Worldbuilding is one of the most exciting parts of writing a story. There’s a reason why games like Minecraft, that allow you to let your creativity go wild, are so popular and so addictive.
You can play God by creating a world out of thin air: decide what species populate it, what are the natural and artificial elements that make it unique, who is in charge, and even what is culturally considered right or wrong.
If you’re writing a story, you might be thinking to poke the curiosity of your audience by creating as many species, rivers, building, governments, traditions and rules as you possibly can. And if you’re a screenwriter you imagine the full theatre going “Wow” as the beautiful image of your “thousand and one years old tree” appears on the screen. But there’s a problem.
There are a lot, and I repeat A LOT, of writers that try to create a breathtaking world. Unfortunately, most of them (even expert writers) end up spending hours and hours crafting a world that no one cares about.
Think about it. How many people have written fantasy books/movies? And how many of those people have became famous for their worldbuilding skills? Not that many, right? But regardless of the number of names have popped into your head, I bet that two of them were: J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling.
How did they do that? What’s their secret?
Here’s the thing, what made their work so successful and beloved is not WHAT they created, but rather HOW they created it.
Rowling didn’t invent wizards, the idea of magic and magicians has existed for centuries; and Tolkien was influenced both by his Catholic religion and various elements of the European culture.
What made their worlds special is not the ensemble of elements that make them, it’s the way those elements are arranged and used that really captures the reader or the viewer’s attention. The same way a bunch of notes doesn’t make a hit song, but the expertise of the musician playing does.
So before you buy an expensive software to design a map or keep track of all the different religions you invented, just remember that this is not a competition on who writes the most or who comes up with the most extravagant idea.
Worldbuilding actually is made of two equally important parts: the creation of the world and the presentation of it.
There are plenty of books, articles, tutorials, digital tools and other things aimed to guide you through the process of creating a world from scratch.
But what I wanted to focus on is the presentation part, because often that’s exactly what makes all those writers fail.
The way in which the world is presented determines its success. Creating a great world but presenting it terribly is the same as hiring a famous professional chef to cook for your restaurant and then have the meals served by a rude clumsy waiter on dirty plastic dishes.
As an example on how to present you world is J.K. Rowling’s movie “Fantastic Beasts and where to find them”.
The world is tied to the story
The story-world is not there for the sole purpose of making the audience go “Wow” when the shot of a landscape appears on the screen or when they start reading the paragraph where you poetically describe a giant, magnificent castle.
It’s not meant to be just beautiful, it should have a deeper meaning and influence the story in small but important ways.
It symbolically represents a character’s struggle
The New York of the movie is magical but it’s also a place where wizards and other creatures are hunted by muggles/no-maj that force wizards into hiding by encouraging fear and distrust of magic among the citizens.
This duality in the community embodies a key trait of Tina’s personality: her will to make a world a better place through her job as an Auror, and her fear of being discovered as a witch.
The city also represents the perfect location for Queenie and Kowalski’s struggle as “starcrossed lovers”.
It also serves the purpose of making Newt feel like a fish out of the water, as he encounters for the first time the american community of wizards.
It brings up the flaw that the character needs to overcome
It’s not a secret that Newt is a socially awkward person. His inability to trust other humans and to feel comfortable around them is constantly challenged during the movie.
The many alleys and streets of New York City become hiding spots for his creatures, and since he doesn’t know the city that well, it’s impossible for him to find all his creatures without help.
Also there are very few scenes involving Newt that take place outdoors. He is constantly forced to stay in people’s company, in a cozy space surrounded by four walls with little or no privacy.
It highlights the deeper message of the movie
The movie is not that subtle in it’s promotion of animal rights. But it’s creative in the way the message is visually portrayed.
The city is a dangerous place for Newt’s creatures, who cannot find a hospitable environment in it. On the other hand, his briefcase displays all the different conditions and habitats that allows the creatures to be healthy and feel at home.
The visual contrast between the modern, artificial and busy New York and the cozy, quiet and natural habitat Newt has created in his briefcase, highlights the message without pushing it too much.
The world has physical boundaries
The world cannot be infinite. While writing a story you must decide where the characters will go and where they won’t. Even stories about long, far reaching journeys have to include some places and exclude others.
In his book “The anatomy of story” John Truby gives a few examples of how to structure an arena (the space where the story takes place). One of these is “the umbrella”
Like the Harry Potter series, Fantastic beasts uses the “umbrella” type of arena: a large space that defines the general boundaries of the story world (New York City), and a handful of locations inside this space where the events take place (Tina’s house, the bank, the MACUSA).
Each location is different from the others and serves a different purpose.
This gives a clear structure to the world,so that the reader, just like in a game, can be able to orientate thanks to the few familiar spots in the arena.
The umbrella is a clear example on how most of the times putting limits to the exploration of the world can actually improve the audience’s experience rather than harm it.
A story where the characters are running around like headless chickens to random places, just so that the writer can showcase all his worldbuilding skills, would probably confuse the reader who can’t keep track of all the different locations displayed.
While a story with just a few clear points of interest is better gives you the time to explore each one of them in depth and leave the rest to the imagination (or to a sequel).
The world is different for each character
Pretty much like in real life, the people in your world are different, therefore they must see their world differently.
Opposing opinions and views naturally generate conflict. Conflict is the beating heart of the drama, and the world where the story takes place needs to do its part to contribute to it.
Fantastic beasts’ New york city is full of contradictions: the no-maj unknowingly living next to wizards, a society focused on keeping magic a secret ends up being “discovered” by the people because of the obscurus (a creature generated by the suppression of magical power).
Such a complex location highlights the differences in each character:
He’s not comfortable in this strange city as much as his creatures are. He’ll need Tina and Kowalski’s help to get all his furry friends back.
She’s aware of the rules that forbid magic around no-maj, but she doesn’t fully accept it because she can’t stand seeing all the suffering that Credence had to go through.
Like her sister, she doesn’t fully support the separation of the magic society from the no- maj. But her wit and her abilities as a legilmens allow her to get away with little infractions.
After meeting Newt, Tina and Queenie, he starts to see the city with different eyes. The discovery of the “hidden” magic world allow him not just to be more couragious inspired by the wonder he has experienced.
It’s hard to make a world that ticks all the boxes, it takes time and effort. But it’s worth it, because if you manage to give the audience a world like the one in Fantastic beasts, you’ll give them an experience so entertaining that they will want to stick around for more.