Why You Need Worldbuilding (Yes, You) |Worldbuilding 1|
Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Spoiler alert for Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer and Anastasia (1997 animated film).
A while ago I came across a review for a book I’d already read, and the reviewer said something that I’ve now heard altogether too many times: that the book didn’t need worldbuilding because the setting was clearly inspired by a real-world place.
My fantasy and sci-fi writer side might be showing when I say this, but “excuse me?”
I think at least part of this idea that certain genres or settings don’t need worldbuilding comes from some misunderstandings of exactly what worldbuilding is and what its role is in story. In fact, the very review that inspired me to talk about this originally states the book in question doesn’t need worldbuilding then goes on to list at least five or six different things they wanted the author to explain in the book.
And I’m just here, listening to every detail the reviewer wanted more of, going, “That’s worldbuilding!” That’s all worldbuilding.
So, since I’m starting my series on worldbuilding, I thought I’d talk about why you do need worldbuilding, a few different forms of worldbuilding, and I’ll also discuss Twilight entirely too much and with a lot of sass.
Before I dive too far into this, I feel I need to say that there is absolutely something to be said here about genre expectations. Readers of different genres, and even different subgenres, will have different levels of tolerance both for how little worldbuilding they require on the page to feel satisfied as well as for how much overt worldbuilding they’ll put up with before it becomes “too much.” It’s important to know your audience’s sweet spot.
That said, it simply isn’t true that a book doesn’t need worldbuilding if it’s clear the setting is based on or inspired by a real-world place and era.
First of all, clear to whom?
Setting your novel in a real-world time and place absolutely will allow you a certain amount of shorthand when it comes to your worldbuilding and description—if your target audience is American, you probably don’t need to explain what America is (Though maybe you do. As an outsider, America bewilders the heck out of me.)—but authors need to be very careful about assuming that their knowledge or experience is the default.
Your novel must stand on its own merit, worldbuilding and all.
If you’re depending on your readers having done some required reading to envision your novel, you haven’t really done your job as a writer. To make a reference to my man Sherlock, you can’t expect your readers to make bricks if you haven’t at least given them the clay.
I’m going to give an example from Twilight. This example wasn’t strictly a worldbuilding issue, but I do think it illustrates the trouble you can get into when you make bad assumptions about what your readers’ backgrounds are.
In the final novel, Stephenie Meyer keeps promising the reader that the book will end with an epic battle and bloodbath. Beloved—or hated, to each their own—characters could die. Meyer keeps building up to this battle, promising it, raising the tension. And then?
No battle. No bloodbath. The evil vampires show up with the full intent to wreak havoc, and with one look at Bella and Edward's daughter, they decide to pack up and go home, leaving readers who'd been excited to see the battle unfold disappointed.
Meyer was rightfully criticized for this decision, but in her defense she said that a few times within the text, Breaking Dawn alluded to the title of a real-life novel that similarly builds up to something that never happens.
Basically, Meyer was saying that, despite all the promises of a bloodbath her story made, readers should have anticipated that the battle would never happen because she’d made a few scant references to another novel.
Respectfully Meyer, that doesn’t cut it. Readers, like myself, who had never read the referenced novel to know its plot were left no other clues to go by. The novel Meyer wrote promised a bloodbath that was not delivered. References are fine. They can add an extra level of enjoyment to readers in the know, but they can’t be required reading for people to feel satisfied by your book.
Back to worldbuilding, then!
As I mentioned, setting, or basing the setting of your novel on a real place, does give you a certain amount of shorthand, but it in no way gets you off the worldbuilding hook altogether. Just as a book with paper-thin characters or plot is going to feel lacking, so too will a book with thin worldbuilding.
There seems to be this idea that worldbuilding is primarily setting. Maybe a little language, culture, and economics if you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, but otherwise worldbuilding is basically the setting.
But worldbuilding is so much more than setting, so I wanted to take a look at some of the forms worldbuilding can come in.
First of all, worldbuilding is not description. Those aren’t the same thing. Yes, many authors use description to get across their worldbuilding, and sometimes they can be clunky with it.
But worldbuilding can be as simple as having your character put on a pair of rubber boots before they leave the house instead of wearing sandals. It can be having a painting of a dictator on the wall instead of a family portrait. It's something I still work on, but these details don’t have to slow down the pacing of your story or interrupt it with long paragraphs of exposition. With a tiny detail here and one there, they can add colour to your story. Substance. A sense that your world is more than an empty, white room.
Language is culture. Language is hierarchy. Language is societal values. Language is history. Language is conflict.
We see this in just how many different ways there are to say “give” or “receive” in Japanese based on the social status of the one doing the giving or receiving and whether or not the one doing the speaking is either of those people. Language is culture, hierarchy, and societal values.
We see this in how there’s so much tension between French-speaking Canadians and English-speaking ones. Language is culture, history, and conflict.
But even if everyone in your novel speaks the same language, the words your characters use can still be worldbuilding.
