Introduction: Exploring the Narrative Cosmos
To me, one of the greatest aspects of our cosmic existence is our imagination, the ability to conjure up theories and stories through our immersion in the world. While much of this process unfolds subconsciously, our awareness can be an important means of improving it. By learning to analyze our visions, as well as the inspirations that caused them, we can come to practice a more deliberate method for imagining alternate realities. In one way or another, this has been the aim of many of my essays, such as the ‘genre manifestoes’ which united thematic strands with historical trends. In this piece however, I mean to give a more comprehensive take on the discipline of worldbuilding. Instead of codifying specific narrative traditions, I will lay out a general method by which speculative settings might be both created and categorized. By seeking out the foundational elements of fictional realms, I have devised a four-stage process that can generate worlds from scratch. Thus, as this essay proceeds in a concentric manner from Space to Movement to Life to Community, we will accumulate all the necessary elements for building our own fictional universe. If this method yet seems vague and uncertain, it will certainly become more clear in the process. So let’s begin.
First Stage: Space
Much like a blank page, worldbuilding starts from a position of nothingness. However, just as a blank page already contains the potential for words to fill its emptiness, we must begin by creating the very potential for a fictional universe to exist. This receptive openness is what I refer to as Space, and it forms the first stage of the concentric worldbuilding process. In thinking about such an abstract notion, our thoughts might easily dwell to the actual outer space which surrounds our little planet, and rightly so. The starry vacuum we call ‘space’ is the basic medium of our cosmic existence, and our relationship to it reveals much of the meaning that its more philosophical version can possess. Bound as we are to an earthly existence, outer space has always been a site of the unknown, one we may imagine to be full of ancient aliens, cryptic monoliths, or little green men. There seems to be no end to its mysteries, forever calling for a boundless exploration that is rivaled by few locales. Enterprise, adventure, discovery: these are the terms that an outer space narrative might bring to mind, and it’s no surprise that an organization like NASA appeals to them so frequently. These themes are a natural result of the expanse that lies before us.
Because it is of such central importance to the potential themes of a narrative, the measure of expansiveness is the first thing we should decide upon in building our fictional spaces. In simple terms, we should ask ourselves: how far does this universe go? Like the indefinite edges of a Tolkienesque fantasy map, some worlds will appear to go on forever. Others will be defined by a very specific location; we can hardly imagine the Batman mythos without its connection to Gotham City. The spatial boundaries of a world can even impact the meta-fictional structure of a franchise: if you want your setting to accommodate a variety of genres, you better create enough narrative space to fit these different styles, or you’ll end up with a whole multiverse of reboots. This is how Star Wars has stuck to one or two canons throughout its four-decade lifespan, whereas a lot of superhero stories get reimagined every other week. So settle on your definitions first, and the rest will naturally follow.
In establishing your narrative boundaries, a secondary question will come to the fore: is this space even logical? Since most speculative universes follow the dimensional conventions of our own reality-or something very much like them otherwise-the answer will tend to be yes. However, more fantastical genres such as cosmic horror and magical realism have a particular taste for the incomprehensible, depicting places where all spatial logic seems to fall away. This trope is usually paired with a hostile intent; some creepy presence means to ensnare us in their irrational labyrinth. Other works may portray such spaces as merely apathetic to our scientific inquiries, instead of actively antagonistic. It may even be supposed that the illogical place is a benevolent one, that it seeks to protect us from rationality itself, the controlling attitude that is implicit in human comprehension. Whatever their particular motivation, these spaces are not to be underestimated as a worldbuilding tool. Just because their function defies any lasting consistencies, that doesn’t mean they can’t be narratively meaningful. So at least consider them before moving your creation onwards.
Second Stage: Movement
At this point, you will have established the basic spatial setup of your prospective world. Whether it’s turned into unbounded order or confined chaos, its dimensional structure is now mostly complete. But unless your world is to be rather static, you must also account for the movement that make take place within it. Defining this element is the next step in our process of worldbuilding.
