This was originally slotted as another in the #marywrites series, but given how much I love world-building in general, I thought I’d just mic drop discussion it. There’s so many different kinds of world-building–soft vs hard, urban vs high, subtle vs massive exposition–more than I’m even thinking of right now, and while I could break every one of them down, I think I’m going to stick with these three comparisons. And yes, the first set & third are different. Also yes, we’re only going to be talking about fantasy here because you can’t world-build in a contemporary, though, obviously, fantasy extends to things like magical realism & urban settings.
(I really appreciate the fact that Wikipedia makes a note to say that world-building should not be confused with terraforming. Like, what kind of universe are we even living in that we have to differentiate that?)
the process of constructing an imaginary world
sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe
I won’t lie, I’m a huge fan of urban fantasy, and though most of what I read is high fantasy, I love soft world-building. I write urban, and I employ a lot of soft world-building in my own novels, so it makes sense that it’s what I gravitate toward. That’s not to say, either, that soft & urban go hand-in-hand, which we’ll see a little bit below, but soft definitely shows up the most in urban. I love soft world-building, too, because it’s just kind of like dipping your toe in the water, much like urban fantasy is. Oh yes, I’ll take my reality with a side of witches and demons, thanks very much. I don’t want to say it’s less commitment because it’s not, and there are tons of softy built worlds that just suck me right in, but your brain definitely doesn’t have to work as hard.
Heavy world-building, on the other hand, is something you definitely have to pay attention to. The Once and Future Witches was very much a book that existed in the real world, that employed a lot of very believable events, that I could easily see myself sinking into, if I’d lived through that time. Yes, there’s magic, and there’s some wildly incredible things that happen, but all of it was based in things that already mostly existed, and so, the world-building ended up being fairly soft. The spells weren’t about waving wands or exploding things–they used bits of string and teeth, incorporated metal and sometimes words, connected the characters through literally holding hands or working with shadows. All of it was very matter-of-fact, too, and so, while the actual content of the book was heavy, the world-building remained rather later.
Not me talking about Katy Rose Pool’s outstanding series at literally every chance, but There Will Come a Darkness has got some serious heavy world-building in it, and it’s amazing. In comparison to Harrow’s book, there’s not just prophecies and a fantasy world here, but several religions built upon a pantheon of different gods, multiple different regions that all maintain their own cultures and beliefs, and wildly diverse characters. Pool doesn’t take any prisoners, either; rather, she dives in headlong and never stops. Even at the end of the second book, I was still learning new things about the world. None of them were things that I needed earlier, but things that continued to expand the world that I already knew and loved. In comparison, where Harrow lightly threads her world-building into small moments, Pool brings amplifies those moments until you’re learning things about the world in every scene. It’s a lot, and it’s sometimes chaotic in the best way possible, and I JUST LOVE THIS SERIES A LOT OKAY!
Now, I know–it seems like I’ve mostly just talked about urban vs high, and you’re probably going to be rolling your eyes at me when we come to subtle vs massive exposition, but hang in there with me. There aren’t, frankly, a whole ton of urban fantasy books that also employ heavy world-building, but Cassandra Clare is always going to be the one that jumps out at me first. There is so much back into her worlds, and yet, they sit firmly in reality. Based in New York, London, Los Angeles with time periods ranging from the 1800s to today, not to mention with faiths that build upon Western religions that already exist, as well as lore about realms that we’ve seen woven through stories since the beginning of time. Whenever I tell someone about the Shadowhunters universe, it’s usually, “Think of every mythical creature you can, but you’re still not thinking of enough, and then put them in all black, add a church, and give everyone swords.” It’s a lot, and it’s one of my favorite series in the world because of that.
Yes, it’s urban fantasy, and so, it should be something that we could easily see ourselves rearranging into the world we already live in, and while I would just die to discover that Shadowhunters were real (please let them be, oh my gosh, and then let me be one), I can’t actually see their world being our world, and that’s got a lot to do with Clare’s world-building. Despite the fact that this often exists alongside the urban, mundane world, this has got some truly complex world-building. There’s so much lore and magic built up into these stories, and it’s such an interesting thing to do to urban fantasy, and yes, I definitely just realized I was still mostly talking about heavy world-building rather than urban fantasy specifically, moving on.
