A Discussion on Worldbuilding

J.L. Weinmeister

Today I’m doing and informal discussion on worldbuilding. I highly recommend you watch my YouTube video of this. I think it’s a more enjoyable experience, but you can read a cleaned-up version of the closed captions here if you’d prefer.

I will be sharing my favorite things about worldbuilding, my favorite worlds, my least favorite things about worldbuilding, and some not-so-great worlds. I’ll mostly be talking about fantasy worlds, but there will be some science fiction ones as well. I’m drawing from books, movies, and TV shows.

I’m going to start off with the things I love about worldbuilding because I like to start on a positive note. Of course with worldbuilding you get unique settings, and those are one of the best things about world-built stories, especially in fantasy and sci-fi. One of my favorite sci-fi worlds is one I read for the first time earlier this year, and that is Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. Steelheart is the first book in the Reckoners trilogy, followed by Firefight and Calamity. The worldbuilding in that series is so cool. The setting in each book is very different and unique. I love how Newcago is dark because of Nightwielder, everything’s steel, and there’s all the underground catacombs. Then you have the setting in the second book, and in that one you have the weird glowing plants and graffiti. That one’s probably my favorite setting in the trilogy. Then in Calamity, you have the salt city. Sanderson’s worldbuilding is cool and unique, and it’s something I haven’t seen anyone else do. I’m really excited to read more of Sanderson’s stuff and see what other awesome worlds he has.

Another one that I really like is the Beyonders trilogy by Brandon Mull. I really like the setting of Lyrian. It’s cool, especially in one part. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of this setting or even which book it’s in. I thought it was in my notes, but I don’t see it in my notes. Anyway, there’s one part of the setting that’s very similar to Yellowstone in my opinion. There’s all this geothermal and volcanic activity going on, and I’ve never seen that in a fantasy world before.

Another one that almost everyone likes—I know there are people who hate this series, and that’s fine—is Hogwarts in Harry Potter. It’s an awesome setting. Who doesn’t like a boarding school for witches and wizards in a castle, especially a magical castle? I mean, the staircases move. Hogwarts is awesome.

Another one I really like is the setting in The Girl of Fire and Thorns. It’s been a while since I’ve read this trilogy. It’s on my TBR for this year to reread. Once I finish Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, I will reread The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I can’t remember the names of any of the settings in that trilogy, but I really like those settings because they’re different from your general Medieval European setting. It’s set in a desert, which is really cool, especially because I love deserts.

Another one like that is Ravka in Shadow and Bone. It’s also a unique setting because it’s Russian, so it’s a little more Eastern than the stereotypical Western setting.

The last setting I want to include is from the book Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld. That one’s weird because the book is half contemporary and half fantasy. It’s about a writer, so half of the book is the story about her; and the other half is her novel, which has a fantasy setting. It’s a creepy, dark underworld—with a really cool character, I might add—and I really love it.

Those are some of my favorite unique settings that I’ve read about in sci-fi and fantasy books. One of the best parts of these settings is all the awesome and beautiful maps that go with them. What’s a fantasy book without a map?

The next topic is the cool species and magical creatures from these different worlds. Again, Beyonders is one of my favorites in terms of sentient beings and the unique people you see there. My favorite is the Amar Kabal, who are the seed people. They have seeds at the nape of their necks; and when they die, you plant the seed, and they reincarnate. I think that’s just so cool. Mull has two other unique species in that trilogy, but the Amar Kabal are definitely my favorite. I wish more people created humanoids like Mull does.

Another one is the magical creatures in Harry Potter. Of course, everyone loves the magical creatures from Harry Potter. I know a lot of them are pretty stereotypical, normal magical creatures; but then you have some who aren’t. For example, house elves aren’t something you see anywhere else. House elves are cool. It’s unfortunate they’re slaves, but I think it’s handled fairly appropriately. Between the three—Dobby, Winky, and Kreacher—I think Rowling does a pretty good job of portraying it correctly and in a way that isn’t damaging. Anyway, there are some magical creatures in Harry Potter that are unique, but then there are also normal magical creatures. The creatures play such a huge role in all the different books, and I think everyone loves seeing them.

Some other creatures I really like are the ones in Avatar: The Last Airbender. What would that series be without Appa and Momo? They’re important and amazing.

The last one I can think of—I’m sure I’m forgetting some—for great magical creatures is Morozova’s stag from Shadow and Bone. I haven’t seen magical stags in any other books, so I think the stag is cool.

