The Building of Worlds

Fantasy fiction, like its sibling Science Fiction, often depends on worldbuilding to be successful. A contemporary tale that takes place in our world depends on our sense of being alive in this present to give us grounding. But secondary worlds often demand explanation - whether it’s how a particular history developed, what kind of creatures exist in the world, what the physics are, whether magic exists and how it works, and so on and so on.

Opinions on worldbuilding differ among writers, and tastes for worldbuilding vary among readers. Some on both sides of the page demand well thought out, detailed worlds with histories and maps and even languages. Others see this as ponderous and plodding and a detraction from the overall story. But generally, some form of worldbuilding is necessary. Whether it’s the magical world of Harry Potter or George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, most fantasy readers will demand some sense in their fantasy worlds. Readers, especially fantasy readers, expect secondary worlds to be well thought out, and they’ll have questions for you if you’ve overlooked something.

In This Corner: The Architect

One of the best examples for wordbuilding on the comprehensive side has to be J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien not only developed a large, centuries-spanning history for Middle-Earth, but he created an actual language (Elvish) for his world. It was actually the language that came first, suggesting the world that it could be placed in.

Tolkien’s success could be seen as reflective of his laborious worldbuilding. His stories conjure up another world, with so much detail that people immerse themselves in it. Making a movie must have been an easy process since any time they wanted to deviate from the books, there was so much backstory that they could use to fill in extra scenes.

Books have been written about the detail in Tolkien’s worlds, guides to piecing out all the information he assembled. His work on Middle-Earth is like a skyscraper. You can peel away the pieces and see all the support structure underneath, holding up the story, girders and rivets bolting the thing in place. And looking at the success of Tolkien’s work, and its effect on the genre, that sure seems like a good thing.

But is it?

In the Other Corner: The Gunslinger

Some years back now, M. John Harrison, author of the Viriconium stories, caused a ripple in the Science Fiction & Fantasy by dissing worldbuilding. Here’s what he said (archived here):

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.”

This offended a lot of people, and I have to admit that my first reaction was one of defensiveness. As a writer, I create worlds. I may not detail pages and pages of them like I did when I was younger and decided to create my own world for Dungeons & Dragons, but I am a builder.

But when I read it again, I think I understand what Harrison’s take is. He is arguing against defining everything, against filling in all the details. And he’s arguing against the writer having complete control. Writing becomes flat without engaging the reader. I’d argue that the best writing leaves room for the reader to use her or his brain. The more excessive the worldbuilding, the less gaps there are for the reader to do their thing.

To use a simple example - let’s say a writer is describing a table. Not a magical table. Not the One Table to Rule Them All. Just a table in a character’s house. She could go into lots of detail, giving the table’s height, its composition, its surface area, its color, its smell, its weight. But is all that necessary? All that detail gets in the way of the reader envisioning the table. Sometimes it's the writer's job to get out of the way of the reader. 

Of course just calling it a table is weak. But calling it a worn table, or a wooden table, or a gleaming glass table or something along those lines gives it just enough to engage with the reader. For them to fill in the blanks. 

Worldbuilding is like that. Or at least that’s what Harrison seems to be suggesting.

Harrison later goes on, in the comments to his original post, to say:

“When I use the term “worldbuilding fiction” I refer to immersive fiction, in any medium, in which an attempt is made to rationalise the fiction by exhaustive grounding, or by making it “logical in its own terms”, so that it becomes less an act of imagination than the literalisation of one. Representational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to “inhabit”; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.”

I find this part even more fascinating than the previous quote, especially the reference to imagination as a “questionable activity.” I’m not sure honestly how I feel about it, but it certainly makes me think.

