By James and Seth of the WorldCraft Club Podcast
I remember standing at a dock in Erie Pennsylvania and looking out over the vast expanse of Lake Erie (one of The Great Lakes in North America). I could just barely see the Canadian shore ahead of me. I listened to the waves lapping, the cool breeze over the water filling my lungs with fresh morning life. I sighed deeply. “No dragons today,” I thought.
It’s desperately sad to me that we have seen enough of the world to know that finding a sea serpent or dragon, race of merpeople or ancient elves is vanishingly unlikely. Mostly because there was a time when such things still felt possible. Strange lands held unknown beasts or mysterious peoples. We’d pore over maps and globes and consider the possibility of lands beyond our own or just look over the horizon and wonder what lay beyond our eye line. But, “no dragons today”.
Wonder is a feeling that grows less familiar to us as we grow older and more cynical. Children feel it acutely when they know so little about the world that a grandfather clock chiming is a source of deep fascination. As we know more we wonder less as we wonder less the world loses some of its color. It becomes predictable. Mundane. This is partly why we write fantastical settings. We long to recapture that thrill of excitement about the world. We want our audience to see something amazing and walk away wondering what’s around the bend.
Wonder exists where knowledge doesn’t. It’s what we don’t know that drives us. It’s a source of fear too. Horror writers know well that violence off screen is scarier than violence described. Our imaginations are powerful and offloading some of your work onto the audience is welcome. Why spend time answering a question when you can allow your audience to do the work for you?
It is curious that when we create settings for our stories, we are often overcome with a desire to add detail. What do these people do for fun? How are these words conjugated? What year was that statue built and by whom? It’s as if we think that the sum of these details spilling into our writing would make for an immersive setting. Yet the reality is that detail has a limited return on investment. Counterintuitively our audience would be happier with the knowledge gap where wonder dwells.
This is why I propose a new model for worldbuilding that is not based on excessive detail but instead focused on your audience, on major themes that satisfy the needs of the story but leave plenty of room for your readers and players to explore. This is meaning-centered worldbuilding and employing it will lead to a drastic increase in your world’s attractiveness to your visitants. Meaning-centered worldbuilding is based on starting with major themes and building detail into spaces where it counts while leaving room for your visitant’s imagination to play.
I think a lot of writers actually practice this intuitively but you wouldn’t know it off the bat. We like to think that titans like Asimov and Tolkien thought of EVERYTHING and assume that we have to as well. It might comfort you to know that these great creators actually didn’t create flawless worlds. They mostly just focused on what they loved. How truly distinctive and interesting is Elven culture in Lord of the Rings? Did we learn that much about it through the book? What about George RR Martin’s medieval armies, is it possible to raise armies that large given the population distribution? Didn’t Herbert hand wave computers out of existence with a robot war? And if we’re honest, didn’t Anne McCaffrey’s thread destroying dragons wake more passion in our hearts than Asimov’s complicated mathematical theories?
Don’t read this as casting shade on these creators. We’d all agree that their work was phenomenal. With that said, every single one of the giants of fantasy and science fiction made worlds that matched their interests and captured the themes they were seeking to explore. Tolkien loved language and myth, explored them exhaustively, and still left tons of mystery in his world. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about balance and the principles of inaction, and Herbert was more concerned with philosophy, leadership and ecology. Each had their focus. What makes their writing so memorable is that they majored on those interests, leaving the rest to the imagination.
Then, on the opposite end, we have worlds that are sometimes accused of being flawed or inconsistent but are also massively successful. Properties like Star Wars, James Cameron’s Avatar, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But if there’s a pinnacle of commercial worldbuilding success, it’s having a theme park and each of these worlds does. Some executive thought these worlds (not just their accompanying stories) were so powerfully engaging that they were willing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into building an experience that you can physically explore. While the criticism leveled against them has validity, and our inner critic could have a field day with inconsistencies and retconned details, we’re stuck with the fact that they have a theme park and we don’t.
If we want to be better worldbuilders, we need to stop and consider why these worlds are so powerful. Why is it that they draw so many people in and bring them back to theaters and into bookstores year in and year out? The answer is surprisingly simple.
They built their worlds on an aesthetic, not on a mountain of detail. In Harry Potter the golden rule was whimsy. We have magic based on some pseudo-Latin phrasing and wand waving. We’re told that some magic is about intent and that great wizards can perform it without speaking the words. It appears as if wizards are not particularly fatigued by casting magic but some are ‘bad’ at magic and others are ‘good’ at it. But all of this can be ignored because the pots wash themselves in the Burrow where the Weasley’s dwell. It’s enchanting and it’s whimsical but it’s not deeply considered. People come back to this world time and time again excited to see what happens next for two reasons:
- The story is a blast to read
- They love the feel of the world and are willing to suspend disbelief because the theme allows them to fill in gaps
What do house elves do for fun? We’re never told but we can be sure that it’s cute and probably has something to do with household chores. Something like iron hurling or mop jousting. The truth is that while we’re given scenes with rich detail in the books or exciting background elements in the movies we’re not actually told a ton that makes sense. We’re left considering the possibilities and in that consideration we have ‘wonder’. The unknown at the fringes of the world make it exciting and engaging, we’re left to imagine our own miniature endings to the million miniature stories we see. That’s why they get a theme park.
This all begs a simple question. How do we leave space for wonder in our world? The answer, surprisingly, is as simple as the question.
1. Establish your theme before you lay the first brick
At the WorldCraft Club, we like to call this ‘choosing your fairy cake’, a reference to the incomparable Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex. SciFi references aside, this theme is the lynchpin for your world. When every facet of your world points back in some way to this theme, it simply will not matter if all of the details are worked out because the world will FEEL so cohesive that your visitant will never lose interest. Rather, because they know what to expect from the FEEL of the world, their anticipation of discovering what lies around the next corner, the next page, will be all the greater.
2. Focus on details that will matter to your visitant’s experience
As you build your world, make sure that every detail you add contributes to that fairy cake you established at the beginning. This will make your world feel exciting and relevant, drawing your vistitant into the wonder of your world without drowning them in things they are not interested in.
You see, when I looked out beyond the shores of Erie and imagined Canadian dragons, the spark of wonder was not extinguished by what I didn’t know, but rather, what I did know. Wonder comes from understanding enough about the world to imagine what could be possible, without knowing enough to destroy the spark of imagination. As you build your world, focus on building that understanding through setting your theme, but always leave enough room for your visitant’s imagination to soar. If you do, you’ll have a world that people want to come back to, time and time again.
If you are still wondering how you are going to do this, don’t sweat it. Over at the WorldCraft Club Podcast, we have tons of episodes exploring exactly how to build worlds so enticing that people want to live in them. We also have an active community of worldbuilders on Facebook and Discord where we talk about and give feedback on worlds. In fact, we have just finished building a specialized journal to help worldbuilders make worlds so enticing that their friends will be talking about them for years.
Our Kickstarter for this project will be going live on October 12th and we’d love it if you would come check it out. If you check out our pre-launch page, we’ve got a special offer that will help you get started with building worlds full of wonder right away.
[Update: The Worldbuilder's Journal is now available for preorder here.]
Life-long TTRPGers and worldbuilding aficionados, James and Seth host the WorldCraft Club Podcast, a resource for game masters, novelists and any other worldbuilder who wants to create rich, immersive settings that will bring their audiences back time and time again. You can find out more about our current project, the Worldbuilder's Journal, here: bit.ly/WorldbuildersJournal. For more information about the podcast and WorldCraft Club community, check us out here: https://www.worldcraftclub.com and here: https://www.facebook.com/WorldCraftClub