There are lots of different ways to approach “worldbuilding” – the creation of a larger creative construct or immersive universe in which stories and/or experience live within that elicits the notion of there being “more” than what is readily apparent or immediately accessible to the audience. Some might approach it from the inside out; delving into the myriad of elements, characters, history, and spatial layout of the realm and allowing that compilation of ingredients to determine the kind of world they co-create. Others could approach it from the inverse, the outside inward where you decide the kind of world you want to create and then populate it with all the necessary component parts that would live within that construct before focusing on a particular story thread or experiential dynamic to explore.
One of my fondest childhood memories of “worldbuilding” was playing with Lego. I always started by first making a core/central feature of the realm I was creating in great detail. Mind you, these were back in the days when Lego kits were just a ramshackle bag of miscellaneous blocks. No custom pieces to replicate the communications dish of the Millennium Falcon. Just a bunch of primary colored blocks that, if you were lucky, might have the odd set of wheels or window frame in it. None of these fancy lifelike replication kits Lego sells today where the only art is in how well you can follow a series of complex instructions. Back then, this was imaginative worldbuilding at its best! The first step for me was in creating something to build more around later – a firehouse, a spaceship (not THE “Spacehip!!!”), or even a locomotive car – which would become the centerpiece of that day’s fantasy realm. So, once the locomotive car was finished – just the car, nothing to pull or transport, it was a long limousine-type automobile with a giant steam engine upfront. Then the build out started; neighborhoods to visit, places to go, things to pick up, adventures to have, etc. Once I was done building (usually meaning the playroom rug was full with no more space left) then I’d come up with the rules for the day. Triple gravity, underwater breathing, hyperthermal swings, prehistoric combat, Romans vs Cowboys, whatever. Around this period of my childhood I was a huge C. S. Lewis reader, so there was often a gateway or threshold between worlds of some kind (wardrobe, if you will) that enabled me to jump back and forth between realms/realities with ease. I wouldn’t discover Tolkien until much later. The portal was always the key to being able to return home, escape danger, or explore somewhere new. It never dawned on me at that time that I could do it without a physical portal just like I’d envisioned a world with 3X gravity, but I digress.
My worldbuilding back then was completely malleable. It peaked and waned alongside my interest at that time. But I was entertaining an audience of one, maybe two, like when we played with green army soldiers. This time, the worldbuilding was completely different. We would lay out the terrain in the backyard (usually in the sand pile behind the garden shed), then position our competing forces, determine preliminary rules of engagement, and only then would we commence with the battle. Not so much worldbuilding as it was worlddemolishing much of what we spent a great deal of time creating together. If you ever saw Fridays on ABC and remembered a young Michael Richards as “Dick” playing with his army guys, that was us – including the lighter fluid and agonizingly accurate injured soldier(s) audio live action role play. More than once a concerned parent or neighbor would poke their head around the back of the shed to make sure everything was alright and to see if they needed to call 9-1-1 based on the excruciating pain they had just heard someone suffer. Again, I digress.
As I got older, my notion of worldbuilding matured. No longer physical creations, they were now mental constructs that pretty much existed solely in my own head. I found my dad’s old college typewriter, and using the cardboard inserts from his dry cleaned shirts, I would meticulously create my own secret agent ID cards using extra passport photos. I actually got quite good at it. The most laborious part was deciding what my signature would be. Not that these replication skills ever became useful again in my later high school years 😉, but just having that secret agent card in my pocket enabled me to walk around the neighborhood in an entirely different manner. It did not matter what we were playing – kick the can, bike tag, hide and seek – I was enjoying myself on a completely different level then everyone else. See, I was a secret agent … undercover … in plain sight … with identification … and none of my friends ever knew it. Now, that may also have been due to my not wishing to bear the brunt of some brutal ribbing should I have ever displayed my handmade identification card to them. Once more, I digress.
These days, I’ve found that contrary to my oblivious benevolence as a youthful worldbuilder and playful reality maker, successful worldbuilding requires consistency and attention to detail. The days of me being able to change the rules on a whim and move on with omniscient grace are long gone. Worldbuilding for arts and entertainment is often constructed upon a foundational premise supported by an affirming set of parameters or precepts; the final frontier … the happiest place on earth … what if robots rose up against us … the founding fathers were Knights Templar. Whatever it might be, once determined, it must then be consistently adhered to and respected. Deviations create chaos and confusion on the part of the reader, audience, or fan. It’s like playing with the laws of physics: Feel free to posit what would best propagate that possibility, but don’t mess with it once launched. That’s the powerful lure that keeps audiences returning back for more: the ability to revisit a grand serialized construct of stories again and again. Familiarity breeds habit. Once the realm is successfully established, the possibilities to explore within it are nearly endless. How else could the Star Trek story-verse blow up the planet Vulcan and not bat an eye?
There’s something innately comforting when we can escape from our everyday reality into an alternate, fictional realm – even for just a little bit. It’s a palpable admission that we wish/want to be somewhere else … maybe even be someoneelse. Accessing another realm and delving into the creative warmth that it provides nurtures our own secret ambitions and fanciful imaginations. Most of us may not be wired to be the hero in real life, but how many of us would happily pull the sword out of the stone or pick up that lightsaber inside an alternate storied universe? Worldbuilding give us permission to slip outside the confines of reality and embrace alternate existential constructs. It’s more than just the hook of a good story (albeit a critical element for any serious worldbuilding), it’s a visceral way to satiate the desire to be somewhere else. I know I leapt at the chance way more than usual during the Great Dumpster Fire of 2020’s litany of panics and pandemics (viral, social, moral, et al). From binging on fictional fan favorites to immersing myself in new habits and hobbies, many times I just wanted “out.” Take the first exit off the reality highway and hop onto another vector. That’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the worldbuilding we’ve been doing the past year or so out in the Caribbean that ponders what if the Vikings made it a lot farther south than Newfoundland. Lots of juicy traction and potential there, and plenty to keep us with our toes fully dipped in a new realm of possibility. More to come, but nice to know I no longer need to have that ID card in my pocket to do it.