Who’s Afraid of Worldbuilding?

Most of us can agree on certain vaguely defined elements of fiction like character, plot, setting, and style. Other storytelling aspects happily enter discussions with more or less neutral, conventional meanings, like theme, narrative viewpoint, scene structure, symbolism, and so forth. These categories exist to make meaningful communication possible. You want folks to understand you when you complain about how a confusing setting and nonspecific narrative POV soften a scene’s dramatic punch.

What about worldbuilding? Lincoln Michel over at Electric Lit believes the concept of worldbuilding in fiction is counterproductive.*

Bad writers and fans of popular book and screen franchises sometimes seem to fetishize the details of their favorite fictional worlds to the detriment of other, more important storytelling elements. Why? The problem, Michel argues, comes down to a false sense of realism: “it leads people to believe that ‘realism’ is the primary point of fiction, even fantasy fiction.” Worldbuilding and realism are synonymous in this context. The terms surely refer to a specific and limited task of some fiction, not to a neutral storytelling element. Thus he urges us not to associate worldbuilding with something non-specific like setting or character:

Some people will argue, tautologically, that all fiction takes place in a world and thus all fiction worldbuilds. But the way most people use the term is similar to Chuck Wendig’s definition: “[worldbuilding] covers everything and anything inside that world….”

Now the above quote seems to repeat the very tautology Michel disputes, but don’t jump to conclusions. He gradually builds up an interesting characterization of worldbuilding as he sees it:

  • It refers to everything inside the storyworld, not just setting. (This comes from Chuck Wendig.)
  • “It is an attempt to flesh out an invented world in a way that allegedly feels ‘real.’”
  • “There would be no gaps in the world for the reader to fill in”
  • “Worldbuilding expects the author to have ‘rules’ that are ‘logically’ followed to their conclusions.”
  • It builds “a scale model in the reader’s bedroom.”
  • It “imposes” itself on the reader.
  • It “is like Renaissance art that attempts to create realistic figures even when they are cherubs, demons, or gods.”

I count three features. (1) Accessibility. Even if the world has elves, vampires, and laser swords, we can imaginatively transpose ourselves into it mutatis mutandis. (2) Consistency. The world has rules with consequences. (3) Repletion. The author aims for exhaustive photorealism, calling for as little creative input from the reader as possible.

By contrast, Michel believes authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kelly Link, Franz Kafka, and Kobo Abe are not “realists.” They don’t worldbuild.

Surrealists, magical realists, post-modernists, and countless other movements or styles create fantastic worlds that function on other levels—mythic, philosophical, Freudian, etc.—that are at odds with this idea of worldbuilding.

It’s possible that Michel just wants to say that different story types call for different technical resources. But is the claim that different genres work differently any more illuminating than the claim that all fiction worldbuilds? He must mean something else.

Another possibility is that Michel wants to warn against the ideological inflation of worldbuilding. He even states at the end of the essay that worldbuilding should not be the primary end of fiction. “The main reason I think worldbuilding has become a problem is that it leads people to believe that ‘realism’ is the primary point of fiction, even fantasy fiction.” Certainly, this point may be defensible. I would be sympathetic with the claim that fiction should not reduce to the creation of an intriguing universe, even if I would also caution against reducing fiction to an engaging and suspenseful story (as Michel seems to prefer).

It hardly matters, though, because he does not defend his anti-ideological point, even though it admirably inspired him to write the essay. Instead, Michel conflates this idea with an altogether different one, namely that worldbuilding refers to just one kind of world creation in storytelling. The focus of Michel’s essay is a proposed distinction between worldbuilding and worldconjuring, between one kind of fiction and another. See his analogies with painting, for example, where he associates worldbuilding with illusionistic painting and worldconjuring with other painterly strategies.

Now Michel is very careful to point out that famous worldbuilders like George R. R. Martin, J. K. Rowling, and J. R. R. Tolkien do not fall completely for worldbuilding. “Would the mythic The Lord of the Rings be improved by more discussion of elvish trade agreements and Mordor dining room etiquette?” Probably not. When the going gets tough, authors and readers fall in line behind their stories, not their imagined worlds. Besides, the “faux-realism” of an invented Elvish language is hardly worthy of being called beautiful in its own right compared to the worldconjuring techniques of other masters:

Marquez’s brilliant and epic One Hundred Years of Solitude is filled with magical happenings, but the magic exists for metaphorical and poetic effect. One character is constantly followed by yellow butterflies, but there is no explanation for this. There are no “rules” governing who gets butterflies and who doesn’t.

