By Kaelan Doyle-Myerscough
This question might sound a little lofty—after all, for many of us worldbuilding is a hobby. But regardless of what inspires us to do it, worldbuilding is an immense undertaking: at once an exercise in empathy, a marathon through dozens of disciplines and ways of thinking, and a test of our communicative and creative skills. Worldbuilders do not imagine individuals or stories, but entire places, histories and cultures. Of course this would bring up some lofty questions—and it might even make us worldbuilders feel a little lofty, too. By building an entire world, do we become its god? Or might we imagine ourselves more humbly? What does it mean to create a world, and what relationship do we have to our worlds as their creators?
Worldbuilders have grappled with these questions for as long as worldbuilding has existed. In his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien tried to grasp what is unique about worldbuilding, as opposed to simple imagination. Tolkien drew a connection between worldbuilding and his Catholic faith. He described worldbuilding as “sub-creation,” a right given to humans, who were made in God’s image. In other words, by taking on the role of “sub-creators,” humans become the gods of our own worlds.
More recent creators seem to echo this way of thinking, like the World Building Institute, which defines worldbuilding as “a narrative practice in which the design of a world precedes the telling of a story; the richly detailed world becomes a container for narrative, producing stories that emerge logically and organically from its well-designed core.” By this account, worlds are machines that produce stories, and their creators are designers, making worlds that run as efficient as possible. This way of thinking is not far from Tolkien's: worldbuilders are positioned as omnipotent creators and intelligent designers.
By now, you might be asking: so what? As our worlds’ creators, of course we get to decide how they work. Why not think of ourselves as gods? And why does it matter how we relate to our worlds, anyways?
But I want to push back here. The way we think about worldbuilding absolutely influences the worlds we build.
Imagine you begin—as Tolkien and the World Building Institute do—from the premise that “I can know and understand everything about the world I build.” From this premise, you build your world assuming that you are its foremost expert and authority—and that, if you had enough time, you could know everything about it.
With this goal, you use worldbuilding methods that give you an accurate and complete picture: geographically accurate maps, historically accurate timelines, and “world bibles” that comprehensively describe your world’s economics, politics, art, cultures and so on. You might find a list of worldbuilding questions and try to answer all of them. You work with the goal of filling in the blanks—of knowing as much about your world as possible.
Even if you’re not a Tolkien fan, this way of thinking is probably familiar—after all, so many worldbuilding guides are based on it, encouraging you to develop a world bible full of logically consistent information.
There’s one problem with this method: you are not a god. There is no way that you alone can understand a whole world.
Think of our world. Is our world well-designed, consistent, or logical? No! It’s weird, random, and deeply inconsistent. No one person could ever understand our world in all of its complexity. When we build worlds with the assumption that we are their ultimate authority, we flatten the worlds we create so that we can understand them better. And we end up with worlds that feel small and uninteresting.
So how can we think differently about this? How can we change the way we relate to our worlds?
Instead of assuming our own authority, let’s start from the opposite premise: we cannot know or understand everything about the worlds we build. When we start here, we begin the worldbuilding process with the goal of building uncertainty into it. We see blank spaces not as questions that need answering, but as necessary components of a vibrant world.
Then, instead of making maps, timelines and world bibles that strive for objective accuracy and completeness, we can work with the goal of expressing specific perspectives, but leaving questions unanswered and inconsistencies unresolved.
What does this look like? Here are a few places to start:
- Draw a map that is geographically inaccurate, or that visualizes something other than geography. Who in your world made this map and why?
- Write a historical timeline from a specific perspective in your world. What has been forgotten? What has been misremembered? Why?
- Instead of a world bible, collect information about your world as if you lived there. Why and how do you collect this information? How do you organize it? What is overlooked?
- Overall: allow for blank spaces in your world; make multiple versions of documents from different perspectives; speculate, but don’t confirm; ask why and how things are known, remembered or forgotten.
We may be worldbuilders, but we are not omnipotent. When I build worlds, I instead like to think of myself as a traveller. As I take in the world and watch and listen, I might notice things the world’s inhabitants would not; but some things in the world are beyond my understanding, no matter how long I stay. And that’s OK! The vastness of a world, its utter scale and incomprehensibility, only makes it more wonderful to behold.
Kaelan Doyle-Myerscough (they/he) is a trans/non-binary critical creator, game designer and academic interested in the theory and praxis of worldbuilding. They are currently working on a PhD in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, and also co-authoring a manual on critical worldbuilding with Damien Charrieras, an Associate Professor at the City University of Hong Kong. If you want to hear more of Kaelan’s thoughts on worldbuilding, you can follow them on Substack; otherwise, check out their games on itch, including their worldbuilding game One Hour Worldbuilders.