“Worldbuilding” is usually the hot commodity in fantasy and science fiction. When someone says they love a fantasy or science fiction book, that word almost always pops up as a reason why. If you don’t have solid worldbuilding, odds are people won’t warm to your book.
In other words, in fantasy and science fiction, worldbuilding is a zero sum game. You’ve got to have it to be successful.
But what goes into successful worldbuilding? What’s the difference between making up a world and writing about it? I know I don’t have all the answers, but from writing my first secondary world fantasy, City of Stairs, I have a few personal rules for making a secondary world work on the page.
Rule One: It’s Got to Do Something
Worldbuilding is almost always elaborate, and the more elaborate and immersive and rich, the better. Your world needs to be complicated, thoughtful, clever, and believable.
But when it comes to the page, first and foremost, it’s got to be functional.
Let’s say you’re writing your story about the Young Naïve Adolescent with a Strange Gift who comes to the Big Magical City. Let’s say your protagonist swings by the Magic Academy, and receives extensive instruction on the history and rules of magic in this world, and its relation with all the noble families in the region.
Here’s the question you need to ask: what does this scene do for the plot? What does it do for the characters? Is this elaborate for elaborateness’s sake, or does it do something?
For example, does the Magic Academy show back up in the story? Will the rules of magic or the history of the noble families have any sort of implications or consequences to the plot? Does the main character react to these rules in any kind of way, or do they just sit there passively, having information dumped into their heads?
This is the big danger of worldbuilding: it can turn into worldporn, fantastical voyeurism. Plenty of genre novels feature scenes set in places where nothing is really happening: it’s just cool to look at this elaborate, fantastical place. (For big offenders in the medium of film, Tim Burton and, more recently, Terry Gilliam tend to commit this crime pretty frequently.)
But that’s not compelling on the page. It’s not good storytelling. If you’re describing the intricate, ancient armor of some holy warrior, I expect it to mean something. Let’s say the armor is beaten, worn down, and it’s made of an ancient kind of magic metal that nobody knows how to fix anymore. That says a lot about the current status of the holy order that wears the armor, so this might be worth keeping. It’s not worth keeping if this holy warrior is just in one scene and never shows up again in the story.
Worldbuilding is about figuring out what’s background and foreground. Stuff that only shows up once is almost always, by default, background, and should be treated as such. Don’t focus the reader’s attention on something if it’s not worth it. That’s energy that they don’t have.
Rule Two: Suggest More
One of the things that makes good worldbuilding work is the idea of a world happening beyond what you’re seeing on the page. The scenes of the world don’t suddenly come into existence right before the protagonist walks into them, like lilypads appearing under their feet as they cross a pond: these places have been there for a long time, and likely will be there long after the heroes depart.
So you need to make it clear that this world exists beyond the action of the plot. This doesn’t mean you need to describe the entirety of the world beyond the plot: you can artfully mention the nature of lawmaking or finances in this world without describing tort reform or how a bill becomes a law.
The key here is to suggest, not to tell. To tell means informing the reader what is out there; to suggest means informing them what could be out there. One is terrifically more stimulating for the mind than the other.
This is, again, a matter of background and foreground. Imagine driving through a city here on Earth: do you need to drive down every single street to understand it? No. You just need to go through a main thoroughfare to get the general idea of it. You know there’s more, and you’re curious about it, but you don’t have to see it.
So think of the main thoroughfares through your own work, places where characters can look out on the world and get an idea of it. But don’t send them down every street.
Rule Three: Worldbuilding has to be Thematically Resonant
This is the final and toughest rule, because not everyone thinks about theme and ambiance when writing a story (let alone reading one).
But it’s important to the worlds themselves. There needs to be an overarching narrative to a world’s story, because the world is a character just as much as the hero. Look at Middle Earth, from Tolkien, a world of lost paradise, of departed magic, of beauty fading from the world as it changes. Everything from the Ents to Galadriel to Minas Tirith reflects this sense of melancholy loss.
But now let’s look at the world of Adventure Time, a world that couldn’t seem more dissimilar. This works a little differently, as sometimes the show is more than willing to do something crazy for the sake of doing it, but the overall pervasive feeling of AT’s world is one of buried past trauma: the world is post-apocalyptic, with characters like the Ice King, Princess Bubblegum, and Marceline all featuring stories of tragedies and traumas that betray their whimsical appearances and demeanor. Even Jake the Dog has a weird, foreboding origin story now, and the Lich always lurks in the background, an avatar of death that threatens everything. This is a broken place that seems to have embraced sugarcoated glee for now as a response to its trauma – though episodes that glimpse in the future let us know this won’t last forever. One day, it suggests, the Lich might win.
And I’d say the theme of my own book, City of Stairs, is one of lost history: one country had gods, and used their blessings and miracles to dominate the world. When one slave colony overthrew them and successfully killed the gods, all the miracles that sustained the world suddenly vanished. The world is not only broken, but its “glorious” past is utterly inaccessible: no one really knows or understands how reality worked before the gods died.
This theme of lost history is pervasive throughout City of Stairs. Fragments of miracles still exist and function, but no one can understand them. Whole sections of cities and nations literally vanished – perhaps gone, or lost in some inaccessible sub-reality. But every piece of worldbuilding I included in the book is informed by this feature of the world. This is its nature, and this is how things work.
So try to think of the nature or theme of your world as you write it. Is your world one of never ending conflict? Never ending rebirth? Fading glory? Technological revolution? Whatever you choose, this should act as the source from which you draw all of your world’s fabric. The scenes you write might explore different aspects of this theme, or look at it in different ways, but it needs to be harmonious with the overarching narrative of your world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, and Mr. Shivers. His books have been awarded the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson, and the Philip K. Dick Citation of Excellence. His latest book, City of Stairs, is (and this is Brian talking here) jaw-droppingly good. He lives in Austin with his wife and son. Check out his brand new website, then go order the book!