Worldbuilding. It’s a term that gets bandied about quite a bit when discussing fiction, especially in genres like science fiction and fantasy, but for all the endless times it is repeated, I think sometimes the importance is overlooked.
It’s very fashionable to say things like, “character development is the important thing,” or “it’s the story that matters.” And, of course, those things are absolutely essential. But they’re not the whole story. Not by a longshot. Not in science fiction or fantasy.
A work of historical fiction set, say, during the American Civil War doesn’t need worldbuilding…it’s world is the world, and beyond pointing out some historical facts the reader might not know, the author can focus almost solely on characters and storyline. But science fiction and fantasy demand more. These stories take place in worlds that are the creations of their authors. They may be set in the near future, based heavily on the real world, or they may be wildly different (a galaxy far, far away), but either way, the reader needs to understand this setting, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the author fleshes it out.
Imagine a work like Dune, without the immense detail of the empire, stripped of the customs, institutions, and history so carefully laid out by the author. What is left? A good story, some well-developed characters? Yes, perhaps. But an enduring classic of the genre? Doubtful.
Or Asimov’s Foundation series…with its galactic empire and its ‘world as one giant city’ capital. The characters come and go in what is mostly a series of short novellas, but the overall plot of the fall of empire ties them all together.
On the fantasy side, could there be a better example than the Lord of the Rings? The three books cover little more than a single year’s activity, yet Tolkien’s work wouldn’t be the classic it is without the massive worldbuilding that gives us thousands of years of fictional history interspersed with a few months of real time action.
In science fiction and fantasy, the setting is like a character itself, often as much a part of the story as any hero and villain. When I think of the books that have resonated with me in my forty-odd years of reading science fiction and fantasy, it is those that offered rich worlds in which I could lose myself that became the favorites I pull out every couple years to reread.
Writers pursuing effective worldbuilding sometimes get blindsided by terms like “infodump,” and efforts to show the reader the true vision of a fictional universe often falter on such endless attempts to oversimplify good writing into arbitrary ‘rules’ and nonsensical little blurbs like, ‘show, don’t tell.’ Should a book start with an encyclopedia-like multi-page blast of pure background information. No, not usually at least. But is it important to share the true scope and vision of a fictional universe? Absolutely. Do readers want to know about these worlds their favorite authors create? Definitely.
There is no question that worldbuilding has to be done well, subtly, and not like a tank smashing through the wall. Information needs to be doled out slowly, steadily, not in one massive torrent. In a series it can come over several books. But when it is done, and done well, the rewards are enormous, both to the author and to the reader. The best fictional universes take on lives of their own, and they begin to feel real, at least to the readers who become ever more immersed in the escape they offer.
As an author, more often as not, I’ll begin a new project with a clearer idea of the setting and the realities of the universe than the characters themselves. I want my heroes—and my villains and bystanders too—to feel like they’re from that setting, and not some generic creations I cooked up and dropped in…which is why worldbuilding remains the core of my writing process, and always will.
I’d like to add a note on another kind of worldbuilding, the kind that is behind this web site. This is my first blog post for DiscoverSciFi, and I’m very excited to continue to share ideas and motivations with all of you. I’ve got a long list of topics for future posts, and I know my co-author partners here do as well.
One of the things I love about participating in something like DiscoverSciFi is the chance to create another way to reach readers. Authors today have the opportunity to be closer to their readers than ever before, and I think this is a great thing for publishing in general. I get a lot of emails from fans, and I answer them all. There is no substitute for input from those who read and enjoy your books, and no better source for new ideas where to take a story than those from fans. I’m excited to see where this DiscoverSciFi journey takes us. I’m sure it will be a great ride!