What type of world creator are you?
Read on to find out. But first: the triumphant return from my unexpected hiatus
Hello, worldbuilders! And welcome back to me from my long and unexpected hiatus.
A few things happened to me between my last blog entry and now. First, the good news: I got top surgery! I’ve been hoping and planning for my top surgery for a number of years now, and six weeks later I’m feeling basically back to normal.
Now, the more pensive news: getting top surgery, and some other stuff that happened in the Fall, prompted me to do some serious thinking about what I want out of my professional life and out of the PhD I am currently working on. Those thoughts naturally extended to what I’m doing here on this Substack, so I decided to take some time off from writing it while I thought through those questions.
But I’m back now! And I’m hoping that this will be the first of a more regular series of shorter posts that will give you worldbuilding tips and document some of my processes. I’ve got some exciting projects coming up, which I’ll be sure to tell you about.
What does it mean to be the creator of a world?
Even though I wasn’t blogging here, though, I was still blogging - just elsewhere on the Internet! In September I wrote an article for the Story Engine blog titled What Does it Mean to be the Creator of a World? in which I talk about the responsibility of worldbuilding and the problem with imagining yourself as omnipotent. If you haven’t already, please go check it out!
In the piece, I discuss two different kinds of world creators. But writing and rereading it got me thinking: are there only two types of creator-world relationships? Or can we imagine even more ways to relate to the worlds we build? So — starting with the two types of creators I discussed in the article, and jumping off from there — here are a few different types of creators. What kind are you? And what kind do you want to be?
Positives: Comprehensive, detailed
Negatives: Liable to creator bias, unreasonable amount of work
Examples: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings
The God is omnipotent and omnipresent in their world. They believe they can — and sometimes, do — know everything about it. They approach their worldbuilding with an eye towards comprehensiveness, and even after they release it, they see themselves as the ultimate authority, happily answering questions and clarifying details beyond the text. They are often fiercely defensive of their ideas and generally do not approve of suggestions from others.
To most of us, this is the most familiar type of world-creator; if you follow pop culture at all, you know at least one person who sees their worldbuilding practice in this way. (I’m looking at you, JK.) I made this quite plain in my article for Story Engine, but I have very little patience for this kind of creator. I appreciate their comprehensive approach, but when you have such a high opinion of your own ideas, you fail to notice your own blind spots. As such, aspects of their worlds often feel simplistic or flat, especially on the margins. This becomes even worse with time constraints — if the creator runs out of time or energy, their world can feel uneven in terms of detail, with some subject areas filled in with intricate detail and others left as basic sketches.
Positives: Unique, nuanced
Negatives: Hard to scale, hard to mould into a narrative
Examples: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor
While the God sees themself as the ultimate authority of their world, the Traveller admits that this kind of authority is impossible — after all, there is no way that one person could ever understand a whole world. So instead of trying for comprehensiveness, they build the world by moving through it: they engage with what interests them, leave questions unanswered, and allow for complexity and contradiction. Travellers welcome contributions, suggestions and alternative interpretations. They find joy in their world’s smaller details, even when those details are incongruent with other elements; after all, our own world is full of contradictions, too!
Worlds built by Travellers often feel eclectic, cosmopolitan and nuanced. They may be surprisingly comprehensive. However, this irreverent approach can also lead to chaos and mess — at their worst, Travellers use complexity as an excuse for inconsistency, which for audiences can get frustrating fast.
Positives: Thematically resonant, approachable
Negatives: Formulaic, liable to bias
Examples: A Song of Ice and Fire, Hades
The critic puts their themes, social commentary, and chosen genre above all else in their worldbuilding process. When faced with a difficult worldbuilding question, the Critic turns to the story they want to tell, the previous works in their genre, or the tropes they want to work with for the answer. Critics tend to ignore details they see as irrelevant to their story’s structure, and are more likely than other types to do their worldbuilding on the fly, for example while they write their story or plot out their game.
This classic method for worldbuilding may be familiar to you if you study creative writing, where narrative structure and plot are central to the creative process. Indeed, worlds created by Critics have the potential to resonate deeply with audiences, especially those who are familiar with the tropes and texts the Critic is most interested in. But in their efforts to adhere to their themes, Critics risk missing out on the opportunity to be surprised by their worlds — and if they’re not careful, their worlds may end up formulaic and by-the-books as a result.
Positives: Thematically resonant, evocative
Negatives: Shallow, liable to bias
Examples: Final Fantasy, Sable
For the Aesthete, the best part of building a world is the inspo: there is nothing better than filling up a Pinterest board with evocative images, designing a colour scheme, or doodling up some concept art. Like the Traveller, the Aesthete creates their world through exploration — but they take a particular interest in the look, feel and atmosphere of that world before they dive into the details (which they see as ultimately in service to the world’s aesthetic, anyways). The Aesthete’s worlds are among the most evocative — you can immediately imagine what they would look, feel and even smell like to live in.
But this approach has its own problems. Worlds made by Aesthetes can sometimes feel shallow, particularly if the Aesthete does not put in effort to make the world details interesting independent of how they look. At worst, these worlds are all style and no substance — they have a real, palpable atmosphere, but when you wonder where things came from or why they look this way, you find no answers.
Positives: unique, surprising
Negatives: random, “patchwork” style may be difficult to use
Examples: Kill Six Billion Demons, Meow Wolf
When the Oracle begins to build their world, they turn not to Pinterest or a Google doc, nor to themes or tropes — but to a deck of cards, a set of dice, or a coin. The Oracle uses randomness (or divination) to structure their worldbuilding process. They may roll dice to decide the shape of a city, or use cards to determine the answer to a complex question. They may make use of a worldbuilding game, an app or tool, or even their own proprietary system for generating world elements. They may even invite open collaboration, if only to add more variables! We may all use randomness occasionally, like when we simply cannot choose between two options — but for the Oracle, chance is at the core of their process, and significantly shapes what their world becomes. I call them the Oracle (and not the Gambler, or something) because like a Tarot card reader, they use their own creativity and imagination in conversation with a randomized system to create something new and unique.
The Oracle’s worlds are perhaps the most eclectic of the creator types. These worlds may end up even less coherent than the Traveller’s, but they can surprise you and lead you in directions you would never have chosen or expected. On the downside, this creator type is perhaps the most difficult to use for a public-facing project — they tend to create worlds with strange, patchwork elements, and without a lot of work to make them fit together, they may simply be too strange for an audience.
What kind of creator are you? What relationship do you have with your world? What kind of relationship do you want to have? Leave a comment below and I’ll see you next time!