Jan 13 2011 3:22pm

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.

Chris Hawks
1. SaltManZ
The best effort I've seen at creating an entire world from scratch is easily Steven Erikson's and Ian Esslemont's Malazan books. Richard Adams also did some fantastic worldbuilding in Watership Down and Shardik/Maia.
Scot Taylor
2. flapdragon
Bleh to Tolkien and his imitators.

For me the list is:

1. Frank Herbert's Dune. Nothing else comes close. He invented a whole frakkin' ecology and a native culture that had completely adapted to that ecology.

2. John Crowley's Little, Big and Ægypt sequence. No other author manages to convey the fine line between "fantasy" and "real" worlds so well.

3. Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl. The most frightening and realistic near-future world I've ever read.

4. Michael Moorcock's Elric books. Melniboné and its neighbors are searingly vivid.

5. Tim Powers's Fault Lines series, particularly Last Call, and Declare. I don't think anyone's better at delineating secret worlds subimposed under our reality, and he always has real-world correlating details to make them seem not only plausible but undeniable.
3. blodeuedd
I love Jordan's world, it is truly magnificent
Ben Rubinstein
4. BenR
For some reason I never really fell for the Tolkien world either. WoT world got me so much more quickly, probably due to all the interesting politics.

Agree about Dune! How could that be left off the list?

I remember loving the Dragonlance as a kid. I always thought that it wouldn't hold up to a re-read, but now I"m intrigued and might go back and reread those two trilogies!

But my favorite recent worldbuilder is Ken Scholes. I'm calling in sick the day I get the Psalms of Isaac book 4.
5. matthewlevine1
The Dresden files and codex alera which are both by jim butcher have the best worldbuiding of any series
Jeff Parent
6. Roundabout
@SaltMan Z, I can't speak for much of Adams' other novels but Watership Down is just fantastic and probably my favourite book.

On the subject of world-building and WD, I may have to respectfully disagree with you. I'm not sure Adams really built a pure, unique setting. Most of the places in WD are/were real places so I don't know if he actually built his world rather than described it. What he did do, I think, was effectively build a culture within that setting

Those rabbits behaved, perhaps, as a 'primitive' people might. I believe this was actually mentioned in the book at some point in one of the footnotes. Hazel's group were reliant on storytelling as a teaching tool and for entertainment. It was a kind of mythmaking they engaged in to understand the world they lived in. What Adams did most effectively was imbue their worldview with a kind of fearful reverence for the things we would find commonplace and even mundane. The scenes (minor spoilers!!) on the rail embankment or Hazel's experience in Dr. Adams 'Hrududu' are good examples of this. We know perfectly well that these aren't necessarily supernatural events but Hazel's group believe they are, based on their unique view of the world. Adams puts their view of the world at ground level so effectively that the reader-well, I did anyway- can't help but feel there is a greater force at work than simply cars and trains and coincidence; perhaps there is but that's for another discussion altogether.

So, I guess in some sense, yes, WD can be seen as an example of worldbuilding but I see it as less that but rather, more an example of building a very specific (rabbit's-eye) view and intepretation of a world that already exists.
7. wandering-dreamer
I know that one of my big complaints with realistic YA is that the setting is just so bland, either it's NYC (AGAIN) or some small town that never really plays a part in the characters' lives and that's just not how life works! I suppose that's what fantasy is for, worldbuilding is almost a given for those stories anyway.
Alex Brown
8. AlexBrown
For me it has to be Brandon Sanderson's everything. He creates such detailed magics, rules, people, religions, cities, etc. that they practically act out the story in front of me. The Way of Kings is the best example of this, though the Mistborn series does a bang-up job as well.

I'd also like to see people play with geography more.
Just because you put people in the desert doesn't mean they have to walk around in turbans, and the darkskinned people don't always have to be the "savages" or the "pagans".

You also rarely see bayous or redwood forests or places like New Orleans or Rapid City or Detroit (or even versions of them). As wandering said at 7, why does everything have to be in NYC (or another major metropolitan area for that matter)?
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
Some of my favorite worlds are:
Steven Erikson & Ian Esslemont's Malazan
Frank Herbert's Dune
Ian M. Bank's Culture universe
Larry Niven's Known Space
10. SWS
Sherwood Smith's Inda series has utterly fantastic worldbuilding. As all her books (including YA) take place on the same world at different places and times, the richness of her world is amazing.

