The Work of Worldbuilding: Part 2

After I published the previous article, I realized I hadn’t said everything I wanted to say about worldbuilding just yet. To be specific, I want to go into more detail about what I called “worldbuilding pieces” and what that term means. We learn best through example, so today, I’m going to show you guys various examples of worldbuilding in media and what constitutes a worldbuilding piece.

First, I want to note that my analysis here isn’t meant as a judgment on a story’s overall quality. Second, don’t take my ideas as the final word on this subject. I’m just over here taking note of patterns I see in storytelling and phrasing them in my own words.

So, what is a worldbuilding piece and how can you identify one? My basic definition is that it’s a book, movie or another piece of media created primarily to showcase its own setting. There’s no solid set of criteria for what constitutes one, but the prominent examples tend to have a few elements in common:

1: The setting is an integral piece of the narrative. This is why examples of this type of story almost always fall into the category of fantasy or science fiction. Both genres rely on the unreal and the uniquely fantastic to make their stories possible. You can’t have the Harry Potter books, for example, without the existence of magic. Or try to imagine Blade Runner outside of its grim, synthetic vision of the future. You can’t, can you? A good worldbuilding piece is so intricately embedded in its own setting that you can’t separate it from that setting. But while worldbuilding pieces tend to be fantasy or sci-fi, not all fantasy and sci-fi stories are worldbuilding pieces. Could you imagine Alien taking place somewhere in our world instead of a far-off derelict spaceship? Honestly, I can. There’s very little about that movie’s plot which distinctly bonds it to its outer space setting, and that’s just fine. But we do get hints of a larger system and hierarchy operating somewhere in the background, which brings us to my next point…

2: The devil is in the details. When you experience the more extreme examples of a worldbuilding piece, you are basically being taken on a guided tour of the storyteller’s fictional world. Not every stop on the tour is necessary to understand what’s going on –in some cases, most of them aren’t. But the point of such an exercise is not to tie all these things directly into the plot but to make the reader feel as immersed as possible. One of the more blatant modern examples of this is the novel that first got me thinking about the concept of the worldbuilding piece, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula. To give a brief explanation, it takes place in an alternate reality where Dracula has taken over England and vampires roam the streets alongside classic Victorian literary characters. The main plot, a high-stakes murder investigation, works to illuminate its own backdrop as the author takes us on a tour of the world he’s created. We get a good feel for the ins and outs of how this new society works and the effect that vampires and humans have had on each other. Let’s have another example, this time from sci-fi. In Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, an ultra-militaristic Earth fights for its life against a horde of alien bugs. Through the story of one man’s journey from common foot soldier to a high-ranking officer, we learn what this culture values in its people and why, as well as how it tries to instill those values. There may be a lot happening in the foreground, but the real focus is on the background. That ties into my next point…

3: Plot and character are secondary concerns. It’s not that you don’t have plot and character in worldbuilding pieces. Every story needs those, after all. But in a narrative that’s more about the setting, you’re going to get plot and characters that are less elaborate than what you might find elsewhere. Plots tend to be pretty simple: you’ve got a clear goal in mind from the very beginning and a basic set of steps to get there. Characters are less nuanced and fit more neatly into standard archetypes. In Blade Runner, everyman Rick Deckard has the clearly stated task of hunting down and killing a group of replicants. That’s his goal, and the stops he makes on his way to completing that goal serve to illuminate the kind of world he lives in. An even better example might be The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s single goal throughout the book is to get home to Kansas, and her journey is an excuse to show off the various realms of Oz. She doesn’t really change as a person during the story and is more of a surrogate for the reader in how she reacts to things and events. The kind of plot you see in a lot of worldbuilding pieces is one character or a group of characters undergoing something that’s a routine experience in their world. In The Hunger Games, we explore Panem through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen as she experiences the ordeal of being a tribute. Let’s also consider Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, often considered to be the Japanese equivalent of/partial inspiration for The Hunger Games. In my opinion, that story works even better as a worldbuilding piece because it’s got an ensemble cast rather than a single lead character. We learn more about the setting and culture as we jump between characters, getting a variety of perspectives and reactions. Think of a story as being like a kind of three-way scale: on one section is plot, on another is character, and on the third is setting. A writer should try to balance these three elements as well as they can, but sometimes, following your instincts or goals requires you to place more weight on one of them and less weight on the other two. In a worldbuilding piece, the scale is tipped in favor of setting and the other two sections don’t have as much weight to them.

