Worldbuilding: A Mansplanation

Last week I led a workshop for The Porch Nashville called “Worldbuilding in Fiction.” It was the first workshop I had ever led.

In order to feel like I was earning my fee, I took it upon myself to learn what it is we’re talking about when we talk about worldbuilding. I’d like to share some of the more interesting tidbits with you.

The Origins of Worldbuilding

J.R.R. Tolkien is the grand daddy of all this worldbuilding business, though of course authors have indulged in building fully functioning worlds well before he came along. (Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for instance, is chockablock with modern worldbuilding elements, what with its setting of an uncharted island ruled by a wizard and populated with talking fishmen.) Tolkien liked to call his worlds, like the Middle-earth of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, “secondary worlds,” since God created the Primary World, that is, this world, the one you and I share. For this reason, when a writer creates a world, he is not creating but subcreating.

And so what happens when one is subcreating a world is that any detail of that world that goes unexplored will wind up matching the correlating detail of the Primary World. For instance, how did Luke Skywalker learn to read and write? This is never explored in any episode of the Star Wars franchise (as far as I know). It therefore can be assumed that Luke went to a kind of school, where he was taught to read and write by teachers. Those teachers might have looked like aliens, sure, but they would roughly correlate to the teachers we have here on Earth. Until something is presented to the contrary, a reader can and will assume that unseen aspects of the secondary world function in ways that conform to their personal experience. In other words, the Primary World is the default for the reader, and so it must be for the writer.

Related to that idea is the notion that, no matter what kind of world you’re subcreating, there are aspects of the Primary World that must remain in order to for a story to be relatable. These aspects include:

  • Analogousness. SOMEONE must be SOMEWHERE doing SOMETHING that the reader will find at least vaguely relatable. Your world can be made up of gas monsters who communicate via telepathy, but your story will still have to start with one or more of these gas monsters taking some sort of action during a specific time and place.
  • Causality. Causality presumes basic laws of time and space. Because of causality, characters’ actions are imbued with…
  • Moral Dimensions. Without a sense of right and wrong, characters’ actions are meaningless and the story is without purpose.
  • Emotional realism. Because of the moral dimensions of their actions, characters must have emotions, which are triggered when their actions take on moral dimensions.

Hence the term subcreating: because pretty much any story you’re going to want to tell is beholden to these four aspects of the Primary World, the best a worldbuilder can ever do is switch around some of the details surrounding those four aspects. Sure, you can pretend that your world runs backwards in time, that murder is not only legal but encouraged, that people can nullify whichever lobe in their brains makes emotions, but those aspects must be explained in relation to how the Primary World functions.

Even when you’re building a world with aspects that run directly counter to these four aspects of the Primary World, you’re still operating within them. Dr. Spock was half-Vulcan and therefore had little to no emotional capacity, but about 60 percent of the episodes in the original Star Trek revolved around the tension between Dr. Spock’s purely logical behavior and Captain Kirk’s high-running passions (or, just as often, Bones’s chronic belligerence). No, I did not use this example during the workshop…

One of the things the attendees seemed to want to know most was how to incorporate the heavy exposition required of worldbuilding-dependent stories into the story itself. I discovered a few ways to go about that, some more elegant than others.

Right now I am playing around with a story that takes place in a future world where the three most powerful nation-states are locked in a kind of space race. The story begins with an interview with the head (captain?) of a space station operating in a zone where time moves far more slowly than anywhere else in the known universe. And so the question for me, less as a “writer” or a “worldbuilder” than as a storyteller, is how to elegantly explain the aspects of this secondary world while keeping the story moving along?

I considered writing it a bit like Kurt Vonnegut did in Cat’s Cradle, with lots of asides explaining the ways of this secondary world as the action of the overall story plays out. Of course, this only works insofar as one’s personal writing style—Vonnegut could get away with it because he was charming company. Mine would probably come off as annoying after a few pages, like someone who won’t shut up after the lights have gone down.

Main Character as “Audience Surrogate”

Another thing to do—and I went on and on about this during the workshop, like I actually felt myself getting hoarse by the beginning of hour three—is to utilize your main character so that they act as “audience surrogate,” seeing what the audience sees, hearing what the audience hears, learning aspects of the secondary world in the same way, and at the same time as when, the audience learns them.

The most direct way to do this is to make your main character an actual representative of the Primary World (like Bastian in The Neverending Story). But that’s boring, and you might find yourself writing a fish out of water story, which, grow up. You might try making them a someone in the secondary world but so sheltered, their experience up to the start of the story so mundane, that they may as well be newcomers to this world (again, think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit).

A possibly more subtle way to make your main character act as audience surrogate is to make them a rather high-up in the secondary world, but experiencing doubts as to the efficiency or moral authority of that secondary world’s order (think Winston Groom in 1984). This one works especially well for dystopias, but it’s tricky at the beginning, since someone in their position is likely to see most aspects of the secondary world as an insider, which makes them a lousy tour guide but potentially a more involving narrator in the long run.

Or you could make your narrator or main character tell their story with a specific audience in mind, whether it’s for their unborn child or for future posterity or for someone who cannot be with them because of some cruel aspect of this secondary world. (Offred is, after all, the tale teller in The Handmaid’s Tale, and she narrates with full consciousness of her narrative role.)

Near the end, I recommended everyone watch N.K. Jemisin’s November 2019 presentation at WIRED25, where she builds a new world from scratch. I hereby recommend that to you as well, if you’ve read this far and would like to learn the nuts and bolts of worldbuilding in fiction from a true master.