One of the things that will just pull me straight out of a story is if I go into a high fantasy and there’s not extensive world-building. I hate to say this because I’m sure there’s a book out there to prove me wrong, but soft world-building inside of a high fantasy just does not work for me. I’m really trying to sit here and think of one, but every high fantasy that I love comes hand-in-hand with heavy world-building, and I think that’s an important thing to have. When you’re putting your characters in a world that does not actually exist, you’re basically building something from scratch. If you’re Tolkien, you’re literally starting over from the beginning with cultures, races, languages, maps, and so much more. If you’re Roseanne A. Brown, you’re taking the cultures that already exist around you and amplifying them into a world of your own creation with magic systems and lore that you’re building from the ground up.
And I know that all of this is something you’re probably thinking well duh about, and maybe you’ll disagree with me and say that high fantasy doesn’t have to employ heavy world-building, but I honestly think that if you’re not setting your story on Earth, there’s something to be said about needing to build up a full scope world. And sure, that doesn’t need to contain all the works, and there are definitely some high fantasies that sit a little more in a middle ground compared to things like Tolkien or Brown, but even those are going to work harder than a softly built world.
Alright, subtle vs massive exposition, which is somehow ending up the most distinctive comparison of this discussion. Subtle is, honestly, very different from soft because, while soft world-building feels subtle, it’s doing something different. Subtle world-building can still end up being an intensely heavy fantasy world, but it’s threaded so carefully through the rest of the story that you don’t even really notice it happening. Soft world-building is generally less, not in the sense that the story is less, but that the world is more based in reality, and thus has less in stake in the way of magic & lore. Iron Cast by Destiny Soria is not only an exceptional book, but a really interesting example of subtle world-building. Because Soria has set her world not only during a well-known period of time (Prohibition), she’s also set it in a location that’s fairly well-known when it comes to that period of time (Boston). She doesn’t use any huge landmarks that might make non-Boston readers feel drawn out, but, rather, gives us the grimy while also golden city vibe that we imagine from the 20s. There’s glitter and intrigue, but also murder and skeevy characters. It all feels very familiar, despite the fact that probably no one reading it actually lived during that time. And so, when Soria starts to thread in the magic drifting into her world, it ends up being fairly big and a little bit crazy, but she weaves it in so subtly that we don’t even notice how much the world has changed from what feels familiar until we’re approaching the climax, and there’s so much happening.
Subtle world-building is probably one of my favorites of these comparisons because it’s so sneaky, and it only ever happens in a well-written novel because it’s so hard to accomplish, to trick your reader into accepting your magic in an effortless way. The actual act isn’t even close to effortless, but it looks that way, and that’s where the real magic comes in.
Massive exposition, on the other hand, is the literal opposite of subtle world-building. You can tell how much effort the world-building took, and though I’m a big fan of exposition, many are not, and this doesn’t always come across well. It always manages to take me by surprise, too, like, oh okay I’m reading THIS kind of book. That happened with Circle of Shadows, where I was ready for a high fantasy, but hadn’t realized quite how much time would be devoted to developing that world. And I know that massive exposition gets old for a lot of people, and I understand why, because it’s a type of world-building that steps back from the characters and the plot to really take the time to explain everything that’s going on, but it can be so effective in making sure that your reader is grounded in exactly what you want them to understand. All of the other types of world-building here are going to leave some room for interpretation, but massive exposition takes the reader’s attention and firmly directs it where you want them to go. There’s something to be said for it, even if it can be a bit much sometimes.
At the end of the day, world-building is one of my favorite things, which makes sense, given my favorite genre is fantasy. Obviously, if you’re mostly a contemporary reader, you’re probably not seeing a lot of this, and you may not even care all that much about extensive world-building. But as someone who has devoted much of the last several years to peeling about Tolkien’s incredibly built world, this is where it’s at for me.