In Praise Of Worldbuilding

Recently news was released that Christopher Tolkien had died at nearly 100 years of age, and a great deal of honor was deservedly heaped upon someone whose life’s work had been to provide honor to his father’s world of Middle Earth.  Christopher himself had been a skilled editor of his father’s work and thus allowed that work, some of which was in fragmentary manuscript form, to reach appreciative reading audiences [1].  This work was not the sort of work that likely got Christopher Tolkien the same level of attention that his father’s work had received, but it immensely helped Middle Earth become better known and better appreciated by fans of fantasy.  It is worthwhile, to the extent that anyone cares about what I say, to add my voice to the praise that has come upon the late Christopher Tolkien for his efforts to edit his father’s Middle Earth legendarium for readers to appreciate and enjoy.

As it happens, yesterday I was enjoying a quiet opportunity to read when I found myself chatting with someone who is not only a fan of reading fantasy literature but also someone who is working on writing a fantasy novel and who dreams of reading and reviewing books for others for fun and profit as well.  I gave him a bit of advice based on my experience, but given that he and his wife and a female friend of theirs were doing quite a bit of drinking, I’m not sure how much he was paying attention to what I’m saying or how much he remembered.  Such is the life, though, and it was interesting to receive some recommendations of fantasy series to add to my reading.  At any rate, the subject we were talking about involved the importance of proper worldbuiding on the part of fantasy writers, a legacy of Tolkien’s work in Middle Earth that made it important for fantasy writers to engage in a great deal of detailed worldbuilding if they wanted to have successful series.

Worldbuilding can add a lot of elements to a story.  When we look at the worldbuilding of Tolkien, it was extensive in nature, involving invented languages, a lengthy and complex cosmology.  This created a high standard for later writers to match or at least deal with, and some writers have done a better job than others when it comes to creating compelling backstories for making their extraordinary worlds have a firm sense of logic.  Not all fantasy writers have engaged in this sort of effort, and some have focused on interesting narratives without thinking about the larger ecology of their world.  Other writers, though, like Lois McMaster Bujold, turn the ecology of their worlds to their advantage by having it serve as part of their plots.  So if you are part of an isolated planet ruled over by a slightly inbred ruling class, then the tripling of one’s empire can provide nobles with an immense opportunity to increase their wealth and power by dealing with the new situation.  And that is perhaps the best case scenario, where the worldbuilding is in service of the story and also a font of creativity for the writer.  And that is something to celebrate.

How can this be better done?  Well, it requires a bit of thought.  When we write realistic fiction we are setting it in our own world, and reality has done a great deal of the worldbuilding for us.  To the extent that we know how the world works we can take advantage of language and history and culture and technology to help provide interesting elements in a story.  But when we set a story in another world, we can assume that other rules may apply.  In one of my plays, for example, I imagined a planet as having taken advantage of a wormhole that operated through a portable restroom at a Renaissance Faire to provide the planet with much-needed visitors as a way of providing demography to a planet that needed it.  Of course, there was a great deal of magic here too, but nothing too unreasonable that a human wouldn’t be able to deal with.  It is fun to engage in worldbuilding because it offers the ability to imagine a world that is different from our own, and that can allow the imagination to run a bit free into pondering why it is that things are how they are.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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