To incorporate any mode of movement into your world, there are two main components one must realize: the method of travel, and its general speed. Developing the former tends to be an obvious matter, as it often proceeds from the spatial medium one has already established. For example, if the world you’ve created is one great ocean, you can probably expect there to be a lot of boats. Then again, such assumptions can always be subverted. In the 2019 video game Heaven’s Vault, space travel occurs by literally sailing cosmic streams of water and gas. If that isn’t unconventional, I don’t know what is. And yet it’s still perfectly compatible with the initial setting, a dense nebula dotted with habitable planetoids. This shows that coherent worldbuilding need not fall back on the familiar tropes of a given medium. Instead, let your creativity flow from what has been established, while also running through its gaps towards the extraordinary. There will always be many paths left unexplored.
Speaking of creative movement, the next step in developing your world’s dynamics is an estimation of speeds. With the range of travel modes established, you can compare them to the space you’ve created and figure out how long it would take to get from A to B. Within a relatively bounded space, it would be good to know how much time you’d spend going from one end to the other: at what speed must Superman fly to patrol all of Metropolis? On the other hand, the size of a very expansive space is not easily exhausted, so here it’s better to look into the ‘speed of encounter’. This term refers to the average speed at which one travels between important locales, such as a friendly village or uncharted planet. The narrative importance of this element is not to be underestimated. Without it, there’d be no difference between a work like Star Trek, where a singly exploratory mission can last five years, and one such as Star Wars, where the other side of the known galaxy can seemingly be reached within weeks. In a way, this diversity of speeds reflects our own history, where new modes of travel have time and again made our world appear smaller, more connected. Every such revolution brought with it new types of storytelling, and you may wish to emulate any part of this variety in your own endeavors. Slow or fast, there’s no wrong way to go about this, as long as you keep things consistent.
Third Stage: Life
We now come to the next phase of our worldbuilding process, where its dynamic nature becomes ever more prominent. While we know what spaces are occupied and moved within, we are yet unaware of the numerous beings that actually do the moving and the occupying. It is therefore time to ask after the nature of life in our universe, the third part of the concentric method. However, this brings us to a more fundamental question: what even is the meaning and purpose of Life in relation to our imagined universe? What makes the introduction of living beings more interesting than the story of a lifeless world? This is a bit of a philosophical matter, but I hope to offer a potent answer below, one which leads us to some important tools in creating and modifying our imagined settings.
Let us begin by considering our own place in the living universe. From the perspective we are most familiar with, that is to say the human mind and its embodied nature, life appears to us as the most obvious and immediate agent of change. While the relative slowness of the macroscopic cosmos seems eternally stable, and the infinite realm of the microscopic is often too chaotic to be properly appreciated, life is just the right speed for us to notice its changing nature. However, if our consciousness were constituted at a different level, I’m sure we’d be better able to see the liveliness in all things; change really is the only constant. As such, we would do well to ask ourselves at what level of time we mean to have our universe unfold. In other words, how much change will there appear to be?
Once you start incorporating time into your worldbuilding, the amount of change within your narrative should be the first thing to settle upon. Is this a story where entire civilizations will be reshaped, or one where the end of any radical social change is observed and lamented? While these thematic suggestions would already suggest a longer or shorter timeframe respectively, one would do well to remember that the telling of history does not move at a constant pace. In our collective past, there have been decades where very little seemed to happen, as well as weeks where the entire world was turned upside down. Thus, it is the density of change which forms the second variable in establishing your world’s timeframe. Taken together, you will soon have created temporal boundaries which much resemble the spatial boundaries we started off with. But whether your world spans the centuries it takes to terraform an entire world, or a cold and rainy week some fifty-odd years after a failed communist uprising, every history can be of value. What matters is the telling.
There is more to this idea of life as the distribution of change. Beyond its application to history, it can also establish something new about the spatial aspects of our setting. Life does not flourish everywhere and anywhere, something that seems to hold true for our own Earth as well. To some extent, this is of course a subjective matter: whether a teeming jungle or a bustling city is more lively may depend on the observer’s interest in either biome. However, it is certainly the case that outer space contains less life per cubic meter than most places on our planet’s surface, and this lifelessness is one of the ways by which we denote that very boundary between us and the big empty. Taken together, we have here an aspect of concentration, i.e. distribution of change across space. By asking ourselves where the centers of life and activity are in our universe, we are already creating an opportunity for different kinds of storytelling.
