Worldbuilding: What’s Missing, What’s Real, and What You Shouldn’t Leave Out by Elle Maruska and Jeannette Ng

Elle Maruska and Jeannette Ng

In 2018, author Elle Maruska posted some thoughts on worldbuilding to their Twitter account. The resulting thread, and the response by author Jeannette Ng, touched on many of the issues we address in our classes on building inclusive worlds. We asked Maruska and Ng if we could publish their threads as essays for our Resources page

Things Fantasy Worlds Should Have, Even If Only Mentioned In Passing by Elle Maruska

If you take a brief minute to look at the front page of a newspaper, or you take a brief minute to look at the website for CNN or BBC News or whatever, you’ll see a cacophony of Things. Top political stories, international news, interviews, sports scores, celebrity gossip, human interest stories, and more. And though you may not like it, all of these things–from the Very Serious Political Stories to the foibles of Manchester United’s lead goal scorer–make up our world. They make our world real and, if you’re interested in worldbuilding as a fantasy author, your main goal is to make your world real too. 

Your world has to be full and immersive. We have to care about it. We have to believe in it, see it as a place that existed before your story started and will continue to exist after your story ends (unless, of course, your story ends with the world’s destruction in which case…well, you’re probably good). So I’ve come up with just a few things you should consider putting into your fantasy world to make it real, with depth and believability, a place where people (or elves or monsters or whatever) actually live.

Sports! Gasp! I’ve felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out: NOT SPORTSBALL. I know, I know. Sports aren’t the purview of a lot of genre authors (although George R.R. Martin would probably publish Winds of Winter right this second if it meant the New York Giants would win another Superbowl). But remember how I mentioned the BBC website and what you’d find there? You’d find sports. And so few fantasy worlds have established sports that are mentioned even in passing. I’m not saying you have to devote an entire chapter to the rules and regulations of Dragon Wrestling or Orc Ball or whatever, but you should have something your characters are aware of, an athletic competition with teams or famous individuals that can capture the imagination of cities/countries/continents. 

Which leads me to my next point. Your fantasy world should have famous people who aren’t the king and/or queen and/or the prince and/or the princess and/or…well, you get the point. Famous people who aren’t royalty. Even in medieval Europe–that era in which we seem to believe people poked farming implements into mud and then died of plague–there were famous knights, poets, performers, etc. Religious figures composed songs and treatises that even the illiterate knew about thanks to travelling monks and troupes of performers. Do some research into famous medieval figures: Hildegard of Bingen and Robert Guiscard, for example. 

And of course if you have famous people–whether they be troubadours or knights or anchorites or pilgrims–you will have salacious celebrity gossip. Of course your character doesn’t have to care that Sir Athelwulf of Greenstone is secretly dating that daring debutante Lady Gertrude of Elms but other people in the world will. Why do you think People magazine exists? We’d like to think we’re above all that and we’re writing serious books about serious things but there’s yet to be a functioning society where which famous person is boinking which other famous person hasn’t been a topic of conversation. It’s important to remember that for as long as there have been people, there have been Kardashian families we’ve been obsessed with, whether we want to admit it or not.

Ah, the Kardashians provide another smooth segue. Fashion trends are incredibly important throughout human society and across human history. What we’re wearing is deeply connected to how we think, what we value, and how we wish to be seen. Think of Meryl Streep’s monologue from The Devil Wears Prada about something as simple as a blue sweater. Your fantasy world needs to have fashion and fashion that changes. It doesn’t have to be detailed although Lord knows certain authors love their five-page descriptions of armor or dresses clinging to perfect round breasts but it has to be present. A quick one-off–what in the twelve hells is that peasant wearing don’t they know mustard yellow went out with pustules–illustrates that characters are aware of fashion trends and how frequently they change.  

Alongside fashion trends, it’s necessary to include other trends. For example: music! 80s power ballads aren’t in style anymore but there are those of us who remember them fondly. The bubblegum boy-band pop of the 1990s, the political songs inspired by the George W. Bush reelection, the move from rhinestone country in the 1970s to the slobbering Americana of the modern day–all of these trends echo socio-cultural movements in general and including them in your story shows that your world changes. It’s not a static backdrop for your narrative; it’s a living, breathing world where things aren’t the same

Another way to express this idea of a changing world with changing trends is the inclusion of memes. Seriously. Memes are the inside jokes of a culture, a shorthand for complex feelings and reactions and emotions, an easy and accessible way to pass along and display how we think about things. Even cultures without the internet can have memes. Think of Kilroy during World War II, graffiti on a wall, carvings on monuments, images produced in places of high traffic where others will see and add to them are all ways of incorporating memes.

