Worldbuilding: The Art of Everything

Dr. Sheldon Cooper on the television show The Big Bang Theory explains physics as “the study of the universe and everything in it.” Most days, that sounds like my job, too.

As writers, one of our most important duties is to create settings which entertain, enlighten, and (most of all) captivate. In essence, we are asked to do the impossible—to create a fictional world  every bit as nuanced and detailed as the real world. No, strike that. We are tasked with creating a more nuanced and detailed world because many readers pick up our books to escape reality.

I want to go on record at this point and state that I love worldbuilding. It can be one of the most interesting parts of devising a new novel, especially for a speculative fiction writer. Between fantasy and science fiction, the possibilities are limitless. Is this story best told in Ancient Rome, a prehistoric Proto-Earth, or on a planetoid circling Alpha Centauri? That’s the kind of question that gets my creative juices flowing. And the best part is there’s no wrong answer. It’s a formative choice the writer makes which starts the ball rolling. Before long we’re devising places for our scenes, visualizing the weather and what props would be available to our characters, and so on.

But sometimes we come at it from the other direction. Sometimes we are struck by an idea for a marvelous setting—perhaps a world like Hypermundania, where mutant god-kings rule over tiered castes of primordial oozes—and then we try to devise a story to showcase the unique qualities of our setting. Either way, it’s about considering your options and building your story-world brick by brick.

If this sounds like a lot of work, you would be correct. It’s also a lot of fun. One of the best parts is when your subconscious throws you a curveball. These can make for unexpected difficulties, or they can lift your story to a whole new level. When I was revising my first novel, Shadow’s Son, the city where most of the action takes place didn’t have a solid identity in my mind. Then, as I went over the story, I realized I had been subconsciously recreating the city of Rome, which my wife and I visited on vacation. Once I made that connection, I was able to go back and reinforce these ideas in the writing, drawing out the details that were already present. Now, that might be an example of ass-backward worldbuilding, but I hope it also illustrates that when we create, not everything is under our conscious control.

For this post, I went back and picked out some of my favorite fictional worlds.

1.) First prize goes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This shouldn’t surprise any fantasy fan. Tolkien’s forte was creating an enchanting, lush world for his characters. Fantastic locations like Rivendell, the Mines of Moria, Isengard, and Minas Tirith will forever be a part of me.

2.) Robert Howard’s Conan. From the cold tundra of Cimmeria to the jungles of Kush, the barbarian hero Conan saw it all, and he brought us along for one hell of a ride. Howard’s blend of pulp settings (savage hinterlands, jaded fleshpots, sandy deserts, pirate-infested isles) and heroic action are pure catnip.

3.) Dragonlance by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I devoured these books as a teenager. Weis and Hickman created a world of wizards, knights, rogues, librarians, and dragons. Did I mention the dragons? Although I’m not a fan of the continuing Dragonlance franchise, which sometimes smacks too much of fan-fiction, the original two trilogies are true fantasy gems.

4.) The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas. Douglas brings the ancient world alive in his book, from the villas of Rome to the streets of Jerusalem. Irregardless of where you stand on the text’s religious overtones, this magnificent book should be on everyone’s must-read list.

5.) Neuromancer by William Gibson. This tour-de-force inspired an entire generation of cyberpunk dreamers, and may have influenced the way we all experience the internet. But for all its cultural significance, I was always struck foremost by the novel’s electric atmosphere, evoking the neon streets of the Sprawl and the dense blackness of cyberspace.

6.) The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. For all the criticism this series receives, I think we should all admit that the late Robert Jordan created a landscape of such depth and detail that it’s impossible not to rank it with the greatest fantasy worlds of all time. So many cultures, nations, and ideologies blended to evoke a true sense of a world that could exist somewhere in the multiverse.

7.) George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. In a similar vein as the Wheel of Time, Martin’s setting is vast and deep, showcasing a world of vying nations and their subjects. Complex political and personal relations drive this saga, all set in lands that both mirror older works and in some places improve upon the template. For epic fantasy lovers, this is one of the best.


Jon Sprunk‘s debut novel, Shadow’s Son (Pyr Books) was released in June 2010, and the sequel is due out this summer (2011). For more about his and his work, check out his website linked above.

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