To give an example of the principle of concentration, let us turn again to a galaxy far far away. Within the Star Wars setting, there exists an obvious and radical difference in worldbuilding and storytelling between Luke Skywalker’s home of Tatooine and the Imperial Capital of Coruscant. However, this is a distinction which knows several causes: beyond the fact that Tatooine is a desert planet and Coruscant a megalopolis, their location within the galaxy also determines their liveliness. This is alluded to by Luke Skywalker himself in a New Hope: if there is a gleaming center of civilization in the galaxy (and there is), he lives on the planet that’s farthest away from it. This geographical separation between the Inner Core and the Outer Rim has important consequences, not the least of which being the relative strength of Imperial rule. If Luke’s family had lived in a system right next to Coruscant, would he have been as willing and able to resist the rule of the Empire? While Rebel deserters flow from all regions of the galaxy, the greater concentration of authority as one approaches the core has a corresponding effect on the nature and effectiveness of its resistance. Thus, the question of spatial distribution does not just exist in comparing individual locations, but also in determining their relative position. As you begin to work out these dynamics yourself, you will soon have mapped out places, regions, and settings entire, with their interrelations already providing the strands of a social and political potentiality. Realizing these latter aspects will be the role of the next stage, after which the imagined world will be effectively complete. Thus, it is time to finish our work.
Fourth Stage: Community
By now, we have come quite far from the undetermined nothingness of an unbuilt world. Indeed, this stage brings us as close as we can get to such narrative features as conflict and character. At the end of our process, the creation of an actual story will likely be just one step away. One task still remains however. In this fourth and final phase, we will bring the previous pieces of Space, Movement, and Life together into a social reality, establishing the factions and communities which will rule and contest the shaping of this world. Earlier parts may have already show you a glimpse of what the relation between these populations might be. Here, you will determine what it actually is.
As with the previous ones, the Community stage of concentric worldbuilding consists of roughly two parts. The first of these is a question of diplomacy: what are the exact power dynamics which govern this reality? This question can be answered in as small or as grand a manner as you wish, running from the interpersonal squabbles of a royal house to the epic clashes which define entire galaxies. Of course, often you’ll find that these struggles are one and the same, which is why it doesn’t really matter where you begin to work out your setting. The personal is political, and the political is personal; as such, all allegiances will be obvious with time.
Still, it is not enough to define the world in a purely diplomatic sense, to determine which power blocs exist, who is allied to whom, and so on. Just as important is the matter of motivation, the second element of Community. Friendships and tensions do not emerge from nowhere; instead, they are constantly modulated by the collective aspirations in play. When one group changes their goals or ideals, the entire world may be affected. The reverse also holds true: when a surprising event breaks through the political status quo, you can be sure that some sides will consider their motivations anew. It is this interplay of power and desire which will shape your world’s politics throughout its history. Let it be known however that this model does not necessitate the existence of state actors or cutthroat intrigue. All it implies is that groups with differing interests will have to reconcile these differences one way or the other; this can be as subtle, natural, or generally noncoercive as one wants it to be. Societies and ecologies know many variations; don’t feel like you have to stick with familiar patterns.
To illustrate the intricate diversity of sociopolitical worldbuilding, I’d like to point to the Elder Scrolls series of videogames, the main installments of which is set on the continent of Tamriel. Most of this fantastical landmass is ruled by the Cyrodilic Empire, named after its central administrative province of Cyrodiil. However, through an exciting combination of motivation and diplomacy, this Imperial government is challenged in its rulership by the two northern provinces of Morrowind and Skyrim. In the case of Morrowind, the relative strength of its ethnonationalist Dunmer population-as well as the tribunal of living gods who lead this country-allows it a degree of autonomy within the empire, such as its customary right to maintain the existence of ‘beast race’ slavery. In the game which shares Morrowind’s name, this is seen as a rather stable and peaceable agreement, a great contrast with the turmoil which later befalls Skyrim in its own eponymous installment. Indeed, this brings a full-blown civil war to the province of the Nords, one where another ethnonationalist faction called the Stormcloaks are fighting both their larger Imperial oppressors and some local non-Nord populations, proving once again that there are few benevolent powers in Tamriel. While this insurgency initially appears to be a local nuisance, the weakened state of Cyrodiil means that a defeat in Skyrim would likely prove a death blow to the whole Empire, especially if this leads the fascistic Aldmeri Dominion to declare war on them once more. All in all, these two examples show us that the tail can sometimes wag the dog, and that the right mix of opportunity and ambition can eschew the expected power dynamic. In other words, the third-stage principle of concentration does not overdetermine one’s political element, and should therefore not be treated as a be-all end-all. Even the greatest powers can fall, and ensuring they do can be a great writer’s challenge.
