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Worldbuilding: "the great clomping foot of nerdism"?

Good fantasy book storytelling is not just about a great plot and deep characterisation - the best writers are architects of entire worlds, as Lucy Hounsom explains...

Posted on 19th February 2014 by Lucy Hounsom

Fantasy landscape 1

That’s a famous quote from author M. John Harrison, appropriated many times in debates over the necessity and value of worldbuilding. Opinions differ as much as individual books themselves on this topic, which continues to be a vital component of genre literature.

Worldbuilding as a term generally refers to secondary world creation, the kind exemplified by Tolkien when he crafted Middle Earth – a complete, functioning, multi-racial society with its own history, economics and cultures. But it’s as good a name as any to describe the process of creating a setting for a story, whatever that story may be. This process is an integral part of writing; both characters and readers need a world to inhabit. And as long as it remains humanly credible, it can embody elements both familiar and strange.

So how much time should an author spend on worldbuilding? Like almost everything in the creative industries, the answer is subjective, dependant on whatever story the author is trying to tell. Should physical surroundings be detailed or vague? How much should politics feature, or religion? Should characters interact consciously with cultural motifs or aspects of social structure? How does the economy work? Where does money come from?

That last one I admit to almost totally ignoring in the first draft of my novel. I knew I didn’t want to magic it up – that’s just silly. But neither did I want to lose the story in a long-winded description of economics. I know next to nothing about economics in this world, so why should I know any more about it in my own world? Some might call that revelling in ignorance or wilful blindness, but I’m not here to write a book on the economy. I’m here to tell a story.

The extent to which any of the above questions are relevant greatly varies. And, of course, they are subject to the author’s prerogative. Some novels demand an epic, detailed, deeply-imagined world in which to imbed their epic story arc. These worlds are filled with myriad societies, cultures, races, creeds, all there to add realism and credibility to the narrative. If you want to see just how many things an author could consider when building such a world, take a look at The 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding on io9.

Daunting, eh? Some readers, as well as writers, are fanatical about extensive worldbuilding, which you might think prerequisite in a fantasy novel. However, one of my favourite fantasy authors, Patricia A. McKillip, is adept at crafting believable secondary worlds without the mammoth word count.

The Riddle-master's GameHer retelling of the Tam Lin myth, Winter Rose, is one such example. McKillip’s agrarian setting of village and forest exists in a vacuum. If it is part of a larger world, we aren’t told what, where or when. The lack of a wider situation concentrates McKillip’s story, allowing the myth to speak. The Riddle-Master’s Game, though much greater in scope, is told similarly without fuss. Although the world and its peoples are rich and vibrant, they never upstage the protagonists themselves, instead providing a quiet backdrop for the action. The Riddle-Master’s Game is part of the Fantasy Masterworks series and it’s as close to perfect as storytelling gets.

You might take this to mean I prefer to read fantasy less dominated by extensive worldbuilding. You would be right. A lot of epic fantasy is weighed down by an over-enthusiastic desire to create as real a world as possible (ironic), at the expense of both character and pace. As a writer, I have always erred on the light side of worldbuilding, chiefly because – as a reader – I’m wearied by pages of indulgent prose that serve no purpose other than to showcase how extensively the author has thought about their world. The real trick is to weave this information subtly into character behaviour and dialogue, rather than rely on lazy chunks of exposition.

I don’t mean to throw Tolkienesque worldbuilding out of the window. Although few rival the detail of Middle Earth – it was Tolkien’s life work after all – many glorious secondary worlds have come about because of it. Authors look to our own history for inspiration, basing their peoples, cultures, even storylines on ancient civilisations. This practice has resulted in so many high fantasy series that debate has recently begun to rage over how obviously exclusionist SFF can be.

A great deal of epic fantasy in particular does reveal an over-reliance on medieval, western, male-dominated culture, and I can hardly say I haven’t been infected by years of associating fantasy with such a narrow band of human experience. Thank goodness for authors like N. K. Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed, who work to push fantasy out of its traditional Eurocentric model.

There is an awful lot to consider when you’re looking to build a world to encompass your story and its themes. But that’s the key thing: it’s your story, your themes. There are no definitive or correct examples of worldbuilding; there are only the stories that work. A successful, well-constructed setting strives to complement rather than impress. And it does so invisibly.


Lucy Hounsom, for Waterstones.com/blog


We’ll have more from Lucy regularly in the lead up to the publication of her first book Starborn.

Find her previous columns here