This essay was later remarked upon by China Mieville in a post on SF Signal.  As I’ve mentioned here before, Mieville has engaged in some really interesting worldbuilding, particularly in his Bas-Lag books, and apparently has mapped out a large part of the world in notes. But he’s more a student of Harrison (he cites him as an influence) than of Tolkien. Mieville says: 

“In fact, while we’re on a Harrison tip, I think one of the most productive things anyone interested in World-Building can do is to go straight to his now notorious, and magnificent, diss of the whole project, here, and read and reread it and be troubled by it. Not that you have to agree with it, of course. (Though you can.) But I think that rather than starting with a kind of chippy denunciation with which that passage was greeted by many when it emerged, it would do us all good – especially those of us fortunate enough to look down and see the targets on our shirts, and look up and see one of the most important, savage and intelligent (anti-)fantasists of recent times aiming down the barrel of his scorn-gun at us – to start from the presumption not that he’s wrong, but to try to figure out how and why he might be right. Why does the ‘internal consistency’ of a world matter to us? What does that even mean? How can we map every corner of a non-existent place? Why do we want to? Why are we so anxious when writers contradict their canon statements? What is going on? What kind of urges are these? Again, none of this presumes that the only honourable path is to throw up the project, necessarily – but it can only be bracing to force us to think about it, whatever our ultimate direction, because it’ll make us think about what it is we’re doing, or should be doing. Which is fiction, which is, we should probably hope, literature.”

Again, after a moment’s thought, I found Mieville’s piece thought-provoking, as was his point. I think fantasy writers often get used to creating these worlds and mapping them out and it becomes this expected part of creating the world. But is it necessary? Do they stop to think about what it means? If it’s helping to serve the story? Or just assuming it does.

The “canon statements” bit is most interesting to me. I’m someone who becomes irked when continuity is violated. But does that matter? Or rather does that matter for all stories? I do think, especially as a writer, that these questions matter, and they can potentially lead us to better writing.

Harrison later had this to stay (from April of this year):

“I’m not against worldbuilding…

…on the grounds that it impedes narrative. Nothing I’ve said has anything to do with worldbuilding vs narrative. Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies in that context, it isn’t deftness or economy of line. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.”

Again, Harrison is provocative, attacking the genre and its intent. And its clear that he’s talking primarily about epic fantasy here. But does he have a point? I say yes. A lot of epic fantasy is about escape. A lot of epic fantasy could stand to be defter, more economic. But is escape fiction a bad thing? There, I don’t agree with him. I think that has its place. And I don’t feel like judging people for why they read. However, I will say that on further reflection, I am happy that Harrison is “aiming his scorn-gun” at the genre. Asking questions, thinking about the answers, that is never a bad thing in my book. And if it leads to better fiction, well then it’s worth it.

The Middle Path: The Gardener

There is an in-between, of course, a whole stretch of territory between the absolutes. It contains writers like George R. R. Martin. His profile in The New Yorker contains the following passage:

"[Martin] thinks of himself as a “gardener”—he has a rough idea where he’s going but improvises along the way. He sometimes fleshes out only as much of his imaginary world as he needs to make a workable setting for the story. Tolkien was what Martin calls an “architect.” Tolkien created entire languages, mythologies, and histories for Middle-earth long before he wrote the novels set there. Martin told me that many of his fans assume that he is as meticulous a world-builder as Tolkien was. “They write to say, ‘I’m fascinated by the languages. I would like to do a study of High Valyrian’ ”—an ancient tongue. “ ‘Could you send me a glossary and a dictionary and the syntax?’ I have to write back and say, ‘I’ve invented seven words of High Valyrian.’ ”

And that’s the middle ground. You create just what’s necessary for the story. In Martin’s case it’s just seven words rather than the whole language. But does that make Martin’s world any less real than Tolkien’s?

This is cheating in a way because it’s science fiction, but I recently attended a reading where Paolo Bacigalupi was reading from his recent novel, The Drowned Cities, and someone in the audience asked him about the world - how much of it he had fleshed out, how much he knew of what was happening elsewhere.  His response was that if it’s not on the page, he doesn’t know it. It doesn’t exist. Are his worlds any less real, any less immersive?

The bottom line in writing is always, whatever works, as long as it works. For some, that involves extensive notes and figuring out the names of every person that lives in a town. For some that involves only knowing the one road in the kingdom that their characters are traveling. The question remains, where are the boundaries? They no doubt move from story to story, writer to writer. Reader to reader. I’d love to hear from you what you like best in worldbuilding. Who do you think are the best examples? And why do you think that is?

I’ll give the last words to J. R. R. Tolkien from one of his letters, then to China Mieville from the same article I linked to before. Hopefully it will give you as much to think about as it did me:

"Part of the attraction of the The Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed." - J. R. R. Tolkien

“Worlds are too big to build, or to know, or even, almost, to live in. A world is going to be compelling at least as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does. Nothing is more drably undermining of the awe at hugeness that living in a world should provoke than the dutiful ticking off of features on a map. ‘World-Building’, at its worst and most compulsive inexorably means the banalising of an imaginary totality. How fucking depressing is that? Surely we want culture shock, which is about not understanding, rather than understanding. And we can get culture shock at home, too. Hence the greatest moment in world-creation ever, that opens M John Harrison’s The Pastel City. “Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them”. That refusal to speak of them is one of the most awesome and confident moments of scare-quotes world-building scare-quotes ever.” - China Mieville

Image via Writers In The Storm

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Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at and and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Heidi Ash's picture
Heidi Ash from Dallas/Fort Worth area is reading 1Q84, Bloodfire Quest, Anathem June 26, 2012 - 10:30am

I am really loving your new column! I think that I have to add Terry Pratchett as one of my favorite world-builders. It seems like he is probably a gardener type (especially since I don't think I've ever actually seen a map of Discworld - at least I'm not remembering one in the earlier novels). In fact, I think this maplessness is one of the things that I enjoy about his books. Sometimes I feel like there is almost overload on the maps in fantasy, and I have even just not started series a couple times on the basis of being unwilling to learn the map of a new world. Now, don't get me wrong - I love Tolkein and Martin. I also like Salvatore and Jordan. But, sometimes I guess it's nice to just have an adventure that isn't mapped out!

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from living outside of Albuquerque/in Minneapolis is reading Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks July 4, 2012 - 5:53am

Yes, just think of Jorge Borges. A vast structure is suggested, but he never feels the need to flesh it out. I do love a more built-up fantasy world than that, but just how built up it needs to be depends on the vision and skill of the author. I mean, how much duller can any reading experience get than "The Wheel of Time" series? I think Mr. Martin and Mr. Mieville, each in their very different ways, got it just about right. And I also think every reader's judgment about that is different. Even as Tolkien was reading from manuscripts later to become LOTR to his fellow Inklings, Hugo Dyson was heard to mutter, "Oh, God, not another fucking elf." To take it back even further, I defy anyone to try to draw a map of the world of "The Faerie Queene," but was there ever a more impressive world-building effort than that? Let Grill be Grill, and have his hoggish mind. I want my fantasy worlds, and all I ask of them is that they work. I don't specify how.

Addendum to my post: Haha, I see the person posting just before me loves Robert Jordan. De gustibus. . .

GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle June 26, 2012 - 1:39pm

A great discussion of the types of world-building. Good to know that there's more than one acceptable approach.

Johann Thorsson's picture
Johann Thorsson from Reykjavik, Iceland is reading Echo Lake June 26, 2012 - 2:36pm

Wow, fantastic post (no pun intended).

I have to say that I like Robert Jordan's worldbuilding, especially the Aiel and the magic system.

As sci-fi is concerned, William Gibson somehow makes me believe that the world of Neuromancer and All Tomorrow's Parties is real and complete. I feel part of it when reading, and trust myself to make guesses about things not mentioned specifically. Same goes for Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

Tolkien's world seems overly complete and intricate to me; it doesn't all those bells and whistles for the story to work.

crashlaunching's picture
crashlaunching June 28, 2012 - 10:24am

I generally tend to think that there are different types of fictions, with different goals, and different pleasures to be had from each. MJH is generally (perhaps obviously) right when he says too much, or ill-deployed, "worldbuilding" can impede narrative. It makes for worse literature -- or even, less loftify, worse novels.

But I gain pleasure from witnessing and imagining the intricacies of a fictional construction. I think there's value in such complete imaginings. And sf/f novels are one of the two main places to get THAT sort of pleasure (RPG sourcebooks are, of course, the other). So an sf/f book with worldbuilding that kind of bogs down the story can still have been worth reading or worth experiencing to me if I enjoyed that worldbuilding enough. Which I, and obviously plenty of other readers, are capable of doing.

As far as "what does this urge mean?": my instinct is to go with your basic "what does ANYTHING mean," but I suppose I can't end *every* discussion by descending into nihilism/existentialism. I think the point is that worldbuilding is an art, and fiction-writing is an art, and they are related and can be combined (like, say, you can paint a sculpture), but they are not the same art, and all it means is that some people can appreciate one, some the other, and some both.