Of course, there is always Pern as well.
Evan Langlinais
11. Skwid
Meh. Your entire post went out the window for me when you used the non-word "Irregardless."
12. esotaria
I have to put a plug in for Jane Lindskold's Firekeeper saga. Not only do you get a number of different nations with distinct cultures that make sense for their geographical location, but the animal groups that play such a central role in the story ALSO get cultures that make sense for their species and their location. There are strong cultural differences between the wolves that live in one area and have one kind of relationship with humans and the wolves that live in another area. One of my absolute favorite series.
13. reddwarf
I agree that Dune is one of the best SF worlds ever built.

I've also just been reminded by the recent readers poll to reread Susanna Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Any book that gets me searching the internet for Raven King myths must be doing something right!
14. Jason M Waltz
A well-rounded list Jon, irregardless of the dissenters. Leaving Erikson & Esslemont's Malazan world off allowed you to cite several examples; otherwise it would have just been an article about their works, not really the point. :)
15. jelko
HP Lovecraft does some great worldbuilding.
I especialy like the way he gives us different glances of this world trough different and independent storys.
It makes it more real.
16. Al Harron
In addition to Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age, I have a deep fondness for Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique, though his Hyperborea's no slouch either.
17. Chris Elflands 2nd Cousin
Two great examples of YA world-building (@wandering-dreamer: There's lots more to YA world-building than NYC and the Pacific Northwest!): Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy (great post-apocalyptic dystopia) and Erin Bow's Plate Kate (very vivid quasi-Eastern European fantasy world).
18. Chris Elflands 2nd Cousin
@17: Ick. Typo from commenting on my cell phone. That should read Erin Bow's Plain Kate.
Erin Hoffman
19. ErinHoffman
First, neat list, yay worldbuilding. Whenever a list is created there are going to be suggested revisions. So it is brave and good to create the list in the first place. Well done.

Love GRRM. Love him. "Sand Kings" and other shorter pieces of his are brilliant. And I enjoyed much of Song of Ice and Fire, but I don't think the worldbuilding is its greatest asset. I think you hit it with the political intrigue, which can be construed as worldbuilding, but to me in his stories is more about characterization. It might well be nitpicking, but where I would absolutely put him at the top of a list on characterization in fantasy, worldbuilding I'm not sure. Sometimes someone can be such a good storyteller that it seems like their worlds are more alive, but there is a distinction.

I would also give the laurel to Neal Stephenson over Gibson when it comes to raw worldbuilding. Ideas possibly not, but again I don't think these are the same thing.

In the grand scope of places that don't exist I think any list is deeply remiss without Anne McCaffrey, not only for the depth she put into her worlds (when there are world manuals about your fictional place with detail down to recipes for their food, you have some worldbuilding), but for how many distinct worlds she created that were incredibly successful. She's known primarily for Pern, but the Crystal Singer world is equally interesting, likewise the Brainship world. And these books are all still in print after how many years?

I personally would also throw Kay Kenyon on this list for her Entire and the Rose alone, but that's just me. Weis and Hickman did great work in Dragonlance, but wasn't it Tracy and Laura Hickman that did the original world work? I did enjoy the Death Gate Cycle even more than Dragonlance, which they did together...

Again, fun list. A wiki with this sort of thing would be kind of neat.
20. MitchO
A few other worlds that I think were missed. Granted not all of these are books per-se but I think they would fall under the world building genre.

1. Harry Potter by JK Rowling
2. Babylon 5 by J. Michael Stryninzski
3. Belgariad by David Eddings
4. Star Wars by George Lucas
5. Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry
21. Gorbag
I must perforce throw my hat into the ring with ER Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros and the Zimiamvian Trilogy: Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison and The Mezentian Gate.

It's a faux-Renaissance world, but powerfully drawn all the same.

To that I would have to add Clive Barker's glorious Weaveworld and gloriously incoherent Imajica; also Robert Silverberg's Kingdoms of the Wall, one of the very best such books I have ever read. Robert Silverberg is probably better at worldbuilding that people give him credit for - his Majipoor series are worthy examples of the genre - and indeed, much the same must be said about Jack Vance's wonderful worlds.
Sky Thibedeau
22. SkylarkThibedeau
In addition to Weis and Hickman's 'Dragonlance' series, their never finished 'Starshield' series also had great world making. In one of the first attempts at interactivity with fans on the web in 1997, Hickman's 'Starshield Project' encouraged fans to build their own worlds and stories based in this universe and even mentioned some of them in the second book 'Nightsword'.

