the importance of world-building

One of the obligations (and considerable joys) of writing fantasy and science-fiction is the task of “world-building.”  That is, the creation (or “sub-creation“, as J.R.R. Tolkien called it) of a fictional setting for one’s story.  A well-built imaginary world is not only interesting, but also has a degree of versimilitude, usually because it has a consistent internal logic, i.e., it “makes sense.”


That is, if readers are told or come to expect how things in the world work, those things need to work the same way all the time–and if they don’t, there needs to be a very good explanation.  So, for example, if the author creates a planet where the oceans are filled with a powerful hydrochloric acid, a typical Earthling would need protective gear (or magic) to swim there, and any sea creatures he encounters on his swim need to have evolved to withstand the acid, or are similarly protected by technology or magic.  But if our Earthling needs the gear early in the novel and then doesn’t later…well, that’s gonna require some ‘splainin’ before most readers will believe that.


One of the best (and one of the best-known) attempts at world-building is, of course, Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the setting of The Lord of the Rings and some of The Silmarillion.  Other well-known places are Narnia, Oz, and the “wizarding world” of Harry Potter.


Just as not all stories are written as well as others, not all imaginary worlds are built as well as others.  I’ve been a big fan for 30 years now of Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, but honestly, the world itself is a bit of a mess.  It’s hard to distinguish many differences among the Young Kingdoms mentioned; geography and distances between points seem hazy; and a few of the cities (Imrryr, Nadsokor, Tanelorn) are so dysfunctional and/or isolated, they make Detroit look like a boomtown.


Elric’s world, as adapted for a role-playing game


Perhaps the best example of sloppy world-building in the Elric series comes at the opening of Bane of the Black Sword, where a barbarian horde numbering over 500,000 warriors–plus slaves, mounts, and beasts of burden pulling wagons–had, Moorcock said, “crossed two deserts and three mountain ranges” and was traversing the inhospitable Weeping Waste to threaten Elric’s new home city.


Wait–what?  Didn’t Napoleon say that “an army travels on its stomach?”   How’d the barbarians find enough food to sustain themselves?  Hell, how’d they find that much water?  And no, Moorcock didn’t say that magic was the answer; he didn’t address the question at all.


Speaking of magic, the Harry Potter books and movies don’t fare much better under scrutiny.  Now, I like HP, but the online pop humor site has pointed out some horrifying implications of the world J.K. Rowling created (oh, and some pretty skeevy things you might not have thought of).


And maybe it’s because I’m a gun-owning American, but I couldn’t help but think that modern military weaponry in the hands of some British special forces would have speedily put an end to Voldemort’s Deathly Hallows nonsense.  I’m willing to bet that firing an AR-15 (or something like it) is a lot faster than pulling out a wand and saying, “Avada Kedavra.”


 Awww, he’s got a widdle stick.  Ain’t dat cute?


In college, I took several courses about Tolkien and his writings, and, as you might expect, was awestruck at what he set out to do–and accomplished–with Middle-earth.  Since then, I’ve been highly aware of the efforts that sci-fi and fantasy authors put into creating their settings and infusing them with a sense of verisimilitude.  While I’m nowhere near the master Tolkien is, I’ve tried to put a lot of thought into what I’ve come up with.


I worked very hard to craft a believable, logically-consistent world in Dragontamer’s Daughters.  I took everything I knew about deserts (having spent 8 years in Arizona) and added it to what I had studied in high school and college about zoology and ecosystems, ancient cultures and history and mythology.  Still, it wasn’t easy.


At one point, several years into the writing of the book, I had drafted about 200 pages when I realized that the setting I had created was all kinds of wrong.  I had the family of the protagonists, Isabella and Alijandra, living beside a large lake in the middle of the high desert.  Why, I asked myself, was there such a large body of water?  Why weren’t the native Diheneh people living there?  And why, if the family was supposed to have fled from their nearby country and were in hiding, did they live  in the most obvious place to start looking?


Needless to say, I scrapped that idea and did something else, and the story is much better for it (a bit of that earlier writing made its way into the final version, where Isabella dreams about crossing a lake in Chapter 33).


Other problems arose, and I dealt with–or dismissed–them.  For example, near the end of writing DTD, I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and realized that in my alternate Old West, I had not taken into account infectious diseases like smallpox, which devastated Native American populations in real world history.  At that point, it was too late to mess with the story: I just wanted it done already.  So like Moorcock and the water for his horde, I just ignored the whole thing.


I don’t have the world-building issue so much in my latest endeavor, Lost Dogs, because it’s set where I live, on Kent Island, MD in 2014 (portraying present-day Kent Island from a dog’s point of view is something else, however).  But I will certainly bear it in mind as I write other fantasy or sci-fi books, and it’s something I think about as I read other stories in the genre.  There have been books I’ve given up on just because the world-building doesn’t work for me.


How about you?  Are there any SF/F authors you think have done a good job with making fictional settings?  How about the opposite?



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One Response to the importance of world-building

  1. Brent Lewis says:

    Well done, Kenton. I think whatever genre a writer’s working in, world-building is an essential concept, even if it’s not as broad and intricate as the worlds of fantasy and sci-fi.