Worldbuilding: An Essay

Even if you have not had time to look at any of this website in detail, you may have noticed that a fairly hefty chunk of it is devoted to a single thing - my imaginary country, the Viksor, and the world in which it lies.*

The concept of made-up worlds and countries is one most people are well familiar with. In modern times, detailed imaginary worlds are frequent in fiction - in literature (e.g. in The Lord of the Rings, among many others), in film (e.g. the worlds of Star Wars or Avatar), in television (e.g. the universe of Star Trek or Doctor Who), in many computer games. Some of these worlds are based closely on our own, in the future or in a sort of alternate reality that nevertheless has many similarities to the real world; others are separated from reality to a much greater degree. (My own world falls into the first category, being essentially a universe where Venus and Mars are much more like Earth and inhabited by humans and other animals, but where our Earth still survives with only minimal changes.) Still more works of fiction exist where the universe is more-or-less exactly as we know it but for the introduction of a small number of extra elements - such as magic and a secret wizarding society in the Harry Potter series. While this kind of work does not perhaps involve the creation of a new world to the same degree as those previously discussed, there is still a substantial amount of work involved.

There is another form of worldbuilding which I think readers are likely to be aware of - that of world creation for role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons. But this shares an important feature in common with the worlds created for mass-distributed fiction described above: the world exists, as it were, with some sort of higher purpose beyond simply existing. Worlds in fiction are used as settings for stories; worlds in role-playing, similarly, as settings in which the game is played.

My own world, though, is like neither of these. It has not been created for use in a story or a game. Rather, it has been created simply to exist, with my enjoyment of it coming entirely from the process of creation and the finished existing edifice. Other such worlds certainly exist, but they are relatively rare - or at least, I do not think there is so much awareness of them in the public consciousness. This lack of awareness is understandable - imagined worlds do not easily give themselves over to public presentation without having some sort of definite, traditional story to tell.

It would be possible to tell stories in my imaginary world, of course, but I have not tended to do so. I write a great deal, but I do not generally find stories set in my main fictional world to be very successful. This is partially, perhaps, because my world is, at its core, realistic. If fantasy is defined by magic and science fiction by technology, or whatever, my world does not easily fall into either category. Venus and Mars, in my universe, are both deliberately Earthlike - not totally like Earth, of course, but very similar. There is no magic; there is little technology beyond real world levels. As such, any story I could possibly tell in the Viksor or wherever could equally well be set on our Earth with only very superficial changes.

There are writers who have created a world and then gone on to set stories in it - J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is the most famous example. In his case, the world came first; the stories second. But Tolkien's world was very obviously a fantasy world - one with magic and supernatural races. As such, it was very obviously different from the real world, and allowed Tolkien to tell stories which simply could not have been told in a more realistic setting. My world, as I have said, is not like that.

Additionally, my world is simply not made for telling stories. Say I decide to write a story in the Viksor, and the characters decide to have lunch. I could just write "They had lunch", but that would fail to recognise a fairly important detail - that having lunch in the Viksor is not very much like having lunch in England or America. Or, alternatively, I could explain how it is different - the foods, the crockery, the way people sit etc. - but this would not only probably be irrelevant to the story (the characters are, after all, only having lunch) I'm not sure it would actually be that interesting. My world is designed to be interesting to me, of course, but not to anyone else: I'm sure most people aren't going to want several lines' description on the intricacies of Viksen silverware and table manners when they're trying to get on with the story. Maybe I could take a middle ground, mentioning a few details only - but that, to me, is not satisfactory either. I feel that once I give one detail showing how something is different from what the reader is used to, I ought to give more: until we end up back with the second alternative, a lot of irrelevant, uninteresting information. Perhaps this is wrong, but it's still my gut feeling.

When a world is made for a story, I don't think this problem exists so much. One can simply tailor the world to fit - making up exotic new things when they work with the story, but assuming things work more-or-less as in the real world when giving them in detail would drag the story down. I've never been able to work like that - failing to describe an element that is uninteresting or irrelevant in the story context but that I know that an audience would definitely notice, if only in passing, if they were actually watching the events unfold in front of their eyes. Again, maybe I'm wrong, but it just doesn't feel right to me, trying to write with the story in world and leaving what are to me important elements of the world behind. (Even in Tolkien's case, given above, he chose to set his story in a later time than that in which he had done most of his worldbuilding work; again giving him a good deal of freedom in making the world suit the story rather than having to bend the story to fit a resistant world.)

(To give a more specific example, let us look at language - which I will cover again towards the end of the essay. In simply making up a world, one can make one's languages in anyway one pleases - and, as with other elements, I generally try and make my languages as realistic and yet as original as possible. But realistic and original languages are not always much good for stories. Even when (as I believe it generally should be) the use of a fictional language in a story is restricted to names of people and places, words that a reader cannot pronounce, or that do not have quite the right aesthetic for the character or setting in question, only act to the story's detriment. It's not unreasonable that I might want to have a hero in a story set at a particular time in the history of my world with a name like KhŤzikikaržĢ. But not only is the average reader going to have trouble pronouncing that (let alone pronouncing it correctly), I'm not sure that name is going to be particularly apt for your average fictional protagonist - a fictional character has to have a name that fits their personality to a greater or lesser extent, after all, and I'm not sure the sort of things "KhŤzikikaržĢ" might conjure up in reader's minds are quite what I'd like to aim for - if it conjures up anything at all, and doesn't by dint of its sheer alienness simply leave a frustrating blank throughout the story. I could, of course, only pick and choose the names that do work - as, to a certain extent, one must do with English-language stories set on Earth - but that can turn out to be harder than it sounds: Viksen or Greater Atlian are not really made for naming characters in novels. By contrast, a writer who is making up a language specifically for his or her story will probably (if he or she is any good) try to make one that is both easy to read and successfully creates the general aesthetic the story requires. Using a previously existing made-up language does not give one that freedom.)

