On Worldbuilding: Its Significance

By IYWP Intern Ashton Hooley

Hello there! This is the first installment in a series specifically about worldbuilding; a new blogpost in the series will be posted monthly, so stay tuned! I will be going over a vast variety of topics that deal with worldbuilding, this first post being a general overview on worldbuilding and its importance in fiction writing.

Many people, including a majority of writers, are unfamiliar with the term worldbuilding and what it necessarily means. Dictionary.com provides this definition:

This definition gives a basic overview of what worldbuilding is, but there are some changes I think would be useful to make. With these changes made, my new definition is this: Worldbuilding is the process of developing a detailed world for a fiction story, and is used to some degree by writers of all genres.

There are two major changes I made to the initial definition I shared, the first being that I removed the phrase “fictional world” and replaced it with “world for a fiction story”. My reasons for doing so is because worldbuilding, while known mostly in fantasy and science fiction because worldbuilding is used more whollyin those genres, is used by all genres of fiction, even those that take place in our world. Considering this, and how our world is notfictional, it is a vital change to make. My second change, as I have already mentioned, is that I specified that worldbuilding is used in all genres. This may seem confusing at first, but I will talk more in-depth about this later in the post.

Now that this clearer definition is available to us, a full picture of what worldbuilding is in concept is painted, but why is it so vital to writing fiction? It may be easier to start with the more obvious genres that utilize worldbuilding to a high degree, like fantasy.

Map of Middle-Earth, world from Lord of the Rings. Notice the amount of detail on the map; JRR Tolkien dedicated a lot of time before even writing the series on creating this world.

In a fantasy story, the character cannot be placed anywhere, and a plot cannot therefore be created, without a viable world for everything to take place in. The world in this case acts as more than just a setting. In most cases, in stories that are not as well thought up, the character interacts with the world. However, this one-sided interaction should be avoided.

To correct this, the world must be thought of as something that interacts with the characters also. In a way, the world actsas a separate character. The world is meant to influence the characters, stay in constant communication with them and thus the readers as well. This is the most significant point of all because without a compelling world the character will remain static, unchanged, throughout the whole story. And without change, is there really a story?

A well thought out and creative world will bring change to your characters, force their hands at times and bring out their true natures. This is much easier to see in a fantasy world, where there are almost no similarities between our world and said fantasy realm.In these unique and unfamiliar worlds, people hold different views and philosophies, create and follow different governments and thus laws, talk differently, work at jobs that only exist in that world, and oftentimes a magic system will change the outlook and perceptions of the characters. 

Star Wars is a good example of how the rules of the world influence the story. The entire story is based around a magic system that involves the Force, which leads to a dark side and a light side. This further leads to major conflict as the dark side rises and takes control, creating the plot of the story.

All of these things are concepts that must be included in worldbuilding, at least for more demanding genres such as fantasy and science fiction, and they are incredibly important in building your own characters. A world must first exist before characters can exist in the world. As I said earlier, new worlds will offer to characters new beliefs and behaviors basedon the rules of the world. These beliefs are what make your characters unique, and should be the cause of any plot that begins to develop.

And without a greatly designed world, one unique and creative, not only will the world itself not be compelling to your audience, but so too will the character’s beliefs, judgements, and perceptions. Without a structurally sound world, the plot and characters will break and crumble.

But I have been talking a lot about fantasy and science fiction, the genres that demand much more from the process of worldbuilding. But what about the other genres that I claimed also need worldbuilding?Following from what I said before about behaviors and beliefs in fantasy worlds, the same also applies to stories that take place in our own world, whether it is alternative reality or just the norm we all know.No matter what, the protagonistwill see the world a certain way. For stories like this, ones that aren’t fantasy, science fiction, or historical (for historical fiction the rules for fantasy apply, it’s just more based in research rather than creativity), the process of worldbuilding explained above should be put into reverse.

Based on your characters’ beliefs, their perceptions of the world will change, and thus changes how the world is written in the story. Take for example The Catcher in the Rye. If you are familiar with this novel, then it is apparent that Holden’s beliefs and attitudes toward the world and his life in general affect how he sees the world. And since we are in his head (the narrative distance is quite short), it influences how the book is written and how the reader’s themselves see Holden’s world.

Again, more details on this and how exactly to create a compelling world will be given in my next blogpost on worldbuilding. For now, though, before you can truly start the process of worldbuilding, you must be aware of and understand its significance in all of fiction writing. And I hope this post helped with that!

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