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"It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely. In poetry the constraint can be imposed by meter, foot, rhyme, by what has been called the "verse according to the ear."... In fiction, the surrounding world provides the constraint. This has nothing to do with realism... A completely unreal world can be constructed, in which asses fly and princesses are restored to life by a kiss; but that world, purely possible and unrealistic, must exist according to structures defined at the outset (we have to know whether it is a world where a princess can be restored to life only by the kiss of a prince, or also by that of a witch, and whether the princess's kiss transforms only frogs into princes or also, for example, armadillos)."
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a fictional universe. Strictly speaking, anything that happens in that universe "builds" it, so "worldbuilding" is only used to describe the invention of fictional details for some reason other than the convenience of a currently ongoing story, up to and including simply engaging in worldbuilding for its own sake.
A common form of worldbuilding is the creation of history. This could just be a Framing Device for a story told by a historian, but fantasy worlds regularly include historical notes for centuries of warfare and intrigue. Stories can then be written at various points along that timeline, and each of those stories will have a clear relationship to all the others. It makes the writing of serial fiction much easier, especially if the series has multiple authors. If so, the fictional universe is a Shared Universe.
The result may sometimes be called a Constructed World, conworld or sub-creation. The term world-building was popularized at science fiction writer's workshops during the 1970s. It connotes a focus on detail and consistency. Many post-The Lord of the Rings fantasy and post-DuneScience Fiction writers use world-building in an attempt to give their stories weight and meaning that they would not have without a well-defined setting.
Constructed worlds frequently have their own aesthetics, above and beyond the aesthetics of the stories taking place in those worlds. Some artists and hobbyists build fictional worlds with no intention of writing any stories in them—at least, none more detailed than historical documents.
Worldbuilding has two separate meanings:
The creation of a Fantasy World Map, history, geography, ecology, mythology, several different cultures in detail, and usually a set of "ground rules", metaphysical or otherwise. Sometimes, such worlds will have a Creation Myth that's either hinted at or told in more detailed fashion. This kind of worldbuilding can go to the extreme of working out entire constructed languages. Authors typically revise constructed worlds to complete a single work in a series.
The work that goes into deciding the details of a setting. It's very difficult to write a story that contains absolutely no imaginary elements beyond what's described to the reader, so nearly every author worldbuilds a little bit. Some, however, go above and beyond the call of duty in that regard, in which case the sheer amount of detail not immediately relevant to the story at hand often serves as a major distinguishing point of their work.
Cowboy Bebop is an interesting case. While you do see bits and pieces of a what is clearly a very rich and detailed world over the course of the series, they never quite reveal enough detail to show whole picture about anything.
Over the years, this has explicitly become the goal of the creative team for Magic The Gathering. Instead of being used to tell the story, each expansion block is now used to flesh out a different world to a remarkable degree.
The world of C'hou in With Strings Attached, a completely original world (which is a MAJOR rarity in Fan Fiction), fully realized, with two vastly different cultures and mindsets, several sets of slang, and hints of a much more ordered past.
And to a lesser extent, the Hunter's world, which the four visit in the Third Movement.
The authors of Game Theory have done a lot of world building for their version of the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha universe. They've expanded on the history and culture of the setting, the magic, the nature of alternate dimensions, and much, much more.
Hivefled has quite a bit of it for Alternia, most notably the subjugglator religion, Dyelus, which the author has written quite a lot of very detailed meta about on their blog, as well as the trolls' language.
Shinji And Warhammer 40 K goes into extensive detail regarding the effects of Third Impact on the world's people and politics, and then on how the characters' actions have effects that ripple throughout all levels of human society.
The various fans of the animated show Daria have created the Daria Multiverse, with various worlds, O Cs, groups... there's a hell of a lot of fanon world-building for a show about a Deadpan Snarker in high school with an ongoing taste for obscure literature and pizza.
Part of the appeal of Star Wars was that it created a feel of an entire galaxy, with its own histories and customs, while only focusing on a handful of sparsely populated planets. The Star Wars Expanded Universe capitalised on this immensely, with hundreds of worlds, species and societies and histories stretching back tens of thousands of years.
Avatar had an extensive work of World Building concerning the creation of the flora, fauna and culture from Pandora. The Na'vi lexicon was created by a real linguist. There is a whole Universe Bible concerning the alien language (Speak Na'vi), plants and wildlife taxonomy, a scale structure for the alien music, Pandora's physical properties etc. etc.
Brian Froud and Jim Henson did a long work of World Building before making the movie The Dark Crystal, which takes place in "another world" inhabitated by many different kind of creatures, none of them based on humans or any other specific creature from Earth. Henson originally wanted the Skeksis to speak their own fictional language, with the dialogue subtitled in English.
Shannon Hale's novels all are very lovingly crafted. However, this often results in a slow beginning.
William Morris's The Wood Beyond the Worlds, a major influence on Tolkien's own worldbuilding.
M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel created in much the same reason J. R. R. Tolkien created Middle-Earth.
Tolkien's essay On Fairy-Stories suggests that imagining new worlds — and new perspectives on our world — is the highest and (literally) most sacred aim of art, and invented the term "subcreation" for it.
L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz (begun in 1900) is perhaps one of the earliest modern attempts at world building. Maps by Baum depict Oz's four regions and its neighboring kingdoms. The worldbuilding came about because of fans clamoring for more stories and places to explore. (Continuity Snarl ensued)
R. Scott Bakker's Eärwa (though not the entire planet), of the Second Apocalypse series, has four thousand years of human history, three huge religions, several different species, and his very own magic. Also, a completely incomprehensible Eldritch AbominationBig Bad.
David Weber's Honor Harrington started off less built, but after 17 doorstoppers plus 5 short story collections with several of the short stories designed to fill the history and technology roles have built up a fairly consistent world whose technology is plausible and has rather large and detailed conflicts.
Safehold exploits David Weber being a more experienced author, and has very large global conflict with dozens of different political groups involved in a religious conflict.
The Vorkosigan Saga, most notably in its description of Barrayaran history and culture.
Andrey Livadny's The History of the Galaxy is a vast 'verse with over 30 novels, novellas, and short stories (and counting). The order of writing does not always match up with the universe timeline (although, currently, he seems to be primarily adding to the end). Most novels have unique characters, although there are story arcs that include several of the books. There's a reason the series includes the word "history", especially since many novels deal with alien races, most of which predate humanity by millions of years and some have stopped counting at billions. One novel even goes into the origin of life itself, and another off-handedly reveals that "true" origin of Christianity. Several fan-based web MMORPGs have been created based in the 'verse, especially set during the First Galactic War, a 30-year period of constant "technogenic" warfare between two human powers, a period so devastating that its effects are still felt 1000 years later.
Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite has a huge amount of world-building, not just in the planet Geta itself, but in the society of the Lost Colony, which has been there for so many centuries that Earth isn't even a legend any more.
Charlotte Brontë and her sisters and brother were masters of this at a very young age. Taking off in 1826 from a set of toy soldiers, they colonized the west coast of Africa and called it the Glasstown Confederacy. Then Emily and Anne split off and discovered Gondal, a huge continent in the Northern Pacific. It's easy to see the origins of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in these narratives, which went on for their entire lives.
Brian Jacques' Redwall books have a world that not only seems to span quite a lot of territory and varied geography, but also has a history going back many generations, including books set both before and after the original.
Tamora Pierce creates a very vivid realm in her novels about the Tortall Universe.
The Railway Series: The Reverend W. Awdry and his brother gave the Island of Sodor not only a thoroughly detailed map but a complete history going back centuries.
The Deverry series has a good bit of this over its 15 books, and it's quite necessary, as the story is told by moving to different points in the history. The author has stated that the first bit of the world that came to her mind was what ended up being expanded to be the last part of the sixth book.
Take Back the Skies is set in the fictional world of Tellus, notable for the thick, tumultuous storms that surround its islands.
Murderess, the first installment in The Exiles of Greywall’d Saga, has some world-building included, but only moderately; the following books in the series will develop this aspect some more.
Firefly has not only a map of the solar system the show takes place in as a buyable poster, but the Tabletop RPG gives us much worldbuilding.
Worldbooks, a type of sourcebook, are tabletop RPG supplements that exist entirely to give Game Masters detailed settings to run their games in. While it's possible to buy worldbooks based on the real world—essentially, history books targeted at roleplayers—most worldbooks are about fictional worlds, and so the process of writing the book consisted entirely of worldbuilding.
There is even a "World Builder's Guidebook" giving a set of auxiliary rules for building one's own world in accordance with AD&D's mechanics. (A dice roll can result in the world being shaped as a twenty-sided polyhedron.)
There's an offshoot of roleplaying games developing that might be called "world-building games", in which the players collaborate to tell the history of a world that develops in-play.
Warhammer 40,000 has an extremely well crafted setting with a complex history going back tens of thousands of years.
Warhammer doesn't have such an extensive time period to work with, but a higher number of factions and being limited to one planet means a lot more attention to small details.
Traveller deserves special mention as one of the best sci fi verses ever built.
BattleTech features a 31st century with dozens of detailed worlds and cultures, developed over the course of about three decades.
Legend of the Five Rings has been developed over about two decades, with a history stretching back a thousand years and a continuing storyline that has spanned generations.