As I said, I write a great deal, and the vast majority of my writing can be classified as either science fiction or fantasy or both. It is sometimes necessary, therefore, to do some quite elaborate worldbuilding in order to suit my stories. Surprisingly, though, I often find this tiresome. Perhaps it is because I would much rather be working on my "main" imaginary world (which is many times more detailed than any other world I have ever created); perhaps I would rather be working with more realistic elements than having to deal with the implications of magic or advanced technology - it is notable, perhaps, that beyond the most basic principles I have tended to avoid thinking about the "science fiction"-type elements in my alternate solar system. (space travel the existence of Earthlike life on other planets). Or maybe I dislike having to create a world under the confines of making it work with the story, and would rather have free rein to do as I like. Whatever the cause, I generally find worldbuilding for its own sake much more satisfactory than worldbuilding for the sake of creating a setting for a story.

Yet, despite all this, I think there is one important thing one must realise about worldbuilding: it is like telling a story. It does not have to be the basis for a story, because it is in a sense a story in itself. The difference is that the story of a world is a very different sort of story from the type of stories usually found in books, films and games. To start with, these types of stories tend to focus very much on characters - but, while characters (that is, human beings, or other sapient creatures) of course exist in worldbuilding, they tend to be treated in a very different way. For me, a "character" in my constructed world is only important if he or she helps to shape the general shape of the world - thus all my named characters are famous, often historical, figures. Otherwise, people only exist en masse - the Old Viksens, or the Diffian army, or the residents of Wisusia. They are reduced, in most cases, to statistics or vaguely defined groups. It is still possible to create an imaginary society where everyday individuals are the focus, of course, but that is not the approach I have elected to take. If novels are concerned with the psychology of individuals, my world is about the sociology and anthropology of groups.

The other major difference I can think of between worldbuilding and traditional storytelling is that the latter tends to be chronological in presentation, whereas this is not generally true of the former. Certainly, it's possible to present a chronological story of an imagined world, or of a part of it - I have written plenty of histories of individual elements. But I have never written a single history of everything in the world - even if I could do all the work, the final work would be far too complex to treat every single thing in strict chronological order - and, furthermore, there are plenty of things I have only written about from a synchronic viewpoint: how they are (or were) at a fixed time, not how they have been or had been before that time. This still counts as a part of the story, I think, just as the description of a setting in a novel still counts - the setting and background details are as much a part of a story as the characters and plot.

One aspect of major importance to my world is the languages spoken there. Nominally, I tell myself, my work on language is simply so I can provide realistic, systematic names for people, places and things; in practice, language work often dominates, so that I spend much more time working on language than I do on society, history, geography and so on. (It could be worse - Tolkien's entire Middle-earth legendarium was originally created to serve its languages, rather than the languages being created to serve the world.) However, language is a very particular interest of mine, so it's maybe not surprising that I should choose to concentrate on it so much - perhaps a worldbuilder with more interest in history or economics or whatever would choose to concentrate more on those elements. There is, after all, never going to be time to do everything, so some areas have to take precedence. I do think language is always important in worldbuilding, however. As I said, one or more proper constructed languages allow the creator to give names to elements to thins that are more than just random syllables without any realism to them. Telling a language can be like telling a story too, albeit an even more restricted and special sort of story than that of a world - the story of how the language alters over time. Maybe my preference for making up languages with a heavy "diachronic" aspect is another reflection of my liking for telling stories, even highly unconventional ones.

To conclude, my reasons for worldbuilding are perhaps somewhat unconventional. But worldbuilding itself - and the various elements thereof - can be seen as simply unconventional ways of doing something that is considered relatively normal: the act of telling a story. I may not be creating a world for the purpose of telling a story, but one fact ought maybe not be overlooked: my world is a story in itself.

[One last note: worldbuilding is sometimes also referred to as "conworlding", from "conworld = constructed world", a term possibly created by analogy to "conlang = constructed language". I am not overly fond of the term "conworlding", and have avoided it here - "worldbuilding" is not a brilliant word either, but it is the best alternative available. The most aesthetically pleasing term, to me, is Tolkien's own "subcreation", but unfortunately that term is rather vaguer in its meaning; I have avoided it also. (I might also note that I am also not terribly fond of the word "conlang", but for some reason it has become the preferred term in language construction circles. It has always astounded me that a group of people whose main hobby involves making up words have not been able to come up with a better one!)]

* - this essay was originally written for this website's predecessor, hence this reference.

Copyright © James Baker 2010.