Conclusion: A Proof of Concept
Before I leave you with this fourfold method and its many precepts, I want to give some indication of its practical potential. Obviously, the examples we’ve discussed so far were not consciously created through this method of worldbuilding, even if it may describe some of their effective dynamics. So instead, by following the rule of ‘practice what you preach’, I wish to show how the concentric model has implicitly or explicitly influenced my own fictions. This brings me to A Goddess of Anarchy, the weird fantasy serial that is still very much a work-in-progress. In creating this universe and its narratives, I picked my themes pretty early on: emptiness and decay would be prominent, but diversity and liberation were no less important. Naturally, this choice of themes predisposed me towards certain styles within the concentric process. Let us go through these steps now.
Starting from the concept of Space, its dimensional setup would be firmly committed to an indefinite model. The realms of this world would be many, and some would seem to go on forever. To emphasize the theme of decay and irrationality, I would also devote a good amount of these spaces and their interrelations to the illogical ideal. Though the structure of this setting wouldn’t always make sense, it didn’t really have to; such was the folly of an uncaring pantheon.
Following this first step, the notion of Movement would be mostly left to the individual sub-narratives, and so could pretty much be skipped in the greater scheme of things. The gods could be assumed to move from place to place instantaneously, or even be everywhere at once in some manner. That would do for now.
Next was the third stage of Life, where I would have a little more to decide. In terms of the distribution of Change across Time, a universe in its sordid final stages would surely know a small amount of world-shattering events, dominated instead by a slow yet merciless entropy. However, I was also determined to build to the subversion of this dour narrative, to the possibility for hope and renewal found in its forgotten or repressed spaces. Combined with the idea that the gods were finally moving towards some sort of apocalyptic setting, I would set my world in the exciting prelude to a greater revolution. Whether I would be willing to cross that threshold as the narrative built to it, this was something to be left to the future. Turning to the distribution of Change across Space, much of it had already been decided by my earlier choices. Life in a dying cosmos would be spread thin, its ‘civilized’ forms tightly controlled in a few utopian terrariums. However, the chaos of this world would also create some unauthorized oases, entire realms which fell between the cracks of divine jurisdiction and so thrived in its absence. Within, between, and beyond these two types, we would find the main drivers of Change in this universe. In short, there was much for me to talk about.
Finally, there was Community to deal with, a stage that is yet to be worked out fully. Nevertheless, I do believe I have some grasp of the diplomatic basics, as much of it relates to the general relation between a particular faction and the interests of the gods. While some serve their creators willingly, others resent this domination, and might even organize against them openly or covertly. Then there are those who do not care either way, and try to make their own way in the universe without bothering the relevant authorities. Still others don’t even know the gods exist, or weren’t (intentionally) created by them in the first place. In short, while their precise motivations may vary, the existence of a generally dominant divine hierarchy allows most factions to be defined in relation to their ultimate overlords. Of course, as I pointed out before, the subversion of such absolute power is a valid narrative in its own right, and so I do not expect the gods to remain as comfortable in their rulership as my main story proceeds. Whatever happens, it certainly won’t be stagnant.
Having now travelled through the four stages of concentric worldbuilding myself, I’m sure you’ve noticed the resulting setting is still pretty open-ended. Part of this stems from its nature as a work-in-progress, but much of it is actually deliberate: by keeping my world diverse and modular, it can accommodate a wide range of ideas and narratives. As long as they can be tied into its basic themes of decay and liberation-which are surely hard to exhaust-I can keep telling stories in this universe for a long time to come. And if I turn Goddess of Anarchy into an actual role-playing setting, which I very well might, then you can do so as well. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
With this prospect of future writings, I must bring this lesson in worldbuilding to an end. While I certainly wouldn’t profess to be an expert on the subject, I like to think that my experience in creating and analyzing fantastical worlds has given me some insight into their basic makeup. At the very least, I hope my concentric model has inspired you in some manner, and may aid you in your own writing and worldbuilding. Many amazing settings are yet to be created, and by filtering your own blend of themes through this four-staged method of increasing specificity, you may just make one of these yourself. I’m eager to see what you come up with.