What is worldbuilding? Maybe you've never heard the term "worldbuilding" before. Or maybe you know what worldbuilding is, but you're curious how we define it! Either way, worldbuilding is something we at World Anvil are incredibly passionate about! So let us introduce you to the magical world of worldbuilding!
Worldbuilding can be defined as the creation of a fictional setting or “world”, which may be used as a setting for novels, games or other creative pursuits. In this case, “world” does not refer to a planet. The scope of a worldbuilding project may be as small as a city (like Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman), or as large as a multiverse filled with planets and even different dimensions (like the Marvel Universe).
Worldbuilding is often understood to mean exclusively the setting building of an entirely new, fictional universe. Because of this, J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth is a typical example of worldbuilding. With its diverse sapient species like elves and dwarves, its unique languages, history, geography and the like, Tolkein's world of the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and more, is what many people consider worldbuilding. Likewise, the world of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, is a classic example of worldbuilding - a brand new world, with laws of its own, which works differently to the real world (and just happens to be accessible from the real world). From video games to fantasy novels, from Skyrim to Dune to Starwars, this definition of worldbuilding is the most standard answer.
And there's nothing wrong with that - after all, this is certainly worldbuilding. But there's definitely more to worldbuilding than just this approach.
So what, is worldbuilding just for those creating entire new world settings? Well, NO, is the short answer! Broadly speaking, we can answer the question of what is worldbuilding with three main kinds of setting creation.
The first kind of worldbuilding, which we've already discussed, is for completely imaginary worlds, like those of Dune, Middle Earth or Star Wars. Your entire reality is created from scratch. This includes fictional continents populated by imaginary plants, animals and even intelligent species. Such worlds might have varied languages (called "con-langs or constructed languages) created for them. The setting will boast a unique history, with its own cultures and traditions, technologies and problems. Worlds like this often also boast magic systems or other supernatural laws, but they're not a necessary component of "Second World" Worldbuilding. This is what people most commonly think of when they use the term worldbuilding.
The second kind of worldbuilding is "Alternate Earth" style. Your setting is like earth, but... something is different.
In this style of worldbuilding, something significant is not like Earth as we know it. In Urban fantasy settings, maybe vampires and werewolves lurk in the shadows of New York or Louisiana (like Vampire the Masquerade or Trueblood)? Or perhaps there's a whole secret world of magic beneath the city of London, like Diagon Alley in the world of Harry Potter?
Dystopian and science fiction frequently fall into this “Alternate Earth” category too. These genres examine Earth, but in the near or far future. For example, The Hunger Games is a dystopian series set in post-apocalyptic North America. The Expanse takes Earth as we know it, and extrapolates hundreds of years into the future. Even the Shannara Chronicles, which looks on the face of it like a typical Tolkenian Second World fantasy, is actually Alternate Earth. All those elves, dwarves and gnomes are the result of massive mutations from a nuclear-style apocalypse, and ruined Earth cities still dot the landscape.
Alternate history is another great example of Alternate Earth worldbuilding. Perhaps, like in Man in the High Castle, it was the Axis powers who won World War II, not the Allied Powers. Perhaps England kept hold of its American colonies, and the British Empire is still intact? Or what if we had discovered signs of alien inhabitation on the moon in 1969? How would that have changed our world? This kind of Alternate history takes Earth verbatim until a certain point of divergence. Authors extrapolate how our world, and our way of life as we know it today, might have been transformed due to one alteration in history.
Alternate Earth worldbuilding is in some ways easier to start with than "Second World" worldbuilding. Your foundation is a given, your geography and species, at least for the most part, are already made. You can focus on creating the details of a really interesting setting! The tricky thing with Alternate Earth stories is making sure you create believable leaps, so you don't lose the suspension of disbelief in your readers or players.
If your novel, game or comic is set in the real world, why would you need worldbuilding? Well, there are a lot of reasons, actually!
When you create fictional but realistic towns, schools, and organizations in America, that's also worldbuilding! When historical novelists fill in parts of the world not documented by history, they're worldbuilding too. Or maybe you've introduced a secret fictional lover into the life of a known historical character? Most genres of fiction involve some worldbuilding, even if that's just to build details of the characters' lives. For example, John Green created fictional author Peter Van Houten, in The Fault in our Stars. And Jane Austen used fictional places in the real world, like Mr Darcy's Estate of Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice, and the village of Highbury in Emma.
This worldbuilding is a vital part of a real-world novel or game creation. Whether building fictional people or places, or pencilling in details, this kind of worldbuilding is vital. It creates a sense of place, makes your work more memorable, and can help with tone and atmosphere too!
This kind of "real-world" worldbuilding often involves research, followed by a process of filling in the pieces. You'll especially need to fill in sensory details of your scenes to bring them alive. Dig into your five (and more) senses, and use what you worldbuild to heighten the atmosphere you're trying to create. Does the room smell like jasmine and honeysuckle, or old drains?
Whatever you're worldbuilding, World Anvil is definitely the place to start, and to keep track of what you've created! Our worldbuilding templates go through everything you'll need to create your setting. If you're building a real-world or historical setting, you'll be able to store your research and note what you've added to fill in the blanks. That includes tracking plots, journeys, and any stats, as well as full details of your characters!
Those creating Alternate Earth settings will be able to create parallel timelines to track their divergent histories, and build the changes in your world. And if you're creating completely new, Second World settings, World Anvil will help you build and keep track of everything. Then once the time is right, you can show off what you want to your readers or players, to get them hooked on your world setting!