Leah Bobet‘s most recent novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, won the Sunburst, Copper Cylinder, and Prix Aurora Awards; her short fiction appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies. She lives in Toronto, where she picks urban apple trees, builds civic engagement spaces, and pickles basically everything. Visit her at www.leahbobet.com.
“Anyone who’s fit somewhere—or not—knows “worldbuilding” is a powerful word. We’ll get back to that,” said guest speaker Leah Bobet at our last event.
What is worldbuilding?
As Wikipedia has it, “the process of constructing an imaginary world“—one of the foundations of speculative fiction.
More simply, worldbuilding is your answer to: “How does your story’s universe work?”
Like most how questions, those answers can get really deep—and really cool—really quickly. In this space, we’ll think about what builds story worlds well in three layers, and with a guiding concept: worlds are made of people.
Simple worldbuilding: facts and figures
The first layer is that Wikipedia definition: maps and backstories, simple facts: “Developing an imaginary setting with coherent qualities such as a history, geography, and ecology … worldbuilding often involves the creation of maps, a backstory, and people for the world.”
At the very basic level, we’re making decisions about a world’s physicality and starting conditions. The joy of speculative fiction is that anything is possible: with nothing out of reach, you build worlds from the ground up—oxygen, plant life, unicorns if you want.
This doesn’t mean making lists. We’ve set some starting conditions, but we worldbuild when we explore the implications of those choices.
Example: In Game of Thrones, summer and winter can each last years. But Westeros is full of people, plants, and food. Applying systemic worldbuilding awareness means if long summers and winters are true, seeds in Westeros work differently. They must hibernate for years, otherwise the first winter would have wiped plant life out.”
That’s doing the fundamental work of science fiction: taking an idea to its logical conclusions.
Basic worldbuilding isn’t just deciding facts; it’s analyzing and realizing how facts fit together and how, by both being true, those facts generate more facts.
This doesn’t mean putting miles of explanations about geography on the page. This worldbuilding is like an iceberg: 90% of the mass below water, holding up the visible parts and making them feel stable because there’s one well of agreed facts. That feels consistent, and a consistent fantasy world feels more real.
Worlds are made of people
Our basic facts generate more facts, but they also generate human reactions. Lots of decisions are made by characters because of their surroundings; how people react to their circumstances.
There’s a spaceship video game I like, Spacebase DF9. In it, sometimes a spaceship shows up with five people on board and one bed. I have questions.
Yes, that’s saucy, but also serious: characters will react to that situation. How does that one bed affect them? Do they sleep in shifts? Are the crew really cool with touch? What if someone gets sick? In short, how has this tiny society arranged itself to work with or around this limitation?
Societies arrange themselves, at the core, to work with—or transcend—their physical conditions. Societies are lifehacks, built with something to hack. How people react to our generated facts is what makes them more than an atlas for places we’ll never visit.
So step two is applying social awareness: reading our setting as made of systems and generating results for how those systems shape the characters living there.
Constructing everyday worlds
For layer three, we’ll consider how individuals interact with the societies we generate.
In her Brockton Writers Series post, JF Garrard pointed out: “[Worldbuilding] is actually something built into every story because the reader needs to be transported into a world which the writer has built.” I’m going to take that idea another way: Worldbuilding is built into every story, because people are always worldbuilding.
I like books set in Toronto, and when you read thirty stories set in the same place, you internalize how differently thirty authors see the same city block: different landmarks, different moods and memories associated with them. We live in societies, but we also live in subcultures, and for most of us, our societies are an uneasy fit. You can derive a character through finding their relationship to their society.
Carmen Maria Machado addresses this question well in her 2017 Atlantic interview: “Being queer, too, can feel surreal. There’s this sense that you’re seeing things that other people don’t, which I think is true of many groups of people who exist apart from the more culturally dominant perspective.”
We all live in constructed worlds every day. We’re not inventing ecologies and physics, but we walk through a world stuffed with information and, to make sense of it, we edit and explain. When writing a character’s perspective, how we edit and explain is worldbuilding: How does this person’s universe work? How do they, because of their intersectional identities, blind spots, geographies, habits, subcultures, moods, see and filter that objective world we laid down in steps one and two?
This is the worldbuilding that literary fiction does strongly: work like Austin Clarke’s “Four Stations in his Circle” or Emma Donoghue’s Room. How your protagonist sees and what their seeing says about them is worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is a powerful word
Building a world asks you to think in very specific ways:
-questioning your assumptions;
-thinking intersectionally, in systems;
-considering the implications of your choices;
-considering how surroundings shape people;
-taking others’ perspective.
For me, the most rewarding part of writing process is how we can apply it in our lives too, and we build worlds every time we interact with people.
I chose pronouns in this post; it built a world. I cited my queer authors, and authors of colour, crediting their intellectual work and underlining that these ideas are built in community; that builds a world. Having your reading series in a queer bookstore with accessible washrooms and gluten-free tags on the menu is a worldbuilding choice enacted in three-dimensional space.
Worlds are made of people: the reactions to our conditions. When we set good conditions, we can make worldbuilding choices that help more people fit well in the worlds we construct—and that’s a power we don’t need to write to realize.
Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers!