The Why of World-Building

The re-imagining of our own world/universe or even the imagining of a secondary world/universe is something that makes us tick as humans. If Lisa Cron is right, we are wired for stories, and, if that assertion is indeed correct, we build imaginary worlds/universes or renditions of our own world/universe in order to satisfy the very human need for stories. Don’t believe me? Consider this: re-imagined or imagined worlds allow storytellers to have room to create characters, situations for characters, and immersive qualities we expect from stories. Although world-building, as we will call this imagining/re-imagining, as a word has its origins in the 1820s, it has been an integral part of storytelling for millennia.

There are those detractors who argue that world-building is a senseless activity and has little or no bearing on good storytelling, but it is the opinion of this essay’s author that world-building can be found in almost all forms of storytelling. Take Homer’s Iliad, for example. The culture, the religion, the conflicts, and even the characters are all part of Homer’s world-building, his (re)imagining of the Greek past. Without Homer’s world-building, without consideration to culture, religion, and the like, the Iliad wouldn’t be the timeless story we all know. The same can be said for novels like Hector Tobar’s The Tattooed Solider, Helena Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus, or even Neal Stephenson’s Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell. World-building establishes the rules and the dominant frameworks or paradigms that control the world or universe in question. Like a game, world-building places creative limitations on the artist/author in question. One could argue, when it comes to hobbyists, it tethers the imagination to a sort of realism, a realism that gives the world or universe in question its visceral edge.

It is the mistaken belief that world-building is merely wasted time that could be spent writing quality prose. (I would agree that world-building, in fiction, needs to stop and writing needs to begin somewhere.) However, this assertion assumes that world-building is a completely wasteful venture on behalf of the author/artist in question. In reality, it lines up with the theories put forth by great writers. Not everything in world-building is going to end up in a novel or even in a series of novels. Nevertheless, if we take writers like Ernest Hemingway seriously, the author/artist should know more about his/her work than what s/he gives to the audience or readership.

For those who dabble in world-building as a hobby, it fulfills a very human need to explore the imagination, to create stories in one’s mind, and to find mental stimulation that is often lacking from the outside world. For my own world-building, I use it to unwind, to relax, and to look at the world/universe in a different light. Much of my world-building projects will never see the light of day, but they have given me a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, that is often missing in my life when I interact with other human beings. I can imagine myself explores these worlds/universes on my own, seeking out like-minded sentients. Although some fear the internality of world-building specifically and the imagination in general, the inward nature of world-building is nothing to fear. Instead, we should embrace it as something that has played an integral part in human history. The first storytellers were world-builders as well. They imagined worlds that didn’t exist in the present tense, and, in doing so, gave the human race one of its most important treasures: the ability to look back or forward, in order to remember or in order to anticipate something.

World-building will prove to be an important aspect of the human imagination for some time to come. The twenty-first-century will be a tumultuous century that will require a good deal of looking forward and backward, in order to find answers to the problems we humans are facing. World-building, in other words, could, like A. S. Eddington pointed out in his 1920 book, Space Time and Gravitation, be an important tool in conceptualizing complicated concepts in science. Moreover, one could argue that world-building acts as a sort of simulation tool. This simulation tool allows one to conceptualize the “What if?” questions that often plague our society. I would further argue that world-building, in any form, hones the imagination, one of the most important tools in the mental toolkit that humans have at their disposal. The death of imagination is the death of the human race itself. Without imagination, we are unable to look backward and forward, we would be no better than the animals we are driving to mass extinction.

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Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

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