When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher frowned on all fantasy books that hadn’t been written by Natalie Babbitt. We read Tuck Everlasting and The Search for Delicious, which were certainly fantastic, but failed to provide a full grounding in the fantasy genre.
This month, my daughter started a unit on fantasy stories in her fifth-grade class, with an integrated curriculum of reading, writing, and analysis. 2019 might have its problems but this, at least, is an enormous step forward. I take this educational unit as a sign of the inroads of respectability the genre has made. And, of course, the great service J.K. Rowling has done for our society.
Pulling fantasy from shadows shines a spotlight, especially, onto the skill of worldbuilding, the construction of convincingly functional settings in which a story can unfold. Although most vital for fantasy, science fiction, and horror, proper worldbuilding provides a canvas that any story can hang upon.
Proper worldbuilding addresses the unseen 90% of the story world that never makes it into a book, the part that hangs below the surface like the bulk of an iceberg, but which has to exist in an author’s mind in order to make the other 10% feel like it’s happening in an actual place.
When setting a story on an alien planet, or on an altered version of our own world, or in a fantasy land with its own laws of physics, I’ve tended to make up the details as I went along. Random bits of geography, weather, culture, history, architecture, cuisine, fashion, governments, and organizations all hung out in my head, on a scribbled map, and in a jumbled file of digital notes. I called this process worldbuilding, once I eventually heard the term, and my stories usually felt like they were set somewhere. But if readers looked too closely, they could see the rivets of a shoddily constructed facade.
Then I had a revelation that my story, set in a specific time and place, with an alternate culture, a huge cast of characters, and a deep mythology, would require more worldbuilding than I could carry in my head.
My second revelation was that there were specialized worldbuilding tools available that nobody had ever told me about.
My third revelation was that there are active communities of worldbuilders who put a whole lot of time and effort into exploring the strange new worlds that they’ve made up themselves. Some of these worldbuilders build their worlds to support a writing project. Some build their worlds to support tabletop role-playing game campaigns. And, most amazingly to me, some build their worlds just for the fun and challenge of it all!
And it is fun. And it is challenging. And it does get your puzzle-solving mind to wander off in all sorts of interesting directions. And it requires a bit of discipline remain focused on just the necessary parts of a constructed world, and to avoid the excessive breadth and depth they refer to as “Worldbuilder’s Disease.”
So I got myself into worldbuilding. I got my fifth grader into worldbuilding. She got her teacher into worldbuilding. And now their whole class is worldbuilding!
If you care to join us, here are some resources to get you started, or to help you guide your own class of worldbuilding students:
I can’t recommend World Anvil highly enough as a platform for developing and organizing notes on worldbuilding. It’s a wiki-type system where users build a Wikipedia style encyclopedia of people, places, and things in their story worlds. Like Wikipedia, these articles can be organized into categories and can reference each other with links. Even better than Wikipedia, for worldbuilding purposes, there are templates that help in eliciting and developing ideas in greater depth. The free version is quite usable, and premium versions offer more presentation options, storage space, and access control.
Now into its third volume of publishing six issues per year, Worldbuilding Magazine and its archives are free online. Each issue focuses on a different theme and its relevance to the development of an imaginary world. The most recent at this writing is “Death and Taxes,” but previous issues have explored the worldbuilding aspects of Magic, Food, Government, History, and other useful topics.
Tops on my list to read is Collaborative Worldbuilding by Trent Hergenrader, who teaches worldbuilding co-creation as part of his classes in creative writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Worldbuilding on Social Media
Worldbuilder’s Sanctum is a Facebook group that skews toward tabletop role-play designers and game masters, but includes are many resources and discussions of value to authors as well.
Worldbuilding on YouTube
- World Anvil has a channel of worldbuilding tips, interviews, and challenges, such as a series on “Immersive Worldbuilding,” or one on “Social Dynamics.”
- Stoneworks Worldbuilding has a channel of worldbuilding tips, such as instruction in creating realistic place names or a primer on desert settings.
- Celebrated worldbuilding author Brandon Sanderson’s BYU writing class lectures are online, including this gem on worldbuilding.
If you need a map to visualize your world, Wonderdraft is a specialized graphics program that makes it quick and easy to create some very nice looking maps in a variety of styles.
Plug, plug! I’m starting a newsletter focused on my writing and worldbuilding, with instructive examples of how the one helps with the other. The first issue comes out next month, but the subscriptions page is live right now!
Do you have any resources you like to use to help develop, visualize, or organize your story worlds? Share them in the comments!