Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How to build a fantasy world, from Star Wars to Lord Of The Rings

Illustration for article titled How to build a fantasy world, from iStar Wars /itoi Lord Of The Rings/i
Photo: Sunset Boulevard (Getty Images)

It’s a ton of work to write a sci-fi or fantasy novel. If you’re trying to create a fictional universe where civilizations span galaxies or different, mythical species interact, you have to create a universe. In a wonderful new essay on Literary Hub, writer A.D. Jameson opines that it’s more or less expected from modern readers that the fictional worlds of any given story make as much sense as the story itself. Thanks a lot, George R. R. Martin.

“In order to appeal to geeks,” Jameson writes, “fantasy artists today are obliged to create not just movies, novels, or comics, but entire fictional cultures, languages, species, landscapes, histories, mythologies—sprawling alternative earths, strange other places that can be described so confidently and so thoroughly that their flora and fauna and machinery seem as solid and convincing as our own.”

That might sound appealing to some, but Jameson advises that it’s best to look back to those who helped pave the way for this kind of storytelling before creating your own race of hairy, trilling ape-things. As such, the essay breaks down the ways in which artists like J. R. R. Tolkien, George Lucas, and the battalion of minds behind Star Trek constructed not just rules for their world, but detailed histories and seemingly inconsequential minutiae.


What Tolkien pioneered and popularized, Jameson writes, was the concept of adopting our own recognizable cultures and reshaping them into something unique, yet still identifiable. “[Tolkien] made his fantastical cultures more like human cultures, the same way that Lucas made spaceships more like cars.”

He continues:

Through world-building, geeks redefine the supernatural as the product of alternative natural laws that are themselves subject to discovery and documentation via the tools of science and reason. Which is to say, in world-building, there isn’t any supernatural, not really—just a different order of the natural. Dwarves and elves, planets where time runs backward, self-aware computers that go rogue and murder astronauts—all these things and more can be posited via world-building, an elaborate game of “what if?” that gives those fantasies and others their time in the sun, where they’re treated as something real, beings and objects as mundane as umbrellas and batteries, as normal as earthworms and pots of coffee.

It’s a commitment to these similar ideas that also make Martin’s Westeros so compelling, as well as other modern fantasy series like Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle.

And, if you need an example of how exactly not to build out a world, Jameson devotes plenty of ink to the trainwreck that was the Star Wars Holiday Special. There’s a reason we never got a Wookiee movie.


Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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