On Critical World-Building

After the post from the other day, I began sifting through the hellhole that is the Internet to see about striking a balance between writing and world-building. One of the things that came up was this notion of critical world-building. The idea intrigued me, so I decided to follow this particular rabbit hole until I found something worth posting about. What I found was interesting. What if we turned world-building on its head? Instead of using it as a way to create excessive info dumps, unnecessary prologues, and the like, we use world-building to understand (re)create the world at a given time, whether now or at some other time period? In other words, what if we used world-building to explore realities, actualities, and possibilities for storytelling? That would mean a great deal of research, some restraint, and a good deal of pondering the "what if?" moments in fiction.

The way I see it, world-building should be supplemental to the storytelling endeavor. It shouldn't be the storytelling endeavor itself. In other words, storytelling should use world-building to find those conditions of possibility that lead to events within the diegetic space, i.e., the time, space, and conditions that make up the storytelling space. Want to write about power struggles between men and women, particular during the late-nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century? You can't jump into a time machine, despite what Hollywood tells you. Physics is a bastard, and it hates you, so no luck with the time travelling just yet. Instead, we can do the literary equivalent: world-building. If you all remember my first article on Medium, you will remember that world-building was suggested to be a sort of constructive thought experiment methodology, meaning it was used to explore potentialities or endless possibilities in science. The same thought experiment methodology can be applied to fiction as well, especially serious fiction.

World-building becomes a thought experiment under the right conditions. First, research has to be used to fuel the imagination and give it the necessary boundaries. Second, the use of reflection and critical inquiry allow the fiction writer to push forward, looking for conditions of possibility for tension, conflict, and the beautiful things that help facilitate a good story. Then, with the help of this particular framework, one can begin writing, omitting, adding, deleting, and filling in the gaps the way fiction writers should operate. We aren't slaves to world-building, after all. Instead, it offers a sort of framework that can be bent, broken, and/or reshaped.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico