Building Worlds

Nothing makes or breaks a new novel for me quite like how the world is presented. Not built, presented. The two are tied together, but they are not the same thing by any stretch.

Good worldbuilding, to me, is setting up a bunch of background and rules that your world will function on and then making sure that you never directly tell the reader about them. Don’t infodump it. Show them through actions in the world, make them aware of the ruleset by demonstrating the limits, show them the penalties for breaking the rules, and show them the reason the rules are in place through the agency of the characters rather than exposition on the part of the writer.

Tolkien is often pointed to as the grandfather for unwieldy worldbuilding, but I disagree with that. If you, as a reader, choose to explore the depths of his storytelling then yes, he lays things out like a dry historical text. But go back and read The Lord of the Rings and really examine the ways that the world is exposed to you. Look at his naming conventions and how there are hints at why things are named how they are. There’s a consistency in the setting that makes it feel grounded. Old kings and legends and schemes are mentioned but not in as much depth as the actions of the present. You are left with hints about things that happened long ago which continue to shape the world, but there are no enormous expositional text dumps. There are no talking heads explaining everything to you.

I have always found his work grounded because a lot of the worldbuilding was written by his own benefit. There are things in the text that ring true to me as a reader because he mapped it all out ahead of time and wrote the novel referencing things he had written in-universe. The size of the land works because he knew how long it took to trek across so many miles, he knew how much space the characters would have to cross, and he wrote it out in agonizing detail so you know what a grueling march each character ends up on. When we get glimpses of the history of Moria it’s because he meticulously planned that all out and then referenced it in broken tidbits, just enough to piece together what happened from a tattered old history book. The tidbits were not written in a vacuum, they incorporated a tremendous amount of internal storytelling and logic that he himself was privy to from his notes.

Even his dry works like The Silmarillion serve as a framing device, written as a history as if someone from within the setting had put pen to paper. It is not necessarily there to serve as its own standalone story, but to complement other works within the setting, to show the scope of the good/evil struggle throughout the ages, to demonstrate that the characters are playing out a grand cycle that has happened before and will continue to happen again and again on increasingly smaller stages as evil as whittled away with every successive generation, so long as good keeps on fighting.

In the past few years of cinema in particular, I feel like there’s really been a resurgence of this. Three of my favorite films of this decade have been Dredd, John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road. Not just because they’re excellent action films in their own right, but because they demonstrate a similar kind of storytelling. The world is there and no one is going to sit you down and hold your hand, walking you through it. The character already exist in those worlds and know how they work, so to have them talk about it in detail would be incredibly jarring even to benefit the audience. There’s greater immersion in letting you see how the world works, how it rolls along on internal consistency and adheres to its own rules–or breaks them and examines the consequences of doing so. No one is going to tell you how John Wick’s mysterious coins and assassins’ hotel chains work, you see piece by piece as it is brought to the forefront of the story, you see how it works and you see what happens when someone crosses them. Same with the world of Mad Max. Furiosa has already lived in Immorten Joe’s Warboy society for decades, as has everyone but Max. And Max catches on all by himself within minutes of watching the society at work. No one sits down and discusses it at all, they just figure out ways that they can escape it or break it. Dredd drops you into the middle of the action in the best way and leaves it up to you to realize that it’s a blazing satire of fascism and that Dredd actively makes the system worse. The only character who acknowledges that Dredd contributes to the crime rate he tries to keep down is a corrupt cop who sees beyond the system and tries to use it for his own gain, and is gunned down for doing so by characters who don’t care as long as they can keep doing their jobs.

If you go to someone’s house and see paint peeling up on one wall, revealing wood, or wallpaper or earlier paint colors you’re going to make the connection and realize “oh hey, this room used to be different in x ways.” Someone isn’t going to sit down and launch into a long winded paragraph about how this room used to be blue, not off-white, and we used this brand of paint, and painted it for this reason, and so on and so forth. It would feel weird for that to happen to most of us, and it feels weird when it happens in fiction to.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate lovingly crafted, involved worldbuilding. Just use it to bolster the characters rather than using paper-thin characters to show off the world. If you’re going to do that you might as well get into RPG design and sell books of just world descriptions for people to play around in.

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