Just What Is Worldbuilding?

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When I hear “worldbuilding,” my first, immediate thought is of encyclopedia-length tomes of information. Close behind that, I think of the complexities of fantastical worlds.

But your world doesn’t require fantastical complexities . It doesn’t require Tolkien-length treatises.

Unless it does.

Do whatever you need. Do whatever the story needs you to do. But please don’t believe your world or your craft is any less valid if you don’t have those things.

I’ve received some amazing compliments on my worlds. They always surprise me because I’ve never compiled a giant compendium of any world I’ve created. (I tried it once, but lost interest after the first page.) I’ve never approached a story with the thought, “How am I going to create this world?”

Well, there’s some of that thought, but in a less analytical sense and more holy-crap-what-am-I-doing sense.

So July 8th, I’m running a workshop on worldbuilding. That fact has made me stop and take stock of what that term means to me. Because I am not the person to teach how to research, or what questions to ask, or what checklist to check. I don’t work that way.

Telling a story is a dialogue between the writer and reader. You can write encyclopedias on your world creation, but what matters to me as a reader is what makes it on the page. How do you bring this world to life? How to you make a reader believe it with every breath – even if that world circles another sun or overflows with spells and magic?

However you lay the foundation behind the scenes, readers care first and foremost about what makes it on the page.

When I read a story set somewhere I’ve been, I want to recognize it. I want the story to transport me back there. Catherynne Valente did that over and over in her gorgeous, lyrical novel Palimpsest. Many others have disappointed me because it might have been anywhere. It didn’t feel true.

If a character visits the Acropolis in Athens after a rain, she had better watch her footing. Millennia of feet have worn the raw mountain marble glass-smooth. If she runs around and doesn’t slip, I no longer believe the story.

And in fantasy and science fiction, I think that illusion of reality becomes even more important. Truth and belief lie in the details. That’s where you’ll find your world.

 

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