favorite parts of writing speculative fiction, and depending on the genre you're working with, it's also one of the most important. In fact, just about every author of fiction employs worldbuilding to some degree, even those who frame their stories in the real world. It's just that science fiction and fantasy writers have done a little more to quantify the process, given that it permeates our work so obviously.
Starting with this entry, I'm going to embark on a monthly journey into the process of crafting a universe. I'm going to break down what I (and many others) consider to be key elements of building a believable world, giving you a few glimpses into my creative process along the way. Since this is far too much ground to cover in one post, this series will last as long as I need it to. But before jumping into the deep end, I'm going to use this introductory post to cover the simple whats and whys of the process.
What is Worldbuilding?
It's widely believed that the term itself was coined sometime in the 1970s, conjured up at one of the various workshops and conventions where science fiction writers would gather, make merry, and discuss the craft. For the most part, it means exactly what it sounds like. It's the construction of the world (or universe) in which your story takes place. It's the process of filling in the details of setting and backstory that make up the playground you toss your characters into, then weaving these elements into a coherent backdrop that frames and complements your narrative.
That sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Generally, it is. But before an author can break the process down into manageable bits and pieces, he must decide which approach to take, as there are essentially two methods of worldbuilding: the "top-down" method and the "bottom-up" method. Those of you who've spent time as Dungeon Masters in the tabletop roleplaying world might recognize these as the same "outside-in" and "inside-out" methods that Dungeons and Dragons encourages for designing adventures.
Top-down worldbuilding is what I think of as "the mapmaker's approach." It begins with as broad a perspective as possible on your world and its inhabitants, defining things like physics, ecology, and geography first and foremost (assuming you're working with a single planet—if your story spans galaxies, you may be plotting cosmology at this stage as well), then building your way toward the culture and history of the civilizations therein, before finally working out the background of the main characters and their plight. This method is usually favored by outliners, since it involves a lot of work prior to writing the story itself. Some famous examples that were likely born of this approach include:
- Middle-earth, from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
- The world of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series
- The interstellar society of Frank Herbert's Dune
- The Mass Effect universe
As it sounds, bottom-up worldbuilding is pretty much the opposite, and I tend to think of it as "the Columbus method." Here, you begin with the story itself, crafting characters and plot at the outset and essentially filling in the rest along the way. The writer doesn't bother building the greater world their characters inhabit until it becomes essential knowledge for the reader. In this way, it's possible to avoid the dangerous temptation of worldbuilder's disease (in which one spends more time working on the backstory than the actual story) and focus on moving the plot forward. However, it also comes with the danger of in-world inconsistency and plot holes, which become easy to fall into if you're making things up as you go, and will require backtracking to correct. As you may have guessed, this type of worldbuilding is usually favored by discovery writers. Famous examples that likely came from this approach include:
- Ursula K. Leguin's Earthsea realm
- The greater multiverse of Stephen King's Dark Tower saga
- The Star Trek universe
- The mysterious island of Lost
It's also very possible to use a mix of both approaches, though it's less common. This is often the result of multiple creators working within a shared universe, such as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I've used both methods myself, though I tend to use the former for novel-length work and the latter for short stories. Ultimately, which approach you take will depend entirely on you, your story, and your writing style.
In a work of science fiction or fantasy, particularly the sprawling realms of epic fantasy or the infinite worlds of space opera, worldbuilding is the glue that holds your setting together. If plot and character is the meat of a story, worldbuilding is the fire you cook it over. The stronger a fire you build, the better that meat will taste when you're done. Good worldbuilding enriches the reader's experience, teasing and tapping that hunger for more that every good book gives you, even while you're reading it. It pulls you in and makes you forget that you're sitting on a couch with a book in your hand.
Obviously, this is all just one part of what makes a compelling story. There are many elements that help to transport the reader into your universe. But good worldbuilding will make that universe feel real. If you don't spend the time and effort necessary to flesh out your world, readers will notice. No matter how good the rest of your story is, if you try to pass flimsy worldbuilding in front of their eyes, chances are it will pull them out of your work the same way poor special effects can detract from an otherwise good movie (here's looking at you, cartoon wolf from 300).
Knowing all that, the question then becomes why wouldn't you worldbuild, at least to some degree? We certainly have enough things competing for reader attention without giving them an unnecessary reason to put the book down. So take advantage of this fantastic medium and grow some flesh on your story's bones. Use the awesome powers at your disposal. Forge a universe. Craft a realm. Build a world.
photo credit: Pensiero via cc