4: The author’s got something to say through their setting. When an author puts so much focus on the world they’ve created, it isn’t just to show off. It’s because they want to use this fictional world to make a point about our own world. For examples, see…well, pretty much every piece of dystopian media ever created. Worldbuilding pieces, especially science fiction, love to talk about social and philosophical issues: what it means to be free or not, what it means to be human or not, the various manifestations of authoritarianism. You could compare The Hunger Games to 1984 on a surface level since they are both dystopian, but as stories with a point to make, they have wildly different goals. George Orwell spends so much time in the Ministries of Truth and Love exploring how a government can control the hearts and minds of its people and break a human spirit through blunt force. Meanwhile, Suzanne Collins uses her eponymous Hunger Games and the glitz surrounding it as a means of criticizing celebrity/reality show culture and the use of manufactured spectacle to distract from atrocities. In Blade Runner, the plight of the replicants is used to show the dissolution of the barrier between human and machine thanks to technology. There’s a similar situation going on with Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, set in a futuristic Japan where most of the population has cybernetically enhanced bodies and brains. When you’re enough of a machine that you can actually be hacked and have your body controlled and your memories rewritten, how can you be certain that you are you? More importantly, what separates you from the real machines? These discussions are created and spurred on by the world itself and what the characters and audience get to see. The author starts with a question or a concept, and then they build a universe around it. But what happens when they try to answer the question they began with?

5: By the end, something about the world changes for good. You’re more likely to find this point in sci-fi worldbuilding pieces than in examples from other genres. However, it happens often enough that it deserves to be included. With the world itself being so important in worldbuilding pieces, it’s only natural that the world should develop and change along with the characters. In a lot of cases, this means upending a fundamental truth or belief about the world in question. Society at large doesn’t have to notice its effects right away. Most of the characters don’t even have to know. Only the audience needs to realize the full implications of the note you go out on. Let me give you some more examples. Ghost in the Shell ends with the cyborg protagonist Matoko Kusanagi merging her consciousness with a sentient AI to create a new being that is neither human nor machine, following a long discussion of how we know we are human and whether or not machines can have minds of their own. Depending on how you interpret it, Blade Runner 2049 ends with either the revelation that replicants are capable of reproducing on their own or that human/replicant hybrids are able to exist. Both have serious implications for the conflicts happening within the setting and the questions raised by the storyteller. Meanwhile, by the end of The Hunger Games, the districts have been shown that it’s possible to defy the Capitol and escape with your life, a notion that’s been beaten out of them for the previous seventy-three years. Endings like these are the storyteller asking “If we assume this to be true, what are we supposed to make of that?” In a lot of cases, this is to set up for a sequel where we see the consequences of such changes play out. But sometimes, it’s only meant to leave the audience with something to think about it. A spark of hope for the future, or dread that things will get worse, or just plain old curiosity.

I think that the real key to worldbuilding is immersion, but immersion isn’t just all about details. It’s about getting readers invested in your world as a living, active entity and wanting to see how it changes and grows. It’s not that your audience should know everything about the world, it’s that they should want to learn. If you can create a world that fascinates them for better or for worse, something that makes them want to keep coming back to examine it and explore it, then you’ve done your job.

Thanks so much for reading! I’ve got plenty more writing articles in preparation, along with a new short story, and I also might have some more movie/book reviews in the near future. See you then!

— Dana

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