What is Worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding: n. the act of constructing a fictional world for the purpose of creating stories.
The intricate worlds of great authors fill me with equal parts awe and despair. As I read, I become enmeshed to such an extent that the real world vanishes around me, replaced by the author’s all-encompassing vision. All I can think (when I come up for air) is ‘How did they do that?’ Over the years though, I’ve discovered a surprisingly simple key: it’s the word building.
Just building. Like a Lego house or an Ikea chair, you’re constructing something from the pieces you have available. The difference is that you’re not (usually) building something small and contained.
And it’s not being delivered to you all wrapped up in a little box with numbered bags. It’s all in your head (that’s right! I said it!), and your choices in the way it comes out, at least at the outset, are virtually unlimited.
It’s a simple concept, but like anything, it takes practice…and a few specific tools.
What Does Worldbuilding Require?
Since today’s topic is just an introduction to worldbuilding, and therefore something I want to keep bite-size, I’m only going to give a quick overview of your tools here. I’ll cover each of these in more depth in up-coming articles.
For now, the most important thing to remember is that building projects, large or small, all require the same four basic components: foresight, basic materials and tools, blueprints or instructions, and a sequence.
Worldbuilding is no different, and each component can be clearly defined:
1. The foresight is your own imagination and desires for your story—how you want or hope for things to be.
2. The materials and tools are your story’s unique elements: The setting, characters, physical or social rules, history, and genre, among others.
3. The blueprints are your maps, which may be more or less detailed depending on your skills and need—realistic fiction is less likely to require printed maps than, say, fantasy, but you still need to know where things are relative to each other. Often, you’ll need to know the why of the arrangement, too.
4. The sequence is your timeline. It may span eons or minutes and it may move forward or backward, but it is essential to ensuring a complete and coherent story.
And then of course, there is one final, key requirement: Your own focused time. Building anything takes dedicated time, and you have to be willing to put that work in if you want your efforts to pay off with a satisfying and finished product—in this case, a world into which your story and characters can take root.
The time it takes is wholly dependent on how involved you want to get. If you only want one story out of your world, then you only need to work on that story’s timeline, which shouldn’t take too long—some hours over the course of a few weeks might be enough.
But if you want, say, an epic 14-book fantasy adventure series (lookin’ at you, Robert Jordan!), you will need to invest juuust a tad more time.
And therein lies the catch. You don’t have enough time for it all. Faster than you can blink, worldbuilding can become a tangled prairie dog city of ideas (Do you even know how huge those cities can get?).
When your imagination is the limit, realistically you don’t have much of a limit! So you can’t just sit down and say ‘let’s build!’ You have to focus. It took me a long time to figure out that particular key.
What Got Me into Worldbuilding?
There are moments in our lives that will go on to define us forever, yet most of the time, we have no clue until much later. My worldbuilding spark was one of those, and it can be traced back to when I was 13 (so, not quite an eon ago).
It was a Thursday evening. My dad had dragged my 10-year-old brother and me to his weekly role-playing game, and as I moped in a corner of the Game Master’s living room, I was bored out of my tweenage mind. Dice rattled, men’s laughter and conversation droned on, and I burrowed myself moodily in my book, wishing I were at home.
Not so my brother—he sat there in awe, soaking it all in. He took avid notes and made initial design ideas on his drawing pad all evening. Then the next afternoon, with copy paper, pencils, scotch tape, and scissors strewed about, my brother began to build.
Multi-sheet, birds-eye village maps and detailed, inch-tall paper characters sprang up under his deft hand, his first childish epics already begun.
“Now that looks like fun!” I thought. And I picked up my own pencil.
Within a year I was writing stories based on those initial maps and characters. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. It was simply the logical next step in our already creative lives, and I was following it.
But remember what I said earlier about needing focus? I lacked that. In some ways, my brother and I were too creative, and gradually, my writing and worldbuilding became a time-filler rather than a time I planned for.
There were just so many other interesting things to do! Yet as the (ahem) decades passed, the world and stories I had begun continued to call me back, in lurching, frustrating starts and stops.
I couldn’t escape it. But I also couldn’t settle into it.
Then a couple of years ago, I came across a quote by Jerry Cleaver, author of Immediate Fiction. “The fact that you’re this far into it means you probably have the disorder, the affliction, the desire, and the need to write. If you do, you’re going to be writing for the rest of your life.” (p.65)
End stop. No room for questions or excuses.
The spark burst up bright in my vision, and I tingled all over as I understood. I wrote in the margin a half-hearted, ‘So I might as well do something with it’, which hardly conveys what I felt in that moment. But the simple act of writing the note was a second spark all its own. Finally, I began to focus and work in earnest on this craft of building and storytelling.
And finally, my world and stories began to develop into a cohesive thing and I began to see all their possibilities, which were, by then, much grander than the stereotypical medieval village I started with. This worldbuilding informed my stories but my stories also influenced my worldbuilding. They were more connected than I had ever realized.
Which brings us to the final piece of today’s topic…
Is Worldbuilding Really Necessary?
I mean, you know what I’m going to say, right? Do I have to write this?
Let me put it to you a little differently: Do you want to avoid the pitfalls that inevitably come with insufficient preparation?
Or do you enjoy reading stories in which maps don’t match the storyline, streets have wrong names or directions, characters are stereotypical or change personalities midway through, timelines are forced, and journeys realistically wouldn’t take the time the story requires?
I read such a travesty recently. It made every mistake I just mentioned, which was a huge shame—the idea of the story was intriguing, and the title was great. Now, I have a bad habit of hoping an author will improve as their story goes along, and will usually finish even the bad books I start.
But if (spoiler, it’s always when in these cases) the whole book runs amok, I scratch that author off my future read list.
Do you want your story to be like that? Or do you want a world and characters that will make sense to your readers, and that will (I promise!) blossom before your eyes if you give them the extra time and care they need? Even the physically impossible can become probable to your readers if you put some care (and possibly research) into how it will play out.
And, we have it easy in today’s world. There are free or inexpensive programs to create maps, plotlines, and character arcs on, the internet is at our literal fingertips, and digital documents make editing a quick cut and paste. When the great authors I drool over existed, none of these tools did. Most didn’t exist even when I started! (I learned to type on DOS. Anyone?)
So there’s no excuse to not do your homework, to not use a little more care, and to start building your world (or universe) into something amazing. Your characters deserve it, and so do your ideas.
The story is only a part of the story. It only thrives if the world built under it can stand in the face of your readers’ scrutiny.
Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some insights with you about what I’ve done and how I’ve learned to worldbuild: what’s worked or flopped, what programs I’ve used or avoided, and where I’ve gone for ideas, resources, and research. I hope you’ll join me for the journey!
Looking for more resources for your writing? Check out these other reviews and resources from MockingOwl staff.
- Line and Sinker: A Review of Hooked
- NaNoWriMo Day 29: Using Landscape for Inspiration
- NaNoWriMo Day 14: Writing Exercises to Try When You Get Stuck
- The Fight Starts Here: Review of “Fight Write”
Tandy Malinak was engrossed in visual art, stage performance, and storytelling before she knew what the words meant. A second-generation homeschooler with a BA in Elementary Ed, she also knows kids and homelife; set her down with a cup of tea, and she’ll go until you stop her. She loves fantasy, sci-fi, Nintendo, board games, studying the Word, the smell of a campfire, the sound of ocean waves, and all things feline—to name a few! Originally from Seattle, Tandy now lives in Chicago’s northside with her husband, 2 dragon-loving kids, and 4 cats.
Tandy recently perched herself on Twitter’s branch. She’s still figuring it out, but will make noise there eventually.