Michel’s implicit point should be clear by now. His underlying distinction is between manufacture and art, between static literalism and dynamic poetry. If you think of yourself as an artist, you’ll have a clear preference. Imagine an essay titled, “Against Character,” in which the sharply drawn figures of Charles Dickens are contrasted with the nuanced depths or ambiguous ciphers brought to life by other authors. The essay might have a line like, “characters are caricatures: I want souls!” Lincoln Michel is doing something similar.

Let’s briefly return to the concept of worldbuilding itself. Recall its three main features: accessibility, consistency, and repletion (completeness). How well do these help to differentiate worldbuilding from worldconjuring?

The first one we need to be careful about is consistency. Michel argues that while worldbuilding has “laws” and “rules,” some great masterworks like One Hundred Years of Solitude don’t. But isn’t it odd that the events and objects in Marquez’s book – the peculiar style of his world – seem so unified and specific to that particular text? Is there not a certain consistency to a world with a man being haunted by a cage of butterflies, an isolated beauty floating up into the sky, the circular passing of generations, the constant incest, the repetition of twins switched at birth and again at death, the obsession with founding myths and supernatural happenings…? Marquez’s world is Marquezian. It takes consistency to unify an author’s imaginative world, and that goes as much for magical realists as it does for Tolkien. (Oddly, Michel asserts that “worldbuilding is The Silmarillion, worldconjuring is ancient myths and fairy tales,” even though The Silmarillion is so mythical we might as well found a church in its honor.) A consistent logic of what can and can’t happen is a trait of all good fictional worlds.

As for accessibility and completeness, both of these qualities slide along scales and seem to be independent of each other. For example, a world might be replete with a million details that are hardly hospitable to the fantasy of living in it. Or an imagined space might seem easy to transport into with only vague and minimal impressions. Even a totally familiar photorealistic world is usually invoked indirectly, adding together carefully selected details and patterns that only allude to it: caves with mysterious runes, cities fallen to ruin, numerous commercial products with vaguely similar disturbing qualities, generational cycles of obsessed and ill-fated lovers.

More important than accessibility and completeness is whether the elements of the fictional universe and their inner logic do something unique in service of the work as a whole. We should be able to use the same basic language to talk about the underlying logic of worlds written into being by Mark Twain, Jonathan Franzen, David Mitchell, Franz Kafka, or George R.R. Martin. If conjuring is really the better term, then Tolkien conjures too. But I don’t believe that kind of semantic distinction is helpful, since we already have a term for the art of building fictional worlds.

[*NOTE: I didn’t see that Emily Temple, who has a platform and sparkling prose, published her own response to Michel’s essay the day before I posted this on my blog. You can read it at Lit Hub. Temple has some great points. She does seem to weaken her argument at one point when she equates worldbuilding with narrative voice, and she slips past Michel’s building/conjuring distinction at the end by replacing it with one about readers and writers.

So to be clear, here is the short version of what I think is wrong with Michel’s argument: (1) In order to reject the “tautology” that all fiction worldbuilds, he changes the meaning of the term from a flexible element of fiction to a marker of a particular type of fiction. If he doesn’t think he changes its meaning in this way, then he must give the same treatment to character, plot, setting, style, and so forth. Otherwise, his only recourse is to claim that any talk of worldbuilding is meaningless and illusory because it reduces to other ways of talking about fiction (like character, plot, setting, style…). He does not attempt that argument. In any case, I think the more interesting task would be to explore worldbuilding qua storytelling element.

(2) As a result of #1, Michel sneaks in dubious evaluative claims. For instance, he seems to think a lot of good fiction does not have a coherent world, and that worldbuilding is inherently exhaustive and easy to access. I’m not sure how he can respond to these charges except by backpedaling, contradicting himself, or arguing for his views in much more detail.]

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2 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Worldbuilding?

  1. “Imagine an essay titled, ‘Against Character,’ in which the sharply drawn figures of Charles Dickens are contrasted with the nuanced depths or ambiguous ciphers brought to life by other authors. The essay might have a line like, ‘characters are caricatures: I want souls!’ Lincoln Michel is doing something similar.”

    Just reread this blog post and this is my favorite passage. I think the thing I found the most frustrating in the original Michel piece is that, instead of improving the term “worldbuilding” by adding shade and nuance to its definition, or introducing a new term that offers us a previously unarticulated vocabulary or strategy for the purpose of critiquing “world-” elements, he tells us that the only term we do have refers only to a single, narrow practice, and that everything outside of that is unnameable magic (“worldconjuring,” good [though good in what way? of this we must remain silent] writing, etc.).

    Of course, “worldbuilding” is different from “character,” since as a term worldbuilding did (as far as I know anyway) originate in a genre context. But that actually just makes this conversation more frustrating to me, because it suggests Michel is motivated at least in part by a kind of self-defeating genre snobbery — he won’t use or improve upon a tool provided by genre writers and readers because he views it as contaminated beyond rehabilitation.

    Liked by 1 person

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