The next topic I want to talk about is cultures. I mentioned this recently in my Lord of the Rings videos, but I really like the different cultures in Middle Earth. I especially like how they vary from location to location, so it’s not a monoculture. You have the elves; and the elves at Rivendell are different from the ones in Mirkwood, who are different from the ones in Lothlorien. You have the dwarves; and the ones at Erebor are different from the ones in Moria, who are different from the ones in the Iron Hills. Then you have the men; and the men at Bree are different from the men in Gondor, who are different from the men in Rohan. Each race is distinct, and then there are subcultures within the races. I feel like that reflects accurately on the diversity you see in the real world, and so I really like that about Tolkien’s worldbuilding.

Another one I really like is the subcultures in Steelheart. There are different subcultures in each city. Newcago has a particular subculture, and people there behave a certain way. Then the people in the other city—I think it’s called New Babylon—behave a very different way. The main character even comments on the differences between these two cities’ cultures. The salt city also has its own subculture—I think that one used to be Atlanta. They’re all distinct from each other not just on the physical aspects, but also the cultural ones; and that’s great for avoiding monoculture. Can you guess what one of the points is on my list of things I don’t like about worldbuilding? Yes, monoculture.

The next thing I want to talk about is magic systems because that’s a really cool part of worldbuilding as well. There are two types of magic systems. There’s hard magic, and then there’s soft magic. Hard magic has more rules and usually more restrictions. Soft magic doesn’t really have rules. Lord of the Rings is both. The Ring is more hard magic. Gandalf is more soft magic. You don’t know what exactly Gandalf can do. He just does stuff, and it works.

One of my favorite magic systems is from Harry Potter. I like how there are restrictions to the magic because when you have soft magic, it’s harder to have restrictions. Then there are some kinds of hard magic where there aren’t restrictions; and that can be really tricky because when you have few restrictions, it’s harder to put your characters in danger they can’t get out of. I like that Harry Potter’s restrictions are you have to have your wand, you have to know the spell, you have to say the spell—unless you’re very advanced—and in some cases, you have to do the movement that accompanies the spell like the swish and flick. When you must have all of those pieces combined to get the magic to work, it’s a lot more restrictive. If your wand is taken away, you can’t do magic; so you can be defeated. I like that about Harry Potter’s magic system.

I also really like the Grisha from Shadow and Bone. I like the magic powers they have and how they each have something they specialize in based on their innate powers. I really like how it subverts a trope. I feel like in most cases when people use magic, if it has an effect on their body, it takes away from them. It takes their energy, makes them tired, etc. With the Grisha, it’s the opposite. It gives to them. The reason they live so long is because they use their powers. The reason they look as beautiful as they do is because their powers affect them in that way. I really like the subversion of that trope, and that using your powers makes you feel better than not using your powers. That’s actually a really significant part of the Shadow and Bone trilogy.

Another one is Avatar, of course. I like having the four elements incorporated. I have that in my own magic system. That’s not the entirety of my magic system, but I really like the four elements and being able to manipulate them.

I also love the Force from Star Wars. I think that’s something all Star Wars fans love about it. Everyone wants to be a Jedi, unless you’re me and those other people who have problems and want to be a Sith. You can do cool things with the Force. The Dark Side is definitely the best. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

In relation to magic systems are talismans and objects. One of my favorite talismans is the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings, of course. Everything centers on a ring, and that’s really interesting. I love the Ring.

I also really love the Deathly Hallows. You bring them together, and they’re really powerful. You become the master of Death. I’ve noticed in my own book, I kind of mix the Deathly Hallows and the One Ring. I won’t say how—I don’t want to spoil things.

A series that has a lot of really awesome talismans is Fablehaven by Brandon Mull and the sequel series Dragonwatch. Those have so many talismans, and they’re all unique. I don’t know how anyone comes up with so many talismans. I’m trying to figure out how to do that for my own stories because Mull just comes up with all the talismans. You have the artifacts that are the keys to the demon prison. You have the Sands of Sanctity, which heal people. You have the Translocator, which teleports people. You have the Font of Immortality, which obviously bestows immortality. The Chronometer is really weird and hard to understand because it involves time travel. Then the Oculus allows you to see anything you want to see, but it’s really hard to wield. Those are cool. Plus Mull has a bunch of other cool stuff, too; so if you like magical talismans, you should read Fablehaven because there are a lot.

