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Worldbuilding in Literature

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I had a discussion with a literary friend yesterday, and we got onto the topic of worldbuilding (I'd just read Bakker's prince of nothing and got talking about it). He saw worldbuilding as completely pointless, and claims to be naturally averse to any writer known for using it. I thought I'd set out my thoughts on the issue, considering the skepticism and sometimes hostility it seems to receive.

Worldbuilding does not require writing skill. This is the basis of why some people dislike it, since anyone with a decent imagination can construct an alternative world or universe, and (so long as sufficient effort is used) make it semi-believable. However, what my friend (and others) tend to mistake is the idea that only a substandard writer would bother to put effort into world-building, since its something they can acheive without the use of skill, and distract the reader from their possibly lacking writing skills. To put it in simple terms, you can be an exellent writer and still have a use for worldbuilding. It provides a platform and framework from which a reader can more easily insert themselves (particularly useful in fantasy). Therefore, much of the snobbishness when related to worldbuilding comes more from the perceived association with substandard writing than any actual truth. Any dedicated writer will do whatever they can to pull readers into their world, and there's no law which prevents a genius from doing simple things as well as exceptional ones to get ahead. Sometimes I think writers become deluded by their own skill and mistake this for the idea that the basic parts of writing no longer apply. Sure, there are cases when certain writers who are mostly devoid of writing ability become semi-successful due to outlandish use of devices such as worldbuilding which appeals to a certain audience, but no-one is going to become REALLY successful with a complete reliance on a single device.

So basically, worldbuilding by itself cannot be used to knock an author. Its simply a writing devise you may or may not wish to utilise, and cannot be used as a marker for determining someone's ability. It most likely depends on whether you wish your story to have substance, or whether you prefer it to remain seamless and interpretive.

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Obviously worldbuilding doesn't matter of the rest of the work is utter dreck.

I guess I view worldbuilding more as an attempt at an internal consistency in the story. Maybe something happens that we know wouldn't/couldn't happen in our real world, but if the author has constructed her/his work in an appropriate way the reader should feel that the event makes sense given what is known. How people from different social classes, geographical areas, and genders react different to things and each other depending on where they came from and what influences they have felt throughout their lives. This is part of worldbuilding - making a believable history that informs the characters' actions.

So when I talk of an author having great worldbuilding, it really comes down to believability within the parameters of the story. I just finished reading Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, and the guy had some neat ideas going on, but there simply wasn't the depth to the world that made me believe that things would happen as they were (among other problems with the novel).

Sometimes worldbuilding goes too far, especially when an author has dreamed up the whole world and everything about it even though very little of it will ever have an impact on-screen. You can make a world seem like a real place without meticulously planning every speck of it.

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A degree of worldbuilding skill is necessary in any work to make the story coherent and believable. If the goal is to create a dreamlike or magic realist kind of story in which reality is sort of permeable (or peceptions of it can variable), than that also requires a deal of skill to pull off in an effective manner.

Worldbuilding is as key in works set in the real world as any set in others (since in a book set in a fictional world you can make the rules, whilst a work set in the real world that ignores geography or scientific reality can also break the reader's sense of immersion in the fictional world or the book, regardless that it is supposed to be 'our world').

Sometimes people put more work into the world than their own prose or character skills. Russell Kirkpatrick is an excellent example of a writer who has poured his heart and soul into the maps, the cultures, the backhistory and so on, but the actual story is fairly weak and the characters are from a stock background. Depending on your level of snark, Jordan (to some degree*) and (much moreso) Erikson can be criticised for the same things. Interestingly, Martin started ASoIaF using a fairly hands-off approach to worldbuilding, apparently building only what was necessary for the plot. Later in the series he seems to have enjoyed and gotten into it a bit more, taking more and more time out for relating historic backplot (the explanation of the Defiance of Duskendale in AFFC, for example, although arguably that is important for giving more clarification on the Aerys/Tywin relationship and Aerys' descent into madness), coming up with a much more detailed Targaryen genealogy and constructing other worldbuilding elements, a lot of which is fascinating in its own right, but I think a case could be made that it might be slowing the narrative drive of the story somewhat.

Integrating good worldbuilding into a story is an essential part of fiction, but as with any tool or concept, extending too much time and effort on it can be counter-productive. It is telling that with Tolkien we saw only a tiny fraction of his worldbuilding on Middle-earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with the majority of information having to wait until his posthumous works to appear, since more was not needed.

* Jordan may also fall into the Tolkien model, since the recent revelation that his notes for the world and backstory are actually longer than the series itself to date.

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Probably wrong here, but couldn't it be said that just about all SFF fiction contains elements of world-building, no matter how slight or complex? I mean, unless the book takes place inside a room with no windows, no lighting, and no reference the world outside it. The writers who fill in small details about the world as they write are practicing world-building, just as the writers who sit down and create their entire world beforehand are--the former writers are just doing it different and at a smaller scale than the latter.

