Magrathean Diary #1: Worldbuilding 101

Fans of Douglas Adams’s cosmic comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will remember the planet Magrathea. That’s the world where whole planets were once custom-made to order … back when there were still people around the galaxy who could afford such indulgences.

There being no Magrathea in this universe where we can blow several trillion Altarian dollars (at least, not as far as I know), we have to go about creating new worlds the old-fashioned way. We dream them up.

Most everyone engaged in one kind of creative endeavor or another – especially fiction, gaming, comics or anything where there’s some semblance of a story – has heard the term worldbuilding. We know what it means—at least in an offhand, dismissive way. What we don’t always know is what it’ll amount to, to take on the task of creating a whole world with all its oh so many moving parts.

The most obvious question comes first: what is worldbuilding?

Most people answer this question intuitively. They just know what worldbuilding is, even if they would be hard-pressed to draft a suitable dictionary definition of it. But press them hard enough, and something like this comes out: worldbuilding is about making the world of your story, whatever the venue for your story. It’s about creating background, setting, environment—the arena where everything in your game, novel, ARG or comic takes place. But it’s not a static backdrop, like a piece of scenery on a stage: it’s a living thing, and it is in its own way just as much a character as the ones you write about. A supporting character, but a character nonetheless.

The process of worldbuilding is also easy to trivialize, if only because so many other people seem to have done it. Tolkien’s Midddle-earth, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, the Federation of Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Asimov’s Foundation, Herbert’s Dune … most every science-fiction or fantasy work of any stature comes with a world attached to it. Anime fans will recall the ninja nations of Naruto, the hierarchies of the afterlife in Bleach, the massively detailed spacefaring civilizations of Gundam, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, or even the quasi-French-Revolution-in-space vibe of Glass Fleet (a guilty pleasure of mine). And yes, let’s include the Hitchhiker’s universe as well, even if its worldbuilding is designed mainly to get laughs.

With so many positive examples floating around, it might almost seem easy to be a worldbuilder. Draft a sprawling timeline, devise some exotic place names, think up some game-changing technologies (teleportation! nanotech! sharks with lasers!)—how hard can it be? And up until now, I felt the same way, in big part because I’d never tackled any projects that demanded I do much worldbuilding. They were all heavily self-contained, with no more information about their setting that one would need to fit on the front of a single piece of paper.

That’s why I’m starting the Magrathean Diary. This series will be a mix of note-taking, musing, wisdom-sharing and instructional dialogue on the process and payoff of worldbuilding—all inspired directly by my attempts to do the same for a project I’ve currently got under wraps. I will share few details about the project itself, at least at first, because I want the emphasis to be on the process rather than the product, and because I don’t want details about my own work to upstage the lessons to be learned (and also, frankly, because I’m always loathe to share too much about something still being worked on).

What I’ve found, even only this far along on the road, is how worldbuilding is not just big and complicated because the worlds being built are big and complicated. Even the simplest worlds (or what look like the simplest words) can turn out to be devastatingly complicated—not because of what you put into them, but because of how the few things you put into them combine in unexpected ways.

In science this is called “emergence”, the way complexity arises from the simplest of systems. Comic artist Larry Marder created his own homage to this phenomenon in his series Beanworld. In it he created a world with a fictional natural ecosystem, where unexpected complications arise from the interactions (some unexpected by Marder himself) between the different elements.

Everything you put into your world changes it. Put in a magic system, and you have something that doesn’t just give the heroes an excuse to do cool things—you have a force that’s as normative as fire, the wheel, or electricity. Put a character who has such things into a world that doesn’t, and you definitely have a normative force.

It’s tempting to think this stuff is the story. It isn’t. A setting, as convoluted and elaborate as it is, is only where a story starts and where a story happens. The more I learn about worldbuilding by attempting to do it myself, the clearer this becomes, which I’ll be documenting throughout the course of this series.

Next time, the other obvious question: why worldbuild? The answers—also not so obvious.

Serdar Yegulalp publishes his own fantasy and SF under the href="http://genjipress.com">Genji Press imprint. By day he tames
technology and writes about that, too. He’s been pestering the fine folks at
Fan To Pro in the comments section for nigh-on a year now.

Serdar Yegulalp Serdar Yegulalp (115 Posts)

By day, Serdar is a journalist for the world of business IT and consumer technology, having written for everything from the original WINDOWS Magazine of the 1990s to Computerworld, Infoworld, TechTarget.com, and the briefly-rejuvenated BYTE. By the other half of the day, Serdar is an independent SF and fantasy author. In 2006 he founded his own publishing imprint, Genji Press, as a way to bring his own vision for speculative fiction to a broad audience, and where he blogs about the issues involved in doing so. He currently lives and works near New York City.


  • Scott D

    Can’t wait to see the series. I’ve run into issues in stories I’ve written because of unexpected issues caused by worldbuilding elements.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/genjipress Serdar (Genji Press)

    That was almost exactly the same impulse that spurred me to start this. I was shoulder- and neck-deep in a story that threatened to spiral out of control unless I came up with a good way to track all the little moving pieces, and so I decided to document the process and talk about what I learned along the way.