Thoughts on World Building

Written by Alanna Rossi, Illustrations by Jaclyn Simon
As a reader, I fully appreciate the power of storytelling. When I start a new novel I look forward to getting lost in the world the author created. Books have the ability to transport us to new places, completely outside of our own reality without actually going anywhere. 

World building is an important part of any story. There are two types of world building; Hard world building and soft world building. Hard world building uses specific rules and is detail oriented in order to create a better immersive experience (think, Lord of the Rings). Soft world building on the other hand, gives you just enough information to carry the story and allows you, the reader, to fill in the blanks. It’s still immersive, but the immersion comes from the mystery of the unknown (think, anything by Hayao Miyazaki). 

First, let’s pay a visit to the absolutely wondrous world that is Middle-earth. Many people know and love the books written by J.R.R. Tolkien, who some consider the first great world builder. Tolkien spent decades constructing Middle-earth before publishing any novels. The world Tolkien created is simple in its complexity. The details in the novels serve a purpose and are more than just filler, adding a richness to the story. These details include Tolkien’s incredible use of languages in his novels. Not only did he create an entire fictional world, he also filled it with different races and cultures, all speaking different languages, that he created. Actors who worked on the Lord of the Rings films learned to speak Elvish, which was a product of Tolkien’s imagination. In fact, Tolkien’s creation of the Elvish language was the first of its kind. 

The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are two of my all time favourite books. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them, but it’s a lot. Reading the books feels like visiting an old friend, and I always cherish our time together. I also really love the film adaptations (yes, even the Hobbit despite its general lack of popularity) and being able to see Middle-earth come to life. I often wonder what it would be like to visit the Shire as Frodo and Bilbo know it, or take a stroll through the woods of Lothlórien amongst the golden trees. Thanks to Tolkien’s attention to detail, the way he writes about these places almost transports you there while you read, making it feel like you could actually hear the footfalls of the Ents as you venture through Fangorn Forest. The films did a good job at bringing Tolkien’s world to life, but there is nothing quite like the experience of reading the books for the first time and exploring an unknown world with every turn of the page. The Lord of the Rings and its counterparts are probably one of the best examples there is of truly effective world building. There are countless books and websites dedicated to the history and lore of Middle-earth, all written of course by Tolkien. He took every detail a step further, but it never feels like it’s too much. Sure, you can read about the Elves of Rivendell in the Hobbit, but if you wanted to you can also read about the history and culture of those Elves; heck you could try and teach yourself Elvish if you really wanted to. Reading The Lord of the Rings will never get old and with every read through I find something new. That is the beauty of effective world building, it feels like a living, breathing thing fuelled entirely by your imagination. 

Next on our travels is the galaxy of Star Wars. Full disclosure, I am a big Star Wars fan. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a space adventure? The Star Wars galaxy, unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth, is far less simple in its complexity. Tolkien’s world, while expansive, felt organised. Star Wars feels cluttered, like a Holocron that’s run out of storage space. There’s just too much of it, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re like me and can’t get enough of it. The films invite you along for a ride at hyper speed, navigating a vast galaxy full of colourful occupants and planets. Don’t get me wrong, I love the excitement that the Star Wars movies provide, but what I love the most about the films is the world itself. George Lucas, like Tolkien, put a lot of time into the details. As a space enthusiast, I love fictionalised stories of other planets and pretty much anything set in space. Space is a great unknown so when you can “see” another planet come to life,  like Tatooine with its dual suns and sandy landscape (sorry Anakin), it’s utterly captivating. 

The two planets that really stand out to me are Kashyyyk (home to the Wookiee) and Dagobah (shout out to Yoda). Both planets are forested and full of bizarre and unique plant and animal life. In Jedi, the Fallen Order, a Star Wars video game, you explore the lush planet of Kashyyyk during your main quest and the experience does not disappoint. You’re able to climb trees and interact with the world in a way you’re not able to while watching the films. It is such a fun, immersive experience, and being able to explore the beautifully designed world is every Star Wars fan’s dream. The importance of world building extends into video game design as well, and with a game like Fallen Order, it’s a powerful tool used to make a memorable gaming experience. 

World building is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to effective storytelling. I love a good story, and if I really love it I’ll go back to it again and again. The thrill of discovering something new in a word you felt like you knew well is a wonderful feeling. Next time, we’ll get into some more details about our favourite fictionalised plants from our favourite books and movies. Until then, happy exploring!