I seem to go back and forth on my opinion of world-building. Most of the time I don't really care about it, whether it is good, bad, bland, generic, or complex. It can be put down as just not being a primary issue when reading. However, that doesn't stop me from being impressed when the world-building is well done or being disappointed when world-building comes off as a shiny coat of paint over cardboard set pieces, though admittedly the latter only really occur when I am reading a story set in a city.

Since you described the friend as literary, I would assume that he reads mostly Literature... and I have some thoughts on that, too, but as my knowledge is lacking in that department, I am not going to include them. They do go along the lines of the above though, only the world-building would be on a much smaller, more exacting scale.

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A degree of worldbuilding skill is necessary in any work to make the story coherent and believable. If the goal is to create a dreamlike or magic realist kind of story in which reality is sort of permeable (or peceptions of it can variable), than that also requires a deal of skill to pull off in an effective manner.

Worldbuilding is as key in works set in the real world as any set in others (since in a book set in a fictional world you can make the rules, whilst a work set in the real world that ignores geography or scientific reality can also break the reader's sense of immersion in the fictional world or the book, regardless that it is supposed to be 'our world').

Sometimes people put more work into the world than their own prose or character skills. Russell Kirkpatrick is an excellent example of a writer who has poured his heart and soul into the maps, the cultures, the backhistory and so on, but the actual story is fairly weak and the characters are from a stock background. Depending on your level of snark, Jordan (to some degree*) and (much moreso) Erikson can be criticised for the same things. Interestingly, Martin started ASoIaF using a fairly hands-off approach to worldbuilding, apparently building only what was necessary for the plot. Later in the series he seems to have enjoyed and gotten into it a bit more, taking more and more time out for relating historic backplot (the explanation of the Defiance of Duskendale in AFFC, for example, although arguably that is important for giving more clarification on the Aerys/Tywin relationship and Aerys' descent into madness), coming up with a much more detailed Targaryen genealogy and constructing other worldbuilding elements, a lot of which is fascinating in its own right, but I think a case could be made that it might be slowing the narrative drive of the story somewhat.

Integrating good worldbuilding into a story is an essential part of fiction, but as with any tool or concept, extending too much time and effort on it can be counter-productive. It is telling that with Tolkien we saw only a tiny fraction of his worldbuilding on Middle-earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with the majority of information having to wait until his posthumous works to appear, since more was not needed.

* Jordan may also fall into the Tolkien model, since the recent revelation that his notes for the world and backstory are actually longer than the series itself to date.

People like Erikson, Jordan and co write for an audience. Some people lap up insignicant details about the respective fantasy worlds, while others view it as tedious and a waste of paper. Personally, I'm not a fan of the endless detail both Jordan and Erikson include, but I'm not going to use that to knock either of them as authors because I know there are others to whom it will appeal. Basically, I wouldn't let the fact that they do something I'm not really a fan of take away from the things which makes both authors good to read, whearas i think a lot of people miss out by taking the opposite view.

Tsavong Lah makes an exellent point in regard to how world-building drastically changes how a reader views certain characters. I definitely agree with the idea that world-building should be utilised in a balanced fashion, where it should be included when necessary. A lot of authors struggle to find that balance.

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The only aspect of worldbuilding i enjoy is history, especially old wars and battles, but they should not slow down the narrative. Worldbuilding should be done in a natural and flowing way. infodumps disguised as long conversions between friends or monologues, someone recalling the entire life of x out of the blue (just noticed this on reread of Jaime's AFFC chapters :stillsick:), the author describing a city for pages, are all bad signs.

Worldbulding is like spice. Too little and the food won't taste great, too much and it will be inedible.

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I think worldbuilding is the basically characterization that is applied to an imaginary location.

Tell your friend that anyone can dream up characters too without being able to write, but that doesn't mean that all real literature should be about famous real people or nameless ciphers.

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I think worldbuilding is the basically characterization that is applied to an imaginary location.

Tell your friend that anyone can dream up characters too without being able to write, but that doesn't mean that all real literature should be about famous real people or nameless ciphers.

Thank you for summarizing what I was trying to say in one sentence... and doing a much better job of it.

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It should also be pointed out that whilst over-detail is bad, under-detail can be far worse.

I remember the moment Eddings lost me as a reader when he wrote "Across the bay was a city. They went into the city and stuff happened and then they left." No description of the city, no attempt to integrate it into the culture surrounding the city (the Murgos), no attempt to give it any kind of life. It broke the fourth wall because it made me realise it was just a paper construct with no attempt to give the location meaning or existence in the secondary world (to use a Tolkienism) or present the illusion the city had a history or any kind of existence outside the story.

