Worldbuilding: An Education

Before I went to law school, many people (all lawyers, so understand the bias) told me that formal legal training is the best education you can get, regardless of whether you practice law. Law school was an excellent education; one that I’d never wish on anyone.

Still, I think that there is a better education to be found in the world—particularly with the availability of the internet, e-books (free through your library) and other high-speed, low-drag materials. That education is the art and practice of building fantastic worlds.

For me, most of the things that stick best with me are the things I learned for myself, through my own motivation, initiative and follow-through. This likely has something to do with increased investment and meaning in the subject matter because of the intrinsic motivation to study it, but the reason why the subjects I seek out to study seem to be better retained don’t really matter. I do believe, though, that we live in an age where, with resolve and resourcefulness, one can learn almost anything without setting foot in a classroom. Snorre, our exchange student last year, learned to play guitar by watching YouTube; by the end of his stay he could play Hendrix, Zeppelin and B.B. King.

Worldbuilding has become a more mainstream (though not really mainstream) hobby in recent decades. This has to do in part with the internet allowing people with similar interests to easily find one another, the increase in popularity in roleplaying games (probably the greatest single motivator of worldbuilders), the move of the fantasy and sci-fi genres into mainstream culture and, as I’m doing here, the relative modern ease of getting your ideas and creations to the world.

For many, as for myself, worldbuilding started as a means to an end—I wanted a setting to write stories in and to run my roleplaying games in (although I’ve found that, since the two mediums have broadly different goals, the same setting isn’t necessarily suitable for both). Once you start, however, the seduction of creation for its own delight may easily take over. There are some who will admit that they build worlds simply because they love the creation of fantastic peoples and places; these are an honest bunch who probably derive the most pleasure from worldbuilding, enjoying the thing for what it is.

But this post isn’t about how to derive pleasure from worldbuilding (although, with all the writing that is done nowadays on the subject, why does no one talk about this?); it’s about the education worldbuilding gives you.

Quite simply, building a world requires some knowledge of everything. You need at least passable understanding of language, culture, religion, history, geography and cartography, psychology, mythology and folklore and the sciences to create a world for which people are willing to suspend disbelief. Start there, and you’ll quickly find the things you’re really interested in. For me, it’s history, literature, legend, religion and historical occult beliefs (things which, conveniently—or perhaps causally—I studied formally); these are the subject about which you will seek to become something of an expert to make your world “stand out.”

Then there are all the beautiful rabbit trails of things that you could probably fudge and have a reasonably believable fantasy world but which add much to the world if they’re well-incorporated: astronomy, anthropology, archeology, warfare and military history, the attributes of fringe social groups, specific interesting human histories, the art of writing itself, the geo-sciences (including advanced geography, weather and climatology and much more), technology and almost other possible realm of human knowledge.

If you catch the bug to build a world of your own, you’ll find yourself asking many questions that spur research: Why does this sort of thing happen? How does this work? What would this kind of society be like? How would this event change the world? Or, as I found myself asking this morning: Where is it that swamps usually form?

The task in and of itself is a daunting one—not simply because of its scope, but also because of the thorough and excellent work that others are doing and displaying on the internet. The real bugbear, of course, is Tolkien, who has caused us to mistakenly believe that a created world is only a good one if we have invented and codified each of the world’s languages, written down detailed histories of all of the peoples (the History of Middle Earth edited by Tolkien’s son is twelve volumes) and that everything must be clearly defined and described in writing for posterity. We have to keep in mind that, realistically, Tolkien was a worldbuilder for worldbuilding’s sake; his stories, though beloved, were derivative of his worldbuilding. He did not build Middle-Earth so that he could publish books.

If, like Tolkien, our worldbuilding is really for our own pleasure, it can be as detailed or shallow as we like, as fanciful or as serious and deeply believable (for fantasy, of course) as suits us. We can write as much or as little of it down as we want to keep and share. All the extra work of cataloguing and consigning to words our creation is optional. We need only go so far if (1) we enjoy doing so or (2) we have a specific use for the created world that would benefit from writing down its details for later reference.

Given that, anyone can be a worldbuilder without an over-investment of time and energy. You can craft your world while driving in the car, standing in line, waiting for something, working out or doing all manner of other thing. If you don’t want to write it down, worldbuilding is simply an advanced game of “What if?” you play in your head.

Most of the greatest advice I’ve ever received in my life I got as an off-hand statement from someone else, probably because that person had so incorporated the idea into his mindset that it seemed too obvious to need special attention called to it. While studying medieval and Renaissance literature at UT Austin, Professor Frank Wigham advise his class to “be interested in everything.” I’ve tried to follow this advice since and have found that the pursuit of some knowledge of as many subjects as I can manage has thoroughly enriched my mental life—for the knowledge of itself, for the new ways in how I see the interrelation of things and ideas and for the strange ways an understanding of one subject helps one to think about other subjects.

This is the reason I recommend the hobby of worldbuilding to everyone; the practice gives you some tangible reward for taking in interest in all aspects of existence. If you haven’t done it before, give it a try. This time next week you might be spending hours following rabbit trails through Wikipedia as you research little-known cultures and peoples (look up the women-warriors of Dahomey, for instance), visiting the library (in person or electronically) to find deeper and more nuanced sources than what you get from the internet, imagining places for you to play in imaginatively for years to come. You will become interested in everything, and better for it.


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