What is Worldbuilding?

February 14, 2021

The term worldbuilding conjures images of secondary worlds, far away planets, and magic systems, so much so that it has become ubiquitous with writing and game development, particularly within fantasy and science fiction genres. But what exactly is it? How does one go about building a world in the first place? And what do you mean, I should consider worldbuilding even when the world I'm writing about isn't big and fantastical?

That's right, you should. Worldbuilding really isn't just for fantasy and science fiction. In fact, it should be thought of as part of your narrative framework. Worldbuilding refers to a wide range of detail that serves a purpose far beyond fantasy worlds and new planets.

The world in a romance novel encompasses all of the environmental conditions that make the main relationship possible, whether it takes place in an office or a candleshop in upstate New York. In a mystery, it may include both the physical environment that allows the crime to take place as well as the social or political conditions that prevent the detective from solving the crime. 

As you think about the world in which your characters exist, it's important to consider which details are relevant to the plot and find ways to show them to your reader. You can also think of worldbuilding as framework that contains your story and defines its limitations. Worldbuilding can also drive your plot, help define your characters, and tie them all together. 

And while worldbuilding tends to do the heavy lifiting in secondary-world fantasy (stories that take place in another world, different from the protagonist's home) and space opera sci-fi, it isn't limited to grand scale settings. Any substantial deviation from or change to the real world (as defined by your story) can be considered  a form of worldbuilding, as well. 

The main goal of worldbuilding is create an internally consistent set of rules that help your readers understand what your characters' baseline reality is and why the events in your story affect them the way they do. How you approach your worldbuilding depends on what sort of baseline you need to establish and how overtly or subtley this environment affects your characters' decisions. 

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For readers in the Western anglosphere, customs from countries outside of their cultural norm are often seen as "new" even when they have long and established histories of their own.

Some things to consider: Are you writing about a place or environment that is recognizable, or is it different from your readers' perspective? If it's different, how should you present it? Do you set it up as a secondary world and draw attention to its otherness (from the characters' perspective) or should you integrate the differences and make them a part of your story's natural world?