Because of this, although going overboard can be bad, not giving any description at all is far, far worse.

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I don't mind worldbuilding when it's clear that the details might be relevant to the story, AND when they are presented in a way that isn't annoying. Secondary-world fantasy or any kind of science fiction where the setting is important, and even regular fiction where the setting is historical or foreign, are going to require a fair amount of exposition. All that I ask is that I shouldn't be able to separate out the exposition from the rest of the story. Like, "Oh, it's description time! This will surely become relevant in the next few pages (or in the worst case scenario, never be relevant or interesting)." I have to say the worst example of this was in Michael Stackpole's Cartographer trilogy, which I thought would be interesting, but I stopped reading after a book and a half (I was stupidly generous) because not only was the setting boring, but I was occasionally subjected to multi-page lectures by the characters on some topic or another right before it became relevant. "Here we are riding into this place where they mine for a magic ore, my friend. For the next three pages, we will have an awkward conversation about the mechanics of magic even though neither of us is a magician." THROW THE BOOK ACROSS THE ROOM.

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Worldbuilding does not require writing skill.

I disagree strongly with this statement. It can only make sense if you assume worldbuilding consists of creating a set of fictional facts that have internal consistency.

While that is certainly required, the critical goal of worldbuilding is to infest the "stage" on which the story is occurring with atmosphere. Any place in the story or any historical event must be able to evoke emotion in the reader.

Anyone can conceive an underground city of dwarves that has been destoryed long ago and is now a dark, fearsome, cavernous ruin. But it took Tolkien's evocative writing to invest the dark cave of Moria with a sense of wonder, loss and creepiness.

Just as a conceptually good character (equivalent to an internally consistent, "good" world) requires good writing to convert into an actually good character that will resonate with the readers, a good world won't live and breathe in the readers imagination without good writing.

When you read writers like Jordan and Tolkien, you want to pack your bags and see the sights of their world. With others, you feel a sense of apathy for the world. You picture characters moving through a hazy gray background. You wonder why the characters behave as they do, why they work so hard to save a world that seems so deadly dull. And that's not because of inconsistencies in the world alone. Its because of shoddy writing.

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As Wert said earlier, all fiction -- including non-SFF -- requires worldbuilding. Two artists painting the same (real!) bowl of fruit still manage to produce different paintings. Dickens' 19th century London is not the same as Michel Faber's. The very act of filtering London through a different mentality alone would be enough to cause thousands of accidental inventions, never mind the dozens of deliberate ones (i.e. invented addresses etc.) that the writers probably employed.

James Joyce is a great example of this. In writing Ulysses, he got his brother* to time how long it took to walk down certain streets, but the Dublin presented to us in the book is still very much a created world tinged with nostalgia and humour.

*At least, I think it was his brother...

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Martin's world-building is the best way to do it, make every piece of info somehow useful to the reader, and to the story. Give us history, but have that history help explain what's going on in the story, instead of like "There was once a nation here, it was fell under the reign of King Snarxl VI, who had received the throne after plotting with the treacherous Vizier to poison his brother. That nation no longer exists, and is now a barren wasteland. No one will ever visit it. Not even the main characters."

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The older I get, the more sympathetic I become with the viewpoint expressed by the OP's "literary friend." I've stated my points before in posts here from a couple of years ago, so I won't rehash those at length. I will note that I find it rather ridiculous to apply a neologism designed to focus on imagined, constructed "secondary worlds" toward works of mimetic fiction. After all, the word "setting" covers those literary elements found in mimetic fiction quite nicely, or is the attempted usurpation of setting by this nebulous "world building" another sign of "literalizing some one else's metaphor," as M. John Harrison defined it in an essay? ;)

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The older I get, the more sympathetic I become with the viewpoint expressed by the OP's "literary friend." I've stated my points before in posts here from a couple of years ago, so I won't rehash those at length. I will note that I find it rather ridiculous to apply a neologism designed to focus on imagined, constructed "secondary worlds" toward works of mimetic fiction. After all, the word "setting" covers those literary elements found in mimetic fiction quite nicely, or is the attempted usurpation of setting by this nebulous "world building" another sign of "literalizing some one else's metaphor," as M. John Harrison defined it in an essay? ;)

I think it's more that many who like to think they write Literature with a capital L (and a small p,r,i,n,t,r,u and n) dislike it being pointed out that they do the same thing as that dirty, dirty genre fiction.

You write a piece of mimetic fiction or whatever set in New York. What fictional company does your main character work for at the start of the book? 100 pages later, is that still the same? Congratulations, you've done world building. Now go scrub yourself vigorously before you start creating fictional back-stories for your characters.

