The fantasy and sci fi genres don’t get much respect from literary critics. Often, the argument is that speculative fiction is just too speculative, too fantastical to be anything more than entertaining. For the longest time, I bought into this line of thinking, even as I picked up the next volume in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or drew up a map of some new imaginary land. Like so many others, I believed in the shallowness of my hobby.
Then, one morning last summer, I woke up with a simple question that had never before crossed my mind: what makes speculative fiction so popular? If fantasy and sci fi are as pointless as the critics claim and as entertaining as their readership suggests — a distraction, an addiction — why are we all wasting our time? The answer lies in those fictional worlds in which stories exist.
When you see the Star Wars logo, what do you think of? For most people, it’s lightsabers, the Force, Darth Vader, wookies, space battles, music, the atmosphere of a memorable scene or two, and the innumerable other people, places, objects, ideas, and feelings that exist within the world of Star Wars. That world is larger than all the stories ever written or produced about it and suggests more stories than could ever be created.
When you look at an icon from Harry Potter, the same thing happens. Once you’re familiar with a world, it’s yours to expand and run with. It’s worlds as rich and alluring as those of Harry Potter and Star Wars that enable spinoffs, that demand them.
Clearly, the best fantasy and sci fi writers have been exceptional world builders — and their worlds no doubt receive a boost to their enchantment from the creative freedom of the genre. But don’t great authors in any genre have to be skilled at world building? To create timeless works, even “realist” artists must develop a clear sense of their own time and culture, taking as little a part of the reality they live in for granted as they can, then construct a universe that resembles that time and culture (or another) to the degree their art requires.
What’s more, worlds aren’t confined to stories or even to art. There’s another kind of world. A kind more relevant to all of us, even the literary critics.
New York City is not only a world that’s inspired some of the most iconic stories but also one you can visit and one you have to understand if you want to effect change — even to imagine it — there. Whether you’re building a skyscraper or a media campaign, understanding the world you’re working in is crucial for success. And world building is crucial for creativity.
World building is the process of creating the frameworks, worlds, for stories and other designs to spring from and inhabit. The physical, social, and cultural spaces we live, work, and play in are all examples of worlds. We build those worlds every day, unintentionally, through our interactions with others. It sets the assumptions, the expectations, the creative possibilities, the parameters for design. When made intentional, world building — changing the parameters — becomes a powerful tool both for creating art and for shaping our futures.
The World Building Institute at the University of Southern California formed to tap into the power of world building and to unite “undiscovered creators” with “companies who want to be at the frontlines of the new media landscape.” Since its first event in 2008, the Institute has experimented with world building to create architectural and cultural thought experiments, mixed-media and digital stories, and immersive virtual reality experiences, among other projects. It’s an experiment in creativity. Their work has inspired other parties, who’ve begun similar work or partnered with the team at USC.
But how does world building actually work, and how can we build worlds better? Is there a fundamental process underlying world building?
Listen to a few interviews with your favorite writers, read through a few posts on a world building forum, and you’ll soon realize just how many different and conflicting answers there are to the question of how to build a world. Some authors first dream up a character or a story, then paint in the world around it. Others start with a core idea they want to explore, a “what if,” and extrapolate out from there. Still others start with a single fact about their world, with few to none of the assumptions of ours, and build from the void up. These and many other methods exist, and the advantages of each are mainly a matter of the purpose of the world building and personal preference.
The World Building Institute offers other answers. Its key insight is that many people collaborating will create a design greater than what any individual likely could have produced. This fact might seem obvious, but it’s directly opposed to how the most prominent worlds came to be; Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts were all originally creations by single, determined creators. The World Building Institute is working to change that, bringing together hundreds of collaborators for a single project and drawing inspiration from world building in modern cinema. (The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Minority Report are both striking examples of large-scale efforts at world building.)
Game designers provide yet more, partial answers. Game rules themselves are frameworks for designs to spring from. Beyond that, an entire branch of tabletop roleplaying games (think Dungeons & Dragons) is dedicated to providing flexible, supportive structures for small groups of gamers to sit down together and tell exciting, character-based stories. Another game, Microscope, by Ben Robbins, uses a similar method to sketch out and fill in the history of entire worlds collaboratively within the span of a single game session. These “story games” often bake into their rules the “Yes . . . and” principle of improv, which states that the default response from an improviser should be to accept what other improvisers suggest and then add on to their lines of thinking.
Ultimately, creating a world is like creating any other design, with the specification that the world exists to house other designs. The universal principles of good design apply:
- Understand your audience and its needs.
- Clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve.
- Generate many solutions.
- Create a prototype by selecting and combining solutions.
- Test your solutions.
- Repeat the process above, iterating until you reach a final solution.
Over the last several months I’ve been designing and testing a general system for collaborative world building. The process follows the structure above but connects it explicitly to making worlds:
- Define the end goal for your world building.
- Clearly state the world’s premise, a foundational set of truths about the world, an initial “what if.”
- Ask questions about the implications of the facts established about the world (starting with the premise), and generate many answers.
- Select and combine answers to establish as true within the canon of the world.
- Eliminate inconsistencies.
- Repeat the process above, iterating until the world’s canon is large and detailed enough for your purposes.
The days of eccentric fantasy writers meticulously crafting universes of their own devising are far from over. The future will see a shift in creative endeavors that will scale that eccentricity to improve creative processes across media. Movies, games, digital art — they’re all showing signs, but it can’t stop there. World building must not be relegated to a hobby. It’s the force that sets up creativity, generates stories, and engages audiences. As the value of creativity, adaptability, and innovation increases, so too will the need for creative spaces, worlds built consciously, boldly, that spill over into our own.