If you’ve been reading Down the Stacks, you’ve probably come to the realization that one of the elements of fiction that I care the most about is worldbuilding. A moving plot and interesting character dynamics are what most people look for in a story, but to my mind no plot or set of characters is complete without an interesting, well-knit world for them to inhabit and interact with. A well-built world lends itself to further exploration by both the original author and fans, extending a story’s lifespan and providing fodder for discussions. Worldbuilding also helps to liven up scenes so that the reader’s mental pictures are more than just talking heads on a blank background.
Worldbuilding encompasses all the details of a story that aren’t the characters or the plotline. Setting, history, religion, politics, races and racial tensions, magic and technology, all of these and more combine to make up the world of your story, and each subject can be a deep and complex area of study on its own. For genres like fantasy and science fiction, you may spend more time crafting the world than you do writing about plans for the characters and their adventures.
Worldbuilding is crucial for making your story stand out from the crowd. It may be easier to write a story set in a world of well-known, cookie-cutter fantasy tropes, but a story set in such a world will quickly fade from the public consciousness. This doesn’t mean you need to make your world incredibly edgy and complex, nor that you should avoid all established tropes like a plague. Coherence is important: a world built on standard fantasy tropes that fit together and interact in believable ways will make for a better story than a world where elements are just thrown together willy-nilly for the sake of uniqueness. In my review of Murder on Olympus, my primary complaint was that the world felt incomplete. I got the sense that the author hadn’t fully explored the implications of the Greek Gods existing and having open interactions with the modern world.
In contrast to Murder on Olympus, David Butcher’s The Dresden Files demonstrates well thought-out worldbuilding. Both series start from the same premise: first-person narrative of a private detective in a world where supernatural forces are often in play. But where the world of Plato Jones is simply “modern day Greece with gods, demi-gods, and monsters mixed in,” Harry Dresden inhabits a Chicago where the supernatural is a kind of subculture hidden in plain sight, full of its own complex rules, and populated by a whole spectrum of personalities and power-play-makers. The Dresden Files does have the advantage of both more and longer volumes than the Plato Jones series, but even the first Dresden book alone manages to demonstrate that a whole, coherent world of wizards, fairies, monsters, and crime exists beyond the scope of the book. The world is revealed to the reader and expanded upon as the series progresses, but no part leaves the impression of being incomplete.
You don’t need to reveal everything about your story’s world at once - in fact it’s not a good idea to try that at all unless you’re writing in the style of a travel guide or encyclopedia - nor do you need to spell everything out for your readers. Worldbuilding details mostly exist in the background, so explaining them outside of context will take the focus away from the characters. Instead, the details should come forward as the characters encounter and interact with them; let your characters carry most of the exposition burden. Use subtext and word choice in character conversations to show how humans feel about goblins and vice-versa. Have someone be giddy about translating and explaining the ancient runes carved into the rock another character just unearthed. Make use of slang and slurs. Invent jokes and poetry based on your world’s history. Most importantly, if your character never run into some detail you developed for the world, just let that detail go unmentioned. Worldbuilding can make or break a story, but ultimately it isn’t as important as the people who play out the story taking place in that world.