Worldbuilding can make great stories even better!
It’s hard to imagine classic series like Asimov’s Foundation or modern series like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn without richly detailed worldbuilding. Populating a fantasy universe with political systems, past wars, myths, technology, and other details help everything in the story work as part of a whole.
This article is a really good summary of how worldbuilding can serve an author and help draw in readers.
Worldbuilding. It’s a term that gets bandied about quite a bit when discussing fiction, especially in genres like science fiction and fantasy, but for all the endless times it is repeated, I think sometimes the importance is overlooked.
It’s very fashionable to say things like, “character development is the important thing,” or “it’s the story that matters.” And, of course, those things are absolutely essential. But they’re not the whole story. Not by a longshot. Not in science fiction or fantasy.
A work of historical fiction set, say, during the American Civil War doesn’t need worldbuilding…it’s world is the world, and beyond pointing out some historical facts the reader might not know, the author can focus almost solely on characters and storyline. But science fiction and fantasy demand more. These stories take place in worlds that are the creations of their authors. They may be set in the near future, based heavily on the real world, or they may be wildly different (a galaxy far, far away), but either way, the reader needs to understand this setting, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the author fleshes it out.
Imagine a work like Dune, without the immense detail of the empire, stripped of the customs, institutions, and history so carefully laid out by the author. What is left? A good story, some well-developed characters? Yes, perhaps. But an enduring classic of the genre? Doubtful.
Or Asimov’s Foundation series…with its galactic empire and its ‘world as one giant city’ capital. The characters come and go in what is mostly a series of short novellas, but the overall plot of the fall of empire ties them all together.
On the fantasy side, could there be a better example than the Lord of the Rings? The three books cover little more than a single year’s activity, yet Tolkien’s work wouldn’t be the classic it is without the massive worldbuilding that gives us thousands of years of fictional history interspersed with a few months of real time action.
In science fiction and fantasy, the setting is like a character itself, often as much a part of the story as any hero and villain. When I think of the books that have resonated with me in my forty-odd years of reading science fiction and fantasy, it is those that offered rich worlds in which I could lose myself that became the favorites I pull out every couple years to reread.