Beyond memes, stories also give us ways of interacting with society and culture indirectly. Fairy tales were how people criticised governments; well-known narratives and poems spread from royal courts by traveling troubadours gave even peasants insight into the values that were trendy at the time. Bawdy drinking songs and folk rhymes, urban legends with no one point of origin that still spread in pandemic proportions, all of these things provide depth to a world and prove it exists independently of your characters and their narrative. 

And they can all be incorporated quickly and seamlessly: your characters overhear a ribald folk song at a pub, your characters overhear some village children telling that old urban legend about Ye Monstrous Hook-Handed Fiend. Seriously, it can be done in a sentence even.

Much of what I mentioned in the last paragraph could be termed “low culture.” Now, I won’t get all Ernest Gellner on you so don’t worry too much about the specific differences between low and high culture; it’s enough to understand that there are people who go to operas and people who go to see Marvel movies, and there always has been and always will be a conflict between those groups. So in your fantasy world, it’s important to have that conflict as well. What sort of high culture exists? What do the wealthy do? What do the people who want to be wealthy do? 

In medieval Europe, a lot of the high culture was related to the Church (no surprise there of course) but your world doesn’t have to follow that design. And on a related note it’s important to remember what we consider high culture now was once considered low culture–Shakespeare and opera were the lurid soap operas of their days, looked down upon for appealing to common sentiments until some rich folks decided no, actually, this was Art and thus transformed it to high culture. This transformation is another way of adding history and depth to your world.

Look, worldbuilding is hard. Incredibly hard. You’re trying to create an entire world out of nothing, just some ideas you’re cobbling together about a story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. It may seem too much to think of things that don’t directly impact your narrative, that don’t concern your characters, but those things are important because one of the most important metrics of worldbuilding success is: does this world feel like it could exist without your characters? If you or I never existed, this world would pretty much keep on keepin’ on. And though your characters will most likely have destinies that impact their worlds a lot more than we regular folks ever will, it’s still necessary to give your world a depth and breadth that has nothing at all to do with your story. Make us believe that you’re writing more than just a set piece for an adventure. Give us a world we can invest ourselves in, a world we want to see saved because it feels so real.

Worldbuilding and Realism by Jeannette Ng

Many fantasy worlds are derived from an idealised past, and narrative logic dictates that the past was simpler and purer, free from many of the things we associate with “modernity”.  It is the past as imagined by grumpy old people writing editorials about millennials, thus the assumption that sports, pop music, fashion icons, etc, are all inherently alien to the past. There aren’t complex subcultures–the past was a simplistic monoculture that adhered perfectly to a nostalgic simplicity. 

And yet, Plato grumpily complained about youthful music in the form of flute girls. Dreamy Franz Liszt was causing boyband-levels of hysteria and swooning all over the place. Victorians wrung their hands over novels and penny dreadfuls eroding the moral fabric of society.

Not to mention all the ways in which we have a habit of forgetting how “the past” is far from a monolith. For all that the Elizabethans were deeply sexist, “The Taming of the Shrew” did inspire an angry rebuttal in the form of a sequel play named “The Tamer Tamed”. Christine de Pizan wrote long critiques of the incredibly sexist “Romance of the Rose” in the 14th century. 

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that our ideas of what the past looked like (and consequently our templates for fantasy worlds derived from them) are often rooted in Highly Problematic Narratives of race and gender and culture.

But there is a little bit more to this than that.

A lot of early fantasy was built to mimic certain historical forms or genres of writing. Tolkien wasn’t simply drawing inspiration from the Norse Eddas and Sagas in the contents of his world with elves and dwarves, he was also trying to write like the Eddas and Sagas in his style. William Morris modelled The Well at the World’s End after medieval romances, and Lord Dunsany writes of his pantheon in a decidedly biblical language. Which is to say: they are not looking to simply create a living, breathing secondary world for a reader to just step into.

Realism is not always the primary goal of their writing.