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You created a spurious comparison that I believe doesn't exist. The word "world building" was created for created, imagined worlds. Setting would describe both real and imagined things set in what generally is referred to as "the real world." Now go forth and write a treatise on how "world building" should supersede "setting" as the designated word/phrase of choice for mimetic fiction and convince a gaggle of literary academics and perhaps I'll reconsider my viewpoint. Right now, I highly doubt I will and that's about that.

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You created a spurious comparison that I believe doesn't exist. The word "world building" was created for created, imagined worlds. Setting would describe both real and imagined things set in what generally is referred to as "the real world." Now go forth and write a treatise on how "world building" should supersede "setting" as the designated word/phrase of choice for mimetic fiction and convince a gaggle of literary academics and perhaps I'll reconsider my viewpoint. Right now, I highly doubt I will and that's about that.

No, I'm pointing out that the difference is irrelevant. They are names for the same thing.

It's just apparently that you create just a few too many imaginary things in your fictional setting and suddenly it's amateurish and you should know better.

If the term "World Building" bothers you so much, don't use it and mentally substitute it wherever you read it.

"Tolkien's LOTR has great World Building a great setting."

It's magic!

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'Worldbuilding' is a term primarily applied to secondary worlds, true ('sub-creation', Tolkien's favoured term, may be applicable but that is usually defined as being far, far more vigorous and detailed than most SF/fantasy worldbuilding). 'Historical accuracy' is the more normal term when referring to historical works, and general 'realism' or 'accuracy' to mainstream works. Of course, any work that is deliberately set in a world where reality is not reliable for whatever reason (magic realism, drugs, main character is insane, M. John Harrison wanking himself off over how clever he thinks he is, the usual) is utilising the very absence of worldbuilding/historical fidelity/realism to make its point.

Terminology blurs in alt-histories. Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union features significant worldbuilding achievements in the geography and history of Sitka, the description of how it was founded and how its existence has caused history to deviate from our own with massive impacts on world politics, the politics of the USA and the Middle-East, the destruction of Israel at the moment of its birth (because the massive influx of Jewish immigrants never happened) and so on. However, alt-histories do involve the creation of a secondary world, even if one that was identical to our own up to a certain point, so worldbuilding would probably also be the right definition there.

Purely mimetic fiction set in the real world requires 'accuracy'. If someone wants to write a book set in the supposedly real New York City, it's probably helpful to have gone there, looked at maps or looked at locations or done at least a bit of research on the Internet to avoid trivial inconsistencies with reality, unless such inconsistencies are there as part of the literary effect of the story. Having never been to New York City, it's helpful for me if the writer of a book set there fills in some colour and background, every bit as much as if the story is set on Disposable Space Opera Planet 47 or in the Kingdom of Obscurdipthongia.

As a writer you are, if you will, building the world of the story, even if that world is our one. Maybe worldrebuilding would be a better term for application to realistic fiction? 'Setting' is okay as far as it goes but it does tend to suggest that as a writer using a setting is a passive process (you don't create or build a setting you just stick things in the middle of it and step back to admire it) and you don't actually need to do anything to bring it to life.

Actually, given the number of thrillers I've read where the character arrives 'in Washington DC' and that's it, they're just 'in Washington DC' with no reference to the city's atmosphere or feel or an attempt to bring it to life, that may be accurate after all. Compare this to China Mieville or Neil Gaimain much more successfully invoking the (non-fantastical version of) spirit and feeling of London in their work, for example.

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There's a big, rather substantive difference, though. You might think of setting as being "passive," Adam, but it is the placing of the action within a place that exists. New York is, for all extent and purposes "real." Middle-Earth is not; it is an imagined construct that cannot be placed in this physical realm. Yes, people can imagine aspects of a real place (New York with fairies, werewolves, etc.), but that does not change the notion that New York exists, that it has geographical coordinates. Minas Tirith does not have that; it was created by an author and no matter how much of a patina of "realism" that might be added to that or any other imagined story "world," it does not and will not ever exist in this physical world. It does not have a proper "setting" in the sense that there is nothing existing outside one's imagination. The physical world in which we reside is, no matter how much we might desire to reimagine it as being something else, exists outside our attempts to manipulate it via language, semantic paralanguage, and the like. It is a place in which real or constructed historia might take place, and writers might need to make sure that there is a harmony of information that correlates with readers' common, shared understandings (based on their own lives and experiences and learned information) of what ought to exist, but that differs in quite a few magnitudes from a writer creating a "world" whole cloth (or as much as one could due to the limitations of semantic understandings of what would constitute a simulacrum of a "real" setting).

So yeah, feel free to use "world building" for imagined worlds; it's just rather odd to claim that it is a better word than "setting", which after all takes place in a "real" location and thus can be placed (or "set") by readers and non-readers alike.

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Worldbuilding. Shakespeare did it at least in The Tempest. That makes it okay.

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