Why do we feel we know a little something about a person simply based on whether they say “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays”?
Why is it so dang hard to get an American to apologize for anything but Canadians apologize so liberally we actually have to have legislation for it?
(Little known fact: if I’m ever caught not apologizing for something, it is a legal requirement that I be apprehended and thrust into a pit full of angry Canadian geese, never to be seen or heard from again.)
Dialogue isn’t just words. It isn’t showing just what the characters want, understand, or value, but also what the society they come from understands or values.
If you use it well, dialogue is worldbuilding.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that worldbuilding can be a huge factor when it comes to your characters’ motivations. Worldbuilding is almost certainly a big reason why your character wants that pay raise—because their society views having more money as having more success and personal worth. Or maybe the character desperately needs healthcare they can’t afford because they live in a capitalist nightmare. Either way, worldbuilding factors into why that pay raise is so important.
A few years ago I read an earlier draft of the script to the animated Anastasia film, and there is an extra song in that version that I really wish had made the cut.
This song describes, better than the film manages without it, why Dmitri wants riches so badly. This song also beautifully compares and contrasts Dmitri’s motivations to Anya’s, and it’s in this song you realize they both want exactly the same thing: home. The difference between these two characters and why they’re always butting heads comes in how they decide to pursue what they want.
Anya obviously tries to find a home by searching for her missing family, but Dmitri—who grew up as a servant, who could only observe the royals’ glamourous parties from afar and was never welcome among them as an equal—wants money. In this song, Dmitri describes how riches will give him the home he so wants because money will make him welcome wherever he goes.
While the worldbuilding for this was included in the film—we see the luxurious party that a young Dmitri wasn’t allowed to join in—I wish they’d kept this song to call back to that worldbuilding and remind us of it, because including this song would have made the moment Dmitri refuses the reward for finding Anya a tad stronger. We’d know not only that he was refusing something he’d spent the whole movie wanting but also why he’d wanted it in the first place. Emphasizing that little bit of worldbuilding would show us just a little more clearly that Dmitri had learned a lesson about what it truly meant to have a home.
The Tzar, the palace, the servants and the way they were treated—that’s worldbuilding, and worldbuilding can be used to enhance your characters’ motivations and arcs too.
Worldbuilding also comes into play when it comes to relationships, whether those relationships are romantic, familial, platonic, business, or so on.
Who is allowed to associate with whom? Who is and is not allowed to marry? Why do people get married? How much authority does a teacher have over a student? A grandparent over a grandchild? A boss over an employee? Because depending on what time period, country, region, or even family you come from, your answer might be very different than someone else’s. Again, it would be unwise to assume that the answers most familiar to you are the “default.”
As an example, for a while in my martial arts class we had two students from another country who’d come to Canada for university. They’d talk together and seemed to get on just fine, so it was interesting for us Canadians when these two informed us that, once they returned to their home country, they would not be allowed to associate with each other because they came from different social classes.
And, yeah. That’s worldbuilding.
SOCIETY (GOVERNMENT, ECONOMICS, CLASS, SOCIAL NORMS, ETC)
These are technically several separate issues, but I lumped them together for the sake of brevity. Even though this post is totally not going to be brief.
Now if you’re a romance writer, you might not care too much about the government or economic system of your setting unless they directly interfere with your characters getting together. You just want to get on with the longing stares and the smooches! But this can be another easy place to slip up if you’re not paying attention.
Another of the areas Meyer saw criticism in Twilight’s final installment was when Bella was struggling through a dangerous pregnancy and Edward approached Jacob for help. If you’ve read the series, you already know that Edward and Jacob have a long history of hating each other, but Edward approaches Jacob and says, “Hey, my unborn child is currently killing my wife, so how about you convince my wife to abort it and then sleep with her so she can have your baby instead?”
This scene felt out of character. Meyer intended this scene to show how Edward loves Bella so much he’s even willing to hand her over sexually to his enemy without, you know, asking her first.
Wait… That actually doesn’t sound so good when phrased like that.
And it’s not ideal. While a scene like this could be used to show a character setting aside their own interests because of how much they love someone, this scene falls apart due to the character building and worldbuilding Meyer already laid down for her story.
Regardless of whether or not you choose to view the writing of Edward's behaviour toward Bella as problematic or simply harmless fantasy, it's pretty hard to deny Meyer established how jealous and possessive Edward is, as well as how much more jealous and possessive he is when it comes to any association Bella has with Jacob.
Meyer also establishes how smart Edward is, which is actually both a bit of character building here as well as a moment of worldbuilding. Edward being smart is character building because, well, Edward is smart.
But this is also worldbuilding because Meyer mentions just how much Edward has to go to school to maintain his family’s cover as ordinary Americans. Even though it’s not explicitly stated with these terms in the books, nor does it need to be, the implication of this is that a seventeen-year-old being in high school is the societal norm. That’s worldbuilding, and it’s well done.
But another aspect of worldbuilding here is how Meyer spends all the books before the final installment establishing the Cullen’s wealth. Expensive sports cars. Fake IDs. Sudden trips to Italy to brood. There isn’t much that’s beyond their monetary reach.
So, gather all that together, and what does it tell us? It tells us Edward is jealous. Edward is possessive of Bella. Edward is super smart. Edward is super rich.
Now Meyer wants readers to believe that the ever possessive, super smart, and super rich Edward’s plan to save Bella’s life involves having her sleep with his personal enemy and not going to a sperm clinic or otherwise using Edward’s oodles of money to give Bella a child? I had a hard time buying it, and so did many other readers.
This was a bit of an oopsie on Meyer’s part, and to be fair it’s an oopsie that could happen to any author, so I am not here put Meyer down for this. Writing is hard. We all have blind spots, and even with beta readers and critique partners, we don't always catch these mistakes. But take this as a lesson that paying attention to your worldbuilding can be as important to a romance novel as it is to fantasy. True, the Twilight books, with their vampires and werewolves, fit inside the realm of fantasy, but it wasn’t the fantasy elements that broke the story here. It’s the character arc that falls apart, and it falls apart because of Earthly, mundane worldbuilding Meyer forgot she’d established.
Now for the part most people think of when they think of worldbuilding. Yes, worldbuilding includes setting, it’s true. You’ve discovered the secret!
From my observations, this seems to be one of the aspects of worldbuilding where there’s some of the most difference in taste. Some of your hardcore fantasy and sci-fi readers might want to know exactly the shade of the leaves on that tree, but your readers of romance and thrillers don’t want to know about that and can we please get back to the smooches and murder already? (Better yet if the smooches and murder are happening at the same time!)
Again, whether or not you include descriptions of history or the architecture is going to depend in part on what genre you’re writing, the tone of your novel, the expectations of your readers, and your tastes as a writer. But whether or not you want to include much description of your setting, if you ignore this form of worldbuilding too much, you may find yourself running into trouble.
This is one I can actually give an example of my own oopsie. Let it not be said I think I'm above mistakes! I make them all the time.
My novel The Wolf’s Name, scheduled to be published in 2022, is a historical fantasy novel and thus has fantastical elements but is set in a real-world place: New Westminster. While my novel is set around 140 years ago, the people who live in New Westminster today are going to recognize any BS I have in regard to setting, and I found myself running into a bit of a problem.
While I have actually been to this real-world place, or at least very near it, I have never been to this city during the winter, which is when a good chunk of my novel takes place. Somehow, despite all the tons of research I did, I never thought to research the weather. I leaned much too heavily on my own experience of winter and just made the New Westminster winter wetter than the one I experience. But a New Westminster winter looks very different from a winter where I live. Luckily, I managed to catch this mistake and was able to do some edits to make the weather in my novel more believable. With a teensy bit of creative license here and there for the sake of my novel’s tone.
This kind of thing is a common complaint I hear about books written in genres that tend to place less emphasis on worldbuilding—that the authors got things terribly wrong, they missed some important detail of the setting their story takes place in. Again, anyone can make a mistake like this, and I do think we readers need to learn a little more lenience with these kinds of mistakes so long as the core story is still well served. But if, as a writer, you’re starting out a new novel with the attitude that you don’t need worldbuilding, you are much, much more likely to make these mistakes and much, much more likely to anger your readers. And also much more likely to deserve their criticism. Whether you’re writing a story set in Middle-Earth or Manhatten, you still need worldbuilding.
WHAT WORLDBUILDING REALLY IS
Honestly, there are probably several more forms of worldbuilding I could get into, but some of you may already be looking at these different forms of worldbuilding I’ve discussed and noticing a pattern, an underlying theme.
Worldbuilding isn’t just setting. It isn’t just making up new cultures or languages or religions or making sure you get the weather right.
Worldbuilding. Is. Context.
It’s the reason why the detective in your thriller can’t, or at least shouldn’t, break into people’s houses willy nilly looking for evidence without fear of any consequences. It’s the reason the heroine in your romance is worried about losing her job and not being able to afford rent, and thus maybe why she’s a little jealous of her love interest’s financial security. It’s the reason why a fantasy novel with plot points highly dependent on a made-up religion needs to explain that religion. It’s the reason you can’t have unrealistic expectations that your readers will do the worldbuilding legwork for you. You can’t have required reading. Your story must come equipped with its own context.
And that’s why every writer needs worldbuilding. So the next time you’re planning a new novel, make sure worldbuilding gets a seat at the brainstorming table.
Oh, and just so I’m covering all my bases, I am legally required to apologize for this post. I’m sorry. I'm sorry, Stephenie Meyer. I'm sorry, fair readers. I'm sorry. Please don’t send me to the geese.
That’s it for this video. What are your thoughts on worldbuilding? Personally, I love a story with deep worldbuilding, but one that manages to pull it off so seamlessly I don’t notice it. That’s a tall order!