Why worldbuilders need to grow up

Sub-created worlds are vital to speculative stories, but nerds ruin storytelling with obsessive worldbuilding

Why worldbuilders need to grow up
Photo by Alexander Klarmann / Unsplash

Is there a point to worldbuilding?

Probably yes, if you're working in the fantastic genres. Weird tales, horror tales, tales of swords and sorcery, tales of high fantasy, rocketships, robots, and ray guns...

These all benefit from the integrity of your sub-creation.

But how do we get to self-consistent worlds?

And what part do they play in good storytelling?

I've talked about how worldbuilding became a socially transmitted disease of the mind.

Worldbuilding is important, but it gets out of hand, adding to the ruination of art and culture and literature.

What to do?


Avoid the great clomping foot of nerdism

Once upon a time, SF author M. John Harrison opined:

The whole idea of worldbuilding is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker. It reveals the bad old underpinnings of the humanist stance. It centralises the author, who hands down her mechanical toy to a complaisant audience (which rarely thinks to ask itself if language can deliver on any of the representational promises it is assumed to make), as a little god. And it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.

There's a horse-kick straight to the ol' tubby midsection. Ouch!

Worldbuilding rests on the faulty assumption that the world is a mere mechanism. The author, now an all-powerful godlike being, must design and construct his toy world with the care and skill of the engineer.

No wonder Harrison's so pessimistic. The mechanical universe is a pernicious metaphysics, having infected science and common sense since its creation (not to be confused with its discovery) in the 17th century.

If worldbuilding is the intrusion of the 'clockwork universe' and its disembodied creator-god into the realms of art and aesthetics, he's right to object.

This warped product of the imagination poisons storytelling down at the roots:

The claim is that nobody is being “told a story” here, let alone being sold a pup. Instead, an impeccably immersive experience is playing in the cinema of the head. This experience is somehow unmediated, or needs to present itself as such: any vestige of performativeness in the text dilutes the experience by reminding the reader that the “world” on offer is a rhetorical construct. All writing is a shell game, a sham: but genre writing mustn’t ever look as if it is.

Good storytelling is grounded in immediate sensory experiences.

Some would call this empathy with the character.

But it goes past inhabiting the character's point of view. There's a dream-like quality to a good story. You, the reader, forget yourself in time and space. You might forget yourself entirely, letting your own ego drop away while you walk in somebody else's life for awhile.

Powerful stuff.

Harrison's point is that when the author draws attention to the hand behind the magic trick, it breaks the spell.

And nothing does this more than ham-fisted worldbuilding.

"Hey, look at this thing I made! Let me spend 10 pages talking about it while there's a story going on."

You've read those stories, don't lie.

Now we've got a problem here.

We need to worldbuild because we're writing about happenings in unreal realities.

But worldbuilding that buys into its own hype and draws attention to itself pierces the veil of the fictional illusion that is good story.

What to do?


How not to write more good

Here's a favorite line from the original Star Wars movie:

My father fought alongside you in the Clone Wars.

Now that is a beautiful, picture-perfect sketch of the iceberg.

It's a throwaway line, told in passing. We're already in a galaxy far, far away, on a remote planet populated by talking robots and weird non-human peoples.

We know there's intrigues and battles afoot, "out there" somewhere.

What makes the line work isn't what is said, what it explains.

The magic is in the gesture.

It says just enough to prompt questions and images in the imagination of the watcher.

What the heck is a Clone Wars? When was this? Where did they fight? What was it about?

It doesn't have to tell you. The line works because of what it doesn't tell you.

And that was fine, until the prequels came along and showed us the monster in the rubber suit.


Worldbuilding happens in the unsaid

More precisely, worldbuilding grows out of immersive writing.

Imagine how a fully grown oak tree develops out of an acorn.

Is the adult tree already "there" inside the seed?

Of course not. The acorn is potential. The full-grown tree is the actuality.

You don't know how that tree will develop until it develops.

Stories aren't machines with plug-and-play parts.

Stories are like organisms -- or ecosystems -- that grow and develop by their own rules.

Harrison's worldbuilder explains it all, or tries to, showing all his cards and making sure the whole table sees them.

But worlds aren't built this way.

Worlds are built through evocative writing that alludes to a world beyond the immediate experience.

This opens up a gap. Gaps create tension in the reader's mind. Gaps invite the reader's imagination to fill them in.

Think of how many times you've come across a gap in a story that was more interesting than the answer you got.

I can think of many, many occasions.

I can't think of many where the answer shown on screen or in text was better than the tension set up by the gap.

Want to build worlds?

Evoke, hint, gesture, open up a gap.

Allude to a Great Unknown beyond the immediate story... and resist the temptation to fill in all the gaps.


The hidden hand of politics... again

If worldbuilding has a political, even revolutionary purpose in unmasking the status quo, as Charlie Stross argues (see yesterday's post), then you might find it strange that Harrison's glance askew is also... political.

But here we are:

This aspect of the contemporary relationship between readers & fiction is complicated further by the fact that, prior to any act of reading, we already live in a fantasy world constructed by advertising, branding, news media, politics and the built or prosthetic environment (in EO Wilson’s sense). The act of narcissistic fantasy represented by the wor(l)d “L’Oreal” already exists well upstream of any written or performed act of fantasy.

Now this is interesting, if only for comparison's sake.

Harrison's point is that much of our reality is already constructed. We live in "culture", which is made up of signs and symbols and a surplus of meaning.

Living in that world of words, we're wise to be sensitive to how we use language, and how it is used on us.

That warning doesn't have to rise to the level of deliberate propaganda.

Even the things we take most for granted about the world, and about ourselves, follows from the culture we're brought up in.

Like seeing the universe as a machine, and ourselves as disembodied ghosts in charge of it.

If you want to get real philosophical, Harrison's making a deep point about the uses and limits of language as a medium of communication.

And a point about the purpose of fiction, which is a relationship between the reader and the text.

Worldbuilding turns reading into a lecture from the author, when it ought to be a personal game of interpreting meanings.

Worldbuliding is a form of obsessive control which appeals mainly to obsessive controlling personality.


If we're talking about storytelling I think Harrison's got the right idea

Worldbuilding conflicts with good writing.

If you're spending your time building worlds and littering your story with your homework, then you're violating your pact with the reader.

You're shattering that immersive dream-like experience of reading, in which the reader and the text are equal participants.

You're robbing them of good story by intruding with your nerd explanations.

As a political agenda, I am not convinced by either of these arguments.

Around here, the one and only goal is fun and interesting stories.

I refuse to buy into the Marxist ideal that fiction must be in the service of social and moral change.

Art is not revolution. Story is not political.

While Stross and Harrison disagree about the best way to achieve their political aims, whether by digging up the biases of our age and pointing a neon arrow at them, or by refusing the command-and-control model enacted by the worldbuilder, political they are.

It's hard to get worked up about the best way to encourage revolution when revolution is not your goal.

Harrison's anarchic take on the reader-story interaction, on the enchanting quality of well-told stories, doesn't have to be committed to political revolution.

That's just good storytelling.

That's how you, the writer, create evocative images, memorable characters, and remarkable stories. Literally, stories that are remarked upon.

It can be hard to see the forest for the trees. Fish don't notice the water.

The tar-pit of worldbuilding is a seductive siren-call for many. If I just do more research, if I just outline more, if I just write more character bios, if I just fill in more history of this obscure piece of setting...

You aren't writing.

You're trying to optimize all the parts, blind to the bigger picture: writing a fun, gripping, page-turning story.

Don't build worlds, nurture them into existence as you write your stories.


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