Another one of my favorites is the Black Cauldron from The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. That thing is cool. You can reanimate the dead; and if you want it to stop reanimating the dead, you have to sacrifice yourself and crawl into the Cauldron and die. I love the Cauldron. It’s dark and evil—like me.

Another thing I really like about worldbuilding is the depth you don’t necessarily see, but you can tell is there. For example, I’ve talked about this in regards to The Lord of the Rings. You do get some of the depth, but Tolkien doesn’t give you everything. If you want everything, go read The Silmarillion. You see pieces of it because there are all these references to the lore and history of Middle Earth, and you can tell that depth exists by reading The Lord of the Rings.

Another one that I feel is really deep is Star Wars. Because it’s so diverse, it feels deep and realistic. It’s not necessarily because there was a ton of worldbuilding put into it. It’s just because there are so many different people, creatures, planets, etc. that go into Star Wars that it feels deep.

The same is true for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The scope of that is just so huge that you feel like there’s a ton of worldbuilding behind it, which maybe there is. I’m not super familiar with the behind the scenes stuff with Marvel, but it feels like there is a ton of worldbuilding behind it because the universe is so huge and diverse. It makes it seem really realistic, and that’s really what I’m aiming for with my own writing. We’ll see if I succeed. I’ve been studying the MCU. I’ve also been studying their plotting because their plotting is fantastic.

Another one I feel is deep is Harry Potter. Again, there’s so much included in just little snippets that you can tell the worldbuilding is pretty deep. You have the different textbooks they use, and you can even buy some of these now. Same thing with The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Then there’s the background of the four founders of Hogwarts, and there’s the first war with Voldemort and the Order of the Phoenix before Harry “defeated” him as a baby. All of that is mentioned, but it’s not really gone into in depth. It feels really well world-built and deep to me.

The last thing I want to talk about that I really like is time travel. One of my favorite time travel stories is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and that’s what got me hooked on the story was the time travel aspect. I found that really cool. I know it’s more of a romance than a time travel story, but that’s okay. There was enough time travel in the early books to keep me interested.

A book I think the time travel is really well done in is To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. That one again ended up being more of a romance than a time travel story, but I really liked the way the time travel was done. It’s in a futuristic world, and they use time travel for their historians. They go back in time and learn about the past. Since I’m an archaeologist, I think that’s really cool. I wish I could actually do that instead of having to figure things out based on material culture that’s left behind because there’s only so much you can learn from material culture. I guess there’s oral history, too, which helps; but it’s limited. We’ll never know everything, which is depressing. It’s really fun puzzling out stuff, but you don’t learn everything. I really like the idea of using time travel to learn about the past, and that’s pretty much the only thing they use time travel for. I can’t remember exactly why. I think they tried using it for other things and ran into problems, so it’s strictly used for historians to study.

That concludes my gigantic list of things I love about worldbuilding. I’m sure I forgot things, so if there’s anything awesome you would like to bring to my attention, let me know in the comments. Same thing with any really awesomely world-built stories you love. If you want to recommend them, let me know in the comments because I’m looking for some really cool world-built stories, particularly in fantasy.

Now I’m going to move onto things that I don’t like about worldbuilding and what there isn’t enough of. We’ll start with the lack of diversity, and this has a lot of subparts. I want to start with settings since I started with unique settings. You see a lot of Tolkien-esque settings in fantasy. Eragon doesn’t really interest me in terms of its worldbuilding because it’s basically The Lord of the Rings. The same is true for The Chronicles of Prydain and the Shannara Chronicles. It’s really common to see Tolkien-esque settings in fantasy stories, and those don’t excite me. They do in Lord of the Rings because that’s where they originated, but all those other stories just copied from that.

The same is true with magical creatures. You see the same ones being used over and over again like elves, dwarves, and dragons. I know everyone loves dragons. If you don’t, you have problems; and you should see someone about that because dragons are awesome. Those are way overused, and you don’t see a ton of unique magical creatures. Some people do a mix where they have some normal creatures and some unique creatures. I like that. You get your favorites, but you also get new stuff. I want to see more of the new stuff, and I hope my own stories include mostly unique magical creatures. I think I’m going to use five normal ones: dragons, unicorns, griffins, fairies, and merfolk. Everything else I think is going to be unique because I like seeing the unique stuff. We need new magical creatures, not the same old, same old.