I think an archive of the project is still around at .
Rob Munnelly
23. RobMRobM
Dune, Wheel of Time, Bujold's Vorkosiverse, and Hobbs' Realm of the Elderlings are at the top of my list.

24. Janie Bill
I'm a huge Conan fan myself. Love the lush Tolkien world also. I tend to build my world and then develop the story and characters around the settings. My favorite part of storytelling are the fantastical worlds. Great points!
Jennifer Fiddes
25. junefaramore
Wanted to throw in another suggestion to read Death Gate Cycle. A different world than any other I have read. Also loved the worldbuilding for Elizabeth Hayden's Rhapsody books, though she gets over romantic. Robin Hobb's world for the Farseer, Traders, and Fool trilogies made me want to live there, though it is the character of Fitz that keeps me in love with those books.
26. Paulgtr234
Tolkien is the grandfather of fantasy world building, regardless of what you might think about his fiction (I happen to love it). I never cared for Dragonlance, but that may be because my introduction was through the D&D modules and a mediocre DM. After that the books were ruined for me. I am also a big fan of Moorcock and Leiber both for their world building prowess.

A couple of my other favorites have yet to be mentioned so...

Joss Whedon for Buffyverse would have made this list, but to me his WB Magnum Opus is the Firefly/Serenity 'verse which is incredibly creative, beautiful, and unique.

Neil Gaiman for all of his worlds, but my favorite would have to be Neverwhere.

I was very fond of Feist's worldbuilding chops, though I think he really kind of killed the Krondor storyline by continuing it long after he had run out of ideas...
27. Gorbag
In addition to the above, I would have to say that Brian Aldiss' Helliconia Trilogy is above average when it comes to world-building, in no small part thanks to the fact that he sought expert help with the various aspects of it - geology, astronomy, biology, etc - though unfortunately as a trilogy of novels it sadly did not live up to its promise.
28. JPop
Ursula Le Guin, forever.

Changing Planes is a fantastic showcase for micro-worldbuilding: it's like she comes up with strange and unique worlds in the same way most people breathe. Any one of those short stories could found a book in the hands of a lesser writer.
Tim Buller
29. samzo77
The most original worlds I've experienced in fiction have been from Gene Wolfe. The worlds he created in The New Sun and The Long Sun series were incredible in the sci-fi realm. And he took the fantasy world to such a great place in The Wizard Knight series. I got to hear his thoughts on world building at Madcon last year, and it made me appreciate the places he illustrates even more.
30. greggarious
I was wondering if anyone would mention Wolfe, esp. New Sun. The world is revealed gradually, until it explodes into huge vistas.

Dune of course. Not just a world, but an entire universe, with an epic past. More worlds built here than much of science fiction put together.

Anyone read The Night Land by Hodgson? An entire future world that is both highly detailed and still much an enigma to the far future humans who inhabit it.

I think Moorcock's Elric world, Conan's Hyborian Age, Nehwon by Leiber, and much Le Guin--though all beloved writers, heroes and worlds to me--are not to be listed among the most detailed, wondrous worlds ever built. The backgrounds and settings are in fact rather flat and shallow to me, which is fine for the stories to unfold in. Howard obviously just used known history and changed names, Le Guin built her Earth-Sea world as she wrote (she admits this somewhere), Leiber's Nehwon had a misty, unformed simplicity, and the Multiverse seemed much like changing stage sets, simplistic setting before which the action could unfold. It was all fine for the stories, but not stand-outs in world-building. It's the ones that have a sense of Depth, of long history, of sprawling breadth, if we could only stop and visit the museum, interview the elder, tarry in the marketplace... And that's Tolkien and Herbert.
[da ve]
31. slickhop
Clive Barker is probably my favorite, hands down. He creates the meaning of life, the fabric of reality and its darkest inhabitants from scratch practically every freaking book.

Other greats:
Storm Constantine
Octavia Butler
Sheri S. Teper
China Mieville

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