World-building is the authorial practice of developing an imaginary world. The practice encompasses the imagining of a history, a world ecology, topographical features, cultural features and more to enrich and entrench the overall narrative. More advanced world-building techniques include the development of religious communities, monuments and colloquial language. Those fictional universes that employ world-building successfully can hint at the larger narrative with the transition to a particular setting, the playing of a particular song, through artwork and design, and even the mention of a particularly inspiring or ominous name.*
The idea of world-building seems obvious and omnipresent, but it wasn’t always so. The term itself is dated only as far back as 1820, and some of the earliest writers to be attributed with performing this crucial task are J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis.* These writers all gained recognition in-and-around the 20th century, and inspired every generation since to adopt this practice wholeheartedly. These ‘big three’ are in many ways the gold-standard of world-building. I would argue some other great writers of the late 19th century, such as Lewis Carroll, were less concerned with world-building and more concerned with finding answers their own spiritual quandaries. The question, though, is this: Where did they mine all of their inspiration for their works? Did these authors just sit in their study and use their imagination for decades until they had enough to put on paper? Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. Tolkien was undoubtedly inspired by his father’s works, which included decades’ worth of fantasy writings, and also his involvement in The Great War. Tolkien witnessed firsthand the brutality of the war at the Battle of the Somme, while also being bewildered at the beauty of the mountainous regions of France and Switzerland. Bloodshed in the midst of beauty became a standard for Tolkien’s future writings. Lewis was influenced heavily by the interesting combination of Catholic dogma and Icelandic mythology. Many of the themes in his Chronicles of Narnia play upon these mythological narratives through figures that closely resemble biblical heroes. His childhood in Ireland would heavily influence the topography of his worlds and his religious background, the morality of his characters. Historians are still debating Lovecraft’s influences. Let’s just say his life, those who entered into it and left abruptly, and the sickliness he faced were enough to inspire him to seek other worlds and fill them with dark and wicked things.
These three great authors all applied the ‘top-down’ approach to world-building. This method would have authors create an overarching narrative or ‘grand history of the world’, and then populate this world with places, people and things that would make sense to the greater narrative. These worlds are often very stable due to how methodical the approach can be. However, the intricacies of particular social groups, individuals and the significance of artifacts and places tend to be generalized and draw from attributions made by the most developed and therefore dominant group. In contrast, there is the ‘bottom-up’ method of world-building, which is far more risky, but ultimately far more engaging and supportive of different world-views. Those authors that utilize this methodology first create individuals and the social groups they belong to. Those authors then place these groups into homes and communities, and construct for them local cultures and things of significance to their community. These worlds are built on a near-molecular level, with themes and narratives that are built on individuals, relationships and ideals that can be traced back to small groups. As the scope of the narrative grows larger, the surrounding areas are generally given less exposition, but are still anchored by how vividly the place of origin has been portrayed. With this method, authors can slowly construct a greater narrative while utilizing these smaller communities as a platform for growth. Ideally, most critics would argue that authors should employ both approaches, but this can be exceedingly difficult to do while managing to keep a cohesive narrative. I would argue that attributing causation and correlation from top-down and bottom-up simultaneously is only possible with narratives with no room for interpretation or dispute. The profession of history is not dissimilar. For example, if one were to argue that the demise of France during the Napoleonic Wars can be attributed in equal measure to war-exhaustion on a national scale, and to the failure of a woodcutters guild in Provence to provide timber for a particular ship needed in the Mediterranean, anyone would look at you as if you were a crazy person. It’s an odd example, I know, but generally narratives and historical arguments are alike in this way. The direction you build your narrative in matters, regardless of your platform.
To be continued…
*Would Voldemort be as terrifying if we didn’t learn of his past as Tom Riddle, or of his departure from Dumbledore’s side? Would the name Sauron be synonymous with tyranny and fear if his path of conquest and destruction hadn’t endured for thousands of years before the narrative really begins? In both cases, power and a terrifying outward appearance is not the case. Think of how many terrible horror movies there are with figures more twisted and hideous than these two, yet do not inspire the tiniest amount of dread or make you recoil in the slightest.
*Why does every author born in the 1890’s have multiple initials in his name?
Before you ask… yeah, I read a lot of nerdy things when i’m not reading history books. I’d like to thank my mom and all of my crazy English Lit professors at UMCP for this.