Let’s talk about worldbuilding.
It has come to my attention that my definition of good worldbuilding is drastically different—and far more demanding—than most people’s. So here I present my view for your consideration. In my view, worldbuilding is far more than simply making stuff up; it is a delicate process tied up with the other aspects of the story, and there are far more ways to do it wrong than right.
Let’s start out by defining what good worldbuilding isn’t.
Good worldbuilding isn’t a vehicle for the plot.
When writing speculative fiction, it’s extremely tempting to worldbuild your way out of plot problems. Need a character to find out a secret? Give them telepathy. Want a witness to something that happened a long time ago? Make them immortal. And so on. But worlds created this way don’t feel like real, holistic places that might actually exist. They feel like places that exist only to help the main character advance the plot, because that’s exactly what they are. And the more you do this, the cheaper the story feels, as the answer to every “Why don’t they do this?” question becomes “Because there’s something in the world that specifically prevents that.”
"How did this contrived government system even get enacted in the first place?!?" I cry into the void. The void does not answer.
— Dystopian YA Novel (@DystopianYA) April 22, 2015
Good worldbuilding needs to be free to develop in whatever direction feels the most realistic without being shackled to the plot. It’s fine to begin a story by saying “I want these characters to shoot lightning at each other from a mountaintop in the third act, so I’ll give them electricity powers,” but then you need to fully explore the implications of people having those powers. Do all the appliances in a room turn on when they walk in, like they were a human Tesla coil? Is electricity free because people generate it? How does that affect the economy? And so on. If consistent, believable worldbuilding ends up making the original plot idea unfeasible, you need to be willing to change the plot, rather than kludging more and more implausible details into the world until the plot works.
Curiously, genre comedies are often more successful at this type of worldbuilding than dramas; driven more by jokes than plot, they’re free to explore a premise in whatever silly direction it takes them, like giving a supervillain a time share lair where they keep getting phone calls for other supervillains.
Good worldbuilding isn’t a massive amount of fluff.
I define “fluff” as small, nonessential detail. For instance, if your character lives in the capital city of the nation, the name of the city and the fact that it’s the capital are essential information. But if they walk through the city square and you describe the various types of people and/or creatures they see, that’s fluff. It helps us understand the world better, but you could still tell the story perfectly well without it.
“Nonessential” doesn’t mean that it should be cut; fluff is often the most fun and memorable parts of the story. But in terms of worldbuilding, it’s the icing on the cake. You still need a delicious cake underneath it. You can’t just serve your readers a bowl of icing and expect them to be satisfied.
Moreover, while creating fluff is fun, the more of it you include, the more likely you are to introduce something that creates an inconsistency or plot hole. Even if they only appear in one scene, these details exist all the time within your world and influence it, and it’s your increasingly-complex job to make sure they make sense with all the other details. If they don’t, your readers will spot it. For instance, Tolkien’s giant eagles immediately raised the question “Why don’t they just fly the eagles to Mount Doom?”, the fluff detail that launched a thousand online arguments.
Good worldbuilding isn’t excessive information beyond the limits of the story.
Here I’m talking, not about fluff, but about the bigger stuff: Countries and their locations, geographical features, social structure, magic systems, and other features that aren’t just window dressing.
When you brainstorm this kind of stuff, you inevitably come up with some amount of information that doesn’t make it into the story. Maybe you had to cut that scene; maybe it just never came up. That’s fine. In fact, it’s a sign that you’ve put a lot of work into the worldbuilding. But at the end of the day, the quality of your book is based on what’s actually in your book. If you know your world’s crop-rotation schedules or the names of the past 500 kings, that doesn’t make your book the slightest bit better unless those somehow make it into the story in a meaningful way.
My first completed novel included an entire continent, complete with cultures and politics, that not only was never visited by the characters in the story, but never had been visited by anyone in their entire civilization. It was a complete waste of time. If your entire story takes place in one village, that’s all you need. There’s more on this point in my followup post.
Good worldbuilding isn’t internal consistency.
Internal consistency is a requirement for any story, regardless of genre. If the bank is across the street from the library in chapter three, the bank had better be across from the library in chapter twenty. But while consistency is necessary to good worldbuilding, it is not sufficient. No one recommends a book to their friends because of the accuracy of its bank locations. Indeed, if the world is compelling enough, readers are willing to forgive quite a lot of inconsistency.
At this point it may seem like I’ve ruled out everything. Good worldbuilding isn’t based on the amount or kind of detail or even on keeping your ideas straight. So what is good worldbuilding? It’s surprisingly simple.
Good worldbuilding is when the story could not take place anywhere else.
Good worldbuilding is so intimately intertwined with the characters, plot, and themes of the story that it can’t be extracted. The characters in such a story are products of their environment; they could not have existed in any other world, and if they did, they’d be completely different people. The plot is dependent on the nature of the world (and, depending on the story, the world may be dependent on the resolution of the plot). And what we see of the world serves to underline the themes of the story.
A basic test is: Could your story be moved to a different setting (say, Middle-Earth or Westeros, or even the present-day world if it doesn’t already take place there) without having to completely overhaul everything? If so, your worldbuilding is almost certainly too simplistic. As an example, imagine trying to transplant Star Wars into another universe—the Dune universe, for instance. You could dispense with rancors and tauntauns easily enough, but in order to tell a coherent story, you’d have to import not only Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but the entire concept of the Force, the Jedi, the Sith, and the Empire; essentially the entire universe. It’s just not feasible.
This principle isn’t limited to speculative fiction, by the way. Good contemporaries are also imbued with a strong sense of place. For instance, No Place to Fall by Jaye Robin Brown has a distinctive Appalachian small-town setting that informs the characters and the story. You couldn’t possibly tell the same story in, say, New York City.
This is a stringent standard to hold yourself to, and most readers won’t care. But it’s worth it to create a world that isn’t just a big pile of details or a way to make the plot work, but a realistic and holistic place that truly brings your story to life.
LEGO image and map are mine. Frosting image is from Wikimedia Commons. No Place to Fall is property of Jaye Robin Brown. Kim Possible and Star Wars are property of Disney, but what isn’t these days.