I’ll be honest, fantasy and sci-fi are the hardest genres for me to get into. Not because I don’t like cool spaceships with lasers or fire breathing dragons, but because a lot of stories in these genres don’t have…well, actual stories beyond their world. If you write in these genres, good world building is a must. You need to make the audience believe at least a little bit that the world you’ve created is real. But what is good world building? Is it pages upon pages of town descriptions, sketches of races, and cool looking maps of your world’s geography? I say no. World building is such a misused term, and so many people, me included, don’t know a thing we’re talking about when we say we want deep, complex world building. So then what is a good example of building a world without an encyclopedia to navigate it. Well, it of course goes back to one of the greatest shows of all time, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Everything you need to know about the world of Avatar is told to you in its minute long intro. In it, you learn:
- There are four elements: water, earth, fire, and air
- There are four nations of these elements who once lived in harmony
- The Fire Nation is evil and changed everything when they attacked
- The Avatar was supposed to bring balance to the world, but mysteriously vanished
- A war has been happening for a hundred years
- The new Avatar is an airbender named Aang
- Aang needs to learn all four elements in order to save the world
That’s like 20 pages of exposition all condensed into one minute of animation and voice over. And the best part? It plays at the beginning of every episode, so you don’t forget what the stakes are or why the story even matters. You are told before the first episode starts the fundamentals of the world, and every little piece of world building beyond that is just extra flavor. In other words: The focus is the story, not the world.
I hold a very strong opinion that world building alone is not and should not be a replacement for a story. The best thing good world building can do is make a story more interesting and unique, but it can never fix a bad one at its core. This is where I think I differ from so many fantasy and sci fi fans who will go crazy for anything that vaguely adds to the lore or canon of their favorite world. There’s a Game of Thrones book that literally the history of a single family, and there’s a Harry Potter book that’s literally just a history and guide to quidditch. I mean, I’m sure some people really want that, but I would never read something that’s just 100% lore.
People obsess over the lore of their favorite franchises, and I just plain don’t get it. I could care less on the detailed history of the bricks used to build the walls of a certain city or the biography of the meals most commonly eaten by foot soldiers of the empire’s third battalion in the pre civil-war era (this is why I never read any of the in-game books in skyrim). Lore bores me to all hell, and unless there’s a plot with stakes and characters to get attached to over time with a fulfilling climax and resolution, I’m not gonna care for it. Give me a story please.
Another great example of world building is, dare I say it, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (I’m not a brony I swear). I’m not talking about the later seasons, which got bogged down by too much lore that strayed away too far from the show’s original premise. I’m talking about the first two episodes, where just like in Avatar, the entire purpose of the show is perfectly laid out for you within the first few minutes.
So in the world of Friendship is Magic, there is Equestria. And beyond that, we are told:
- There are two sisters who rule Equestria, Celestia and Luna
- Celestia controlled the sun, Luna controlled the moon
- Luna turned evil and became Nightmare Moon, which made Celestia banish her to, well, the moon
- Equestria is currently in a state of harmony, unlike in Avatar.
Do you want to know the best part of this mini info dump? It doesn’t matter to the show at all. The real start of the story is when Twilight Sparkle (the purple one) moves to Ponyville and starts making friends with the other ponies. It’s about the characters first and foremost, not an ancient prophecy that will determine the fate of the universe.
My point with this is that deep world building doesn’t require you to write a mountain of expository information. Explain the bare minimum amount so the audience can follow along and add bits and pieces that are relevant and important to the story from there. What was so amazing about Avatar is that all 61 episodes did something to advance its story and characters. Even the ones that seem like filler such as “Tales Of Ba Sing Se” or “Ember Island Players” have so many subtle details that make you learn more about the world in unconventional ways, its mind blowing that this was a children’s show on Nickelodeon at one point in time.
I really should open up my tastes more and consume more fantasy or sci fi, but none of them seem to line up with what I really want in a good story, which are strong characters with personal stakes that aren’t on a grand scale. I’d love to hear some more thoughts on this, so tell me what you think in the comments. Is world building as overrated as I make it out to be? Or am I just a rambling mess? Probably both, but share your thoughts anyway.