This is what Microscope is all about! Players collaboratively build a world as they play in it. If a group plays long enough they can end up with a very detailed world—and maybe play more traditional RPG's set there.
Akira Tsuchiya's Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia. To summarize, he created an extensive fictional musical language as a foundation for his world, complete with a physics section on how the language works in the world.
The Dragon Quest games are meant to be broken up into trilogies (1-3, 4-6, and 7-9.) However, there each trilogy bar the first only has a tenuous connection with the games they frame.
The Warcraft series has grown from a fairly standard setting to this, including lore elements dating back ten thousand years or more. It has four worlds (Azeroth, Draenor, and to a lesser extent, Argus and Xoroth) which are explored in depth.
Dwarf Fortress is something of a meta-example, as it does this the first time you play, and can be done as many times as desired. While the set of creatures, plants, and sentient races are well-defined in the game files, the mythology, history between the races, geography, and geology are procedurally generated, according to modifiable parameters. This is a huge part of the game's charm.
And of course, there are some games where you can build a world, or at least greatly influence one. Sim games are an obvious example. And the Fable games, amongst others, allow you to shape the future of the world they're set in.
The Nasuverse often makes side-references to expand its magic system without it having any relevance for the actual story. The most prominent example would be the constant mention of dragons being the most powerful of all magical creatures, though nobody ever fights a dragon onscreen.
Marathon gets special credit for doing extensive world-building in a time when most FPS game stories consisted of "monsters teleport in, you kill them"
Halo does this with its extensive Expanded Universe, building an entire mythology around the series. Starting with Halo 3, each game also had several hidden terminals/data-pads/etc. that dramatically expanded on the backstory, and later entries in the series became more heavily integrated with the expanded universe; several important plot points in Halo 4 were explained primarily in the novels.
The Elder Scrolls has the Aurbis, the totality of existence, which encompasses Aetherius and Oblivion, and the Mundus (which contains Nirn, the world of mortals, and the continent of central focus, Tamriel), and a few other lesser planes of existence.
Touhou owes its gargantuan fanbase to this trope. ZUN includes a surprising amount of information surrounding the characters, events and setting of the games, enough to fill several Universe Compendiums, but it is almost always bare-bones details, prompting the fans to create their own world building in any way they can, filling whatever gaps they see.
The Mansion of E has this going on in the background as the action wanders around the eponymous structure.
Erfworld doesn't just take place a world with its own cultures, and an unfamiliar set of fundamental universal laws. It features a protagonist from outside of that world learning about the world alongside the reader... who then hunts down and exploits loopholes within the world's established construction in ways that rock the world to its foundations and destabilize whole civilizations with long and (internally) storied histories.
Unsounded is built on this, with an entire continent of multiple nations with their own religions, governments, even various taboos, whole industries built on Functional Magic, various political complexities, and intimate views into crime and the slave trade.
The Otherworld Project, formerly Eshraval, is a long-running online collaborative modern worldbuilding project founded in 2004, which also encourages Role Play in the context of the world (though not at the moment since it's rebuilding). It's recently undergone a reset, and is in redevelopment mode. Strong hints of Crapsack World in its current incarnation.
The Land of Ooo from Adventure Time is a mild example. Ooo is meant to be After the End, arising from the remains of human civilization as we understand it, and there are hints towards this in almost every episode, including the opening sequence. Examples include mispronunciations of names like "Mozart" and "Groucho," and there's also a Nursery Rhyme that seems to be about mushroom clouds.
In the early seasons of The Simpsons, Springfield semi-qualified, as its events were contained enough to function as a separate world, even if it was never defined as such. This was abandoned later on.
Thunder Cats 2011 implied a lot about not just Third Earth, but the entire universe, but never got around to revealing much. The animal races that were brought there after the Black Pyramid crashed have been there for about five thousand years, and have had conflicts between themselves before the start of the series. There is also mentioned other inhabited planets, but we only see one during a flashback.
The Art Of Kung Fu Panda goes into some of the history of the world, such as how Master Oogway came to the Valley Of Peace and why most of its residents are pigs, geese, and rabbits. Both this and the animated shorts also show off a few important locations that never appeared in the films as well as revealing the backstories of some of the major characters.
Trollz has a detailed system of magic, several historical events are mentioned, and in one episode the wheres and whys of how girl trolls get their magic is explained. They even have a different calendar system.
It's rather easy to do this yourself, just open up a word processor document and let your imagination take off.
Santharia is a world-building project for the world of Caelereth, which has been going since 1998. Everything from flora and fauna to cosmology is described in loving detail, and pictures added created by Dreamers themselves. The world of Caelereth is developed on the Development board, while on a separate Roleplaying board stories are told set within this world, most of them within the continent of Sarvonia. Recently an interactive game has been developed.