Worldbuilding

The Star Wars Galaxy
The Star Wars, Galaxy, an example of collaborative worldbuilding. From Star Wars, The Essential Atlas, by Daniel Wallace and Jason Fry (2009 Del Rey). The connecting lines are hyperspace trade routes

When it comes to science fiction and fantasy storytelling, Worldbuilding is one of the most central elements.  It’s as important as plot, as narrative, as character creation.  Without worldbuilding, there could be no science fiction or fantasy genres.

What is Worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is the nerd pastime par excellence. It is that aspect of the science fiction and fantasy creative imagination by which one creates an entire world or universe, with its own history, geography or planetology, biology, language, customs, politics, commerce, and anything else one might think of. Worldbuilding can be all about the background details and setting for a science fiction or fantasy story, or it can be a creative activity in and of itself, or a little bit of both. Science fiction and fantasy creators such as JRR Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Robert Jordan, George Lucas, Terry Pratchett, Peter Hamilton, David Weber, G.R.R Martin, and many others have managed to create astonishingly vivid universes in which their stories and adventures take place, and peopling these universes with various characters and races.

Often worldbuilding is part and parcel of roleplaying, because it defines the rules of the universes in which players have their adventures. Roleplaying game books and systems such as Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS manuals, White Wolf World of Darkness, Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, Warhammner 40K, and countless others, are absolutely fascinating in themselves, for the way they bring their respective science fiction and fantasy worlds to life. Similarly video games (the most popular form of pen and paper role-playing games) such as Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and many others feature comprehensive worldbuilding.

Star Wars movies as an example of good and bad worldbuilding

Maybe it’s just the writer and worldbuilder in me, when I read a science fiction novel, or watch a movie, often the first thing I think is: how realistic is this, if it were a consistent universe in itself?

I’ll give an example here from Star Wars and the two new but very different Disney additions to the franchise  (The Force Awakens and Rogue One), as an example of good and bad worldbuilding.   Both the original Star Wars trilogy and the follow-up prequels were rich in worldbuilding (this is so even if one dislikes the prequels), as were the collection of novels that constitute the the Expanded Universe (now relegated to “legends” and hence non-canon).

In re-telling the same story that George Lucas did, there is no denying JJ Abrams (The Force Awakens) recaptures the feeling and banter of the original trilogy in terms of directing, casting, acting, pacing, cinematography, music, and visual effects. But this makes no sense in terms of an actual universe with its own historical causation.

I’ll give a humorous analogy using a very similar epic tale; Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, undeniably the greatest worldbuilder of our time. Imagine that forty years after the events described in Lord of the Rings, another Ring had been found and was exerting it’s sinister influence. Imagine that instead of Mordor, it was the forces of Mirkwood that were on the march, and that they were even more powerful than Sauron’s forces ever had been. So old Gandalf has to once again trek back to the Shire, to enlist a new hobbit from the Baggins clan. Teaming up with the older and greyer Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, they would form a new fellowship, to trek to Mirkwood in order to destroy the ring. They would again be pursued by orcs, aided by Elves, just as they had fourty years ago. There’d be another final battle, and once again the good guys would be victorious at heavy cost.

Would anyone who had read Tolkien’s original masterpiece, or watched the Peter Jackson movie version, have found this historical development at all credible? The whole story would make no sense, because real history doesn’t repeat in this way, and worldbuilders are smart enough to know this.

In contrast to The Force Awakens, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is an example of good worldbuilding; as the movie perfectly fits between, and links, the events of the last prequel, Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars movie,  A New Hope, as well as explaining how the Death Star could be so easily destroyed.

Links

Credits

note: this page is mostly from my essay A Tale of Two Star Wars, published on Omni Media