Worldbuilding for the Sake of Worldbuilding

May 9, 2021

My last post on this topic covered worldbuilding with a purpose, so now I'd like to explore the opposite approach. The truth is that not all stories need extensive worldbuilding, especially when they take place in familiar settings and not on imaginary worlds or some high-flying epic environment. But sometimes you want to do it anyway. Maybe you do it because it's fun, or you're interested in extensive worldbuilding for some reason beyond your story's immediate needs. Maybe you think of it as an art form, or maybe you just enjoy worldbuilding as a challenge or game. 

What is Worldbuilding for the Sake of Worldbuilding?

At its core, worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding involves creating settings that might not be relevant to your plot, but that create alternate environments where you can explore your characters.  Worldbuilding for fun can be unrestrained, a do-whatever-you-want sort of scenario. Your ad hoc worldbuilding can be as granular or as grand as you like, and it can give you the opportunity to create new histories, factions, languages, politics, cultures, religions -- all sorts of additional color and texture to give your story life and credibility. 

This sort of environmental, experimental deep dive is a very common approach, so much so that many people think worldbuilding should be. Still, it should be noted that this technique usually isn't helpful when it comes to story development. Not to say that it's impossible to take a worldbuilding-first approach, but the technique can have its limitation. That sounds contradictory, doesn't it? How is unrestricted worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding limiting? 

Limitations

Here's why: when you create a highly detailed world without being bound by plot, you may find the type of stories you can write in that world become limited. You now have your framework., but how does your story fit in? There are some writers who enjoy writing stories that have to fit in a predefined world, but it can be difficult to find a story that fits naturally in the environment. Keep in mind that no matter how detailed and specific your world may be, it exists to serve the plot and characters, not the other way around. Worldbuilding also exists to transport the reader into your story, so while you play around, remember it also needs purpose.

In my next post on this topic, I'll cover some broad categories to help you organize your worldbuilding efforts. If you're worldbuilding for the sake of it, you might not be interested in a directed approach. But even so, even unstructured worldbuilding can eventually be focused to support specific ideas or challenge your characters in ways that help further the plot. 

Activity:

Think of some books, movies or tv shows with highly detailed worlds. How much of the story do you remember? Is the world a reflection of the struggles and challenges the characters encounter? Is it relevant? How many stories can you name where the worldbuilding was more memorable than the characters or plot?