Another thing that isn’t very diverse is governments. They’re pretty much all monarchies. I think Harry Potter is the only one that doesn’t have a monarchy because it has the Ministry of Magic. I like the Ministry. Everything else I’ve mentioned, with the exception of Star Wars, has monarchies. It would be cool to see different forms of government. My own world has a variety of governments. My book happens to take place on a planet with a monarchy, so I won’t be subverting that yet. I will eventually, though.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not a fan of monocultures. That’s when you have a world, and everyone is pretty much the same in terms of their cultural backgrounds. That’s not interesting or realistic, so it’s nice when there’s a lot of cultural diversity.

Going off of that, you really don’t see any diversity with gender. You see very stereotypical gender roles, gender representations, etc. You don’t see a lot of diversity, and I would like to see some subversions of stereotypical gender roles. Just because most people on earth are very patriarchal does not mean every single fantasy world has to be a patriarchy and has to have the same gender roles that stereotypical Western traditions have. We could also see way more gender representations. There are lots of cultures on Earth that recognize more than two genders, and I think it would be really cool to see that in fantasy worlds as well and have people recognize there are more than two genders. It’s not a binary system.

Another thing is a lack of character diversity in general. You don’t see a lot of people of color or people from other minority groups in fantasy worlds. I know in some fantasy it’s hard to do because you may be using fantasy races, but that doesn’t mean your fantasy races all have to be white. You can have variations in skin color and other characteristics that way they don’t all look the same. There’s a lot of variety in people, and that doesn’t usually show up in fantasy worlds. I wish it did show up more because we really could use more diversity.

Moving on from diversity, another thing I don’t really see is the effects magic has on day-to-day life. I feel like there’s so much potential to play around with how having magic affects how you live, and we don’t really see that in books. I think Harry Potter is the best example I can think of because you see Molly Weasley doing the dishes without actually touching the dishes and things like that, and that really shows how magic changes the way people live. Nothing else I’ve read or watched has really played on that, and I would like to see it. For example, if you can control water, there are a lot of things you wouldn’t have to do. You wouldn’t necessarily have to have plumbing because you can just summon water whenever you need it, and you wouldn’t have to boil water using a stove. You can just boil your water using your magic; and so things like that greatly affect how you live because if you’re using plumbing when you could magic your water, that doesn’t really make sense. It’d be interesting to play around with that and see that in stories more than I’ve seen it in the past.

The next thing I want to talk about is inconsistencies with the worldbuilding. It usually irritates me when the worldbuilding is set up, and then the author isn’t consistent with the rules of that world. There are some inconsistencies in Harry Potter that really bother me. I will be talking about Harry Potter soon in this blog. Once I finish Lord of the Rings, I’m moving onto Harry Potter. I will get into those inconsistencies more, but there are some that bother me; and that bothers me in any world-built book. If you have rules for your world, you have to be consistent with them. Otherwise, your reader is going to get upset.

Another thing I don’t like about some worldbuilding is lack of depth. Some worlds just feel really shallow and unrealistic because it doesn’t feel like enough was put into the worldbuilding. Those worlds aren’t as interesting.

I didn’t really have a category to put this under, but one of the worlds I feel is just kind of mediocre—and please don’t hate me for this opinion—is Percy Jackson because it takes off of Greek mythology. I feel like most of the magical creatures we see in fantasy worlds come from Greek mythology, and so it feels really overdone to me. I don’t feel like Percy Jackson’s setting is super unique. It’s not Tolkien-esque, which is why I didn’t want to put it under that, but it’s not a very unique setting. I haven’t read the Kane Chronicles yet. I’ve had the first book for probably ten years or longer, and I haven’t read it; but I’m thinking I might like that more because it’s not Greek mythology. It’s Egyptian mythology, which is not something I’ve read about before in books, and so that might be better for me since I’m tired of Greek mythology.

Those are my thoughts on worldbuilding. Those are some of my favorite things, some of my favorite worlds, some of my least favorite things, and my least favorite worlds. I really can’t think of a bunch of worlds I hate in terms of the worldbuilding. They’re more mediocre than terrible.

If you have any thoughts you would like to mention in the comments, please do. If you have any recommendations for stories that are well world-built, also let me know.

If any of you are writers, you should go out there and build some of these worlds I just mentioned because they’re cool. We need more of them. Please take these ideas and use them because we should. We should definitely use these ideas and make more diverse fantasy worlds.

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