Most of the historical texts that inspired our genre have their own myopia, shaped by their patrons and their writers. They are fictions looking to entertain rather than document or replicate the world they live in. And it is important to bear in mind what these writers and audiences cared about as well as what they didn’t care about.

For example, medieval ballads and romances rarely give half a line to the logistics of horses. Their horses can gallop tirelessly for days on end and seemingly need not a whit of tending. But this is not because the writer or reader of the past were ignorant about horses (they were very much fundamental to daily life, after all), but because they saw it as irrelevant to the story they wanted to tell.

When using these historical fictions as sources to fill in our worlds, we need to be aware of these biases and what they care for. We should not use their simplified and stylised worlds as the foundation for realism. 

Whilst it is often to the benefit of a story for it to have a greater sense of realism, to have a greater depth to the world beyond what the characters experience and see, this isn’t the only choice. It’s also very much a valid choice to reject simulationism and realism. Between drafts, Tolkien took out a lot of the details of the elves doing mundane stuff in the background of scenes. He wanted them to seem more ethereal and otherworldly to the reader.

So it’s very much okay not to have thought through what Ammit, devourer of impure hearts, eats when there is a drought of bad people. Or where it is that the witch gets all the ingredients with which to bake her gingerbread house.

If I’m writing a fairy tale, I don’t need to take a deep dive into the world’s political structure and I can just have a prince cursed to be unable to laugh and a princess who can embroider flowers on any surface. I probably do want to spare a thought for the symbolism of my fairy tale, what embroidering flowers or curses are meant to represent, what my abstractions are and what I want to evoke with my narrative shorthand, but I probably don’t have to develop that world’s popular sports or fashion icons. Realism isn’t the only aesthetic. 

The world is allowed to be mythic, to be folkloric, to be “unrealistic”.

And I say this because I have vanished before into the depths of endless worldbuilding: show as much as you need. 

Yes, it’s not wholly realistic for the military council to only really have three members who meaningfully talk, but any more and we will weigh down the story. Or yes, there are some complicated trade concerns going on in the background of this marriage alliance, but how much of that do I need to show?

What are my themes, my central ideas, and how do these moving parts impact the story?

If my story is about a composer and their artistic struggles, then I should indeed populate my world with a complex history of music and influences. If the story is about the time the composer married a dragon and slew a maiden, then perhaps less music history, more dragons. Or maybe it’s a story about a young man experiencing Lisztomania. In that case, I should definitely put lots of effort into describing the high/low art and popular music of the time.

It is also worth noting how we often reach for modern equivalents to create swift resonance in worldbuilding.

So we envision a diverse fantasy city as New York or London. We talk about books of hours as medieval bestsellers. This or that is a newspaper in all but name. There is a lot that can be done with pilgrims as holiday makers, knightly orders as frat houses, and chroniclers as journalists. Modern tech bros have a surprising amount in common with ascetic monks. And whilst there is humour, resonance, and commentary to be had in these comparisons, one should also bear in mind the differences.

And fundamental to all that is: what is the world you are creating? The purpose and themes of your art and what you’re trying to do with the work? 

Worldbuilding is not a sterile exercise in immutable logic and rules. It’s not just about economics and information flow. It’s not just about what people eat and where they poop. What the focus is and what you want the focus to be says things about your story. And it’s okay to care about some aspects more than others.

Often worldbuilding exercises ask you to think on underlying systems of the world (magical and otherwise), and these are indeed important. But which systems are the most important to your world say a lot about your story.

Which is to say: I’m back to pulling out my box of historical narratives and interpretations. Some would see history as a story of consumption and conquest. Others would see it as a constant struggle towards freedom. Still others will say it is one of technological improvement. These then become underlying frameworks people use to construct and critique fictional worlds. Think of how often nitpicky nerd essays love asking where all the farms are, but rarely do they ask who is doing all the sewing, or where are all the scribes.

Author Bios

Elle Maruska is a writer, a recovering academic, a historian, a cat-rescuer, a nonbinary bisexual, an expat (in Spain), a critic, and an essayist. Follow them on Twitter for talk about books, politics, health, and bad jokes.

Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She used to sell costumes out of her garage. She runs live roleplay games, performs hair wizardry and sometimes has opinions on the internet. She has won the Astounding for Best New Writer in 2019 and the Sydney J Bounds Award (Best Newcomer) in the British Fantasy Awards 2018. Follow her on Twitter.