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The first of two blogs looking at the role of world building in genre fiction. Next week, Bryan Wigmore, writer of awesome fantasy (really, really awesome fantasy) turns up with his take on the same. For this week, I’m going to talk about why, for me, the world isn’t what defines a book.

Now, before you all come over all hissy and astonished at my audacity, I’ll just say that I like a good world as much as the next person. Genre is all about new worlds. It’s safe to say if it didn’t appeal to me – a lot, as it happens – I’d go off and read (and write) real-world books.

I’ve read lots of world-based sci-fi and fantasy. I weaned my sff teeth on Heinlein, and Narnia via the Faraway Tree. As a teen, I moved onto the great worlds of Dune and Tolkien – with Dune stealing the show (I always was a sucker for space ships.) I drank in Star Wars and Blake’s Seven, hid behind the sofa at Doctor Who and graduated through many of the big sff worlds – ASOFIA, Rothfuss, Sparhawk, Vorkosigan… and many, many others.

Despite all these stories and their intricacies, the world isn’t the centre for me. I (mostly) don’t worry about the hidden mysteries. Sure, I’m sort of half-interested in who Fire and Ice are, but I don’t obsess about it. I do want to know what happens next to Jon Snow, though – that’s what will keep me reading. And Kvothe’s world with all its hidden riddles? Sure, I want to know the answers, but it won’t keep me up at night. How Kvothe came to be Kote, though, and who Bast is, and what happens with that annoying bint Denna, though… Yep, I want to know all that. I’ll buy book 3 to find out. Later, when it’s all revealed I might go back and work out how the mysteries fitted together, and wonder about what I missed (but it’s unlikely).

In fact, when Rothfuss brought out The Slow Regard of Silent Things, this year, I was more entranced by it than all the The Kingkiller Chronicles to date. The soft tale of Auri kept me turning every page. Knowing more about her, how she thinks, how fragile she is, added more to the enjoyment of the books than any amount of world building and secrets could do.

See, I like the world to support stories. I’m not after Easter eggs – formally known as cameos and hidden clues. I’m not turned on by mystery. For me, the world is the environment the characters operate in, and add richness to their stories. It’s not a place I muse on for a long time.

One of the (sometimes) criticisms of my writing is that I don’t world build enough. I humbly disagree. I have a massive world, with politics and cultures and planets galore. I could – and intend to – write lots of stories in my epic world.

But my stories are about the characters. We only see what they know of the world. Frankly, Earth’s pretty big, but I don’t write stories that try to work out the question to 42. I write about people in their part of the world, moving in their sphere, with their concerns.

So it is with me and sff worlds. I want them big, I want them real, I want them consistent and rich, but only because by being so do the characters become real.

Take Bujold’s Vorkosigan books as an example. A big space opera world – but seen through Miles and his parents and friends, centred on one planet and culture. Yes, we see other parts of the world – but only when Miles et al does. We aren’t given long-winded descriptions for the sake of it. We aren’t strung out on the what-lies-beneath that distracts and becomes something else in the story. Instead, we’re given the context to understand the characters. We’re given their motivation and conflicts. For me, it’s that which adds the richness to the world, not any amount of layering and cleverness.

Which is why, for me, the world is a setting for the story of the people in it. It’s the backdrop. I like it intricate, sure, and I like it original. But, mostly, I like it believable enough for me to see how my characters work in it and I don’t, especially, want to be distracted by delving into mysteries that slow me down.

Jo Zebedee is the author of Abendau’s Heir, book one of the Inheritance Trilogy (Tickety Boo Press, 2015), and Inish Carraig, about an alien invasion of Belfast, both available on Amazon. More about her can be found on, or she can be followed on Twitter under @joz1812.


I also prize character over worldbuilding, but I have noticed that SFF books that make it really big all have extensive worlds, more than I create. Hunger Games, LOTR, Dune, Amber, Narnia, Pratchett, Harry Potter--it seems like you name it and the author went to a great deal of trouble crafting a three-dimensional world.

I'm not done writing my historical fairy tale retellings, but it's something I've put the back of my mind to work on. For me, I spend more time thinking about the story ahead of time than actually writing it. And my worldbuilding takes the form of historical research, to try to give a feel for the time and place.

But I don't think extensive worldbuilding in necessary for a good tale. Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, and Connie Willis are/were all superb writers who wrote great stories with much less worldbuilding, at least compared to the authors I listed in the first graf.

*shrugs* With both writing and reading, it really takes all kinds. And that's likely a good thing. :)
Joanne Zebedee said…
I think it is good we're all different. And there are some huge hits without massive world building - Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane, Ender's Game, Aaronovitch's Peter Grant books. I think one type of fantasy lends itself to huge worldbuilding (I'd argue Narnia, for instance, isn't a huge world) and the rest varies quite a lot?