Last week I made the case that telling us a character is “sad” (or angry or scared or happy, etc.) is less interesting to read than showing a character being sad (etc.), and how even then, because that description is coming from a single POV character, that conclusion, “sad” might be incorrect, incomplete, or, yeah, even spot-on.

This isn’t the only place in which good storytelling depends on some degree of uncertainty. The world your characters inhabit, like the emotional responses of the characters around them, has to be described from a POV character’s experience. So if the POV character believes the empire to be evil, that character can think of it as “the evil empire,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Consider all the ways in which other Americans (or your fellow citizens of any other country) wildly misinterpret (according to you, the POV character in your own story) what America is or should be or used to be.

If you allow yourself into your writing, so you, the author, are establishing that the empire is evil, okay, then I guess it’s evil. Check that off your list of worldbuilding elements you feel you needed to cover. But hell, I’m just going to say it: that’s boring.

I don’t read fiction to check things off the list of clichés, the list of plot points, the list of facts, or any other lists. In fact, I don’t really care who the author of what I’m reading right now is. Of course I have some favorite authors, but it’s not because of their presence in their own work, but because they do what Tim Waggoner describes in “All the things I wish I’d known as a beginner horror writer”:

Writers don’t tell readers stories. We give them tools so that they can tell a story to themselves. Far too many beginners write bare-bones outlines that are more like scripts. These stories don’t engage the imagination. They’re just words on a page with no life to them. They communicate the simple “this happens, then this happens” of a basic narrative, but don’t give readers enough detail to create a fully fleshed-out fictional reality in their minds.

Great fantasy worlds come alive because characters we find interesting live in those worlds, and live there in an immediate, emotionally charged, and individual way. And that means your world has to be as human and as flawed and as open to interpretation as the real world we all struggle to make sense of. If you’ve created a world of absolute good and absolute evil, or a political force that operates in perfect harmony with the people or in lockstep with the evil dictates of the evil emperor, then you’ve dropped characters into a place that will, however detailed you make it, feel unreal.

In “If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds,” author Anne Leckie wrote:

There’s a particular style of world-building that’s all about filling in all the details, making sure everything fits logically. In real life, people are chaotic and self-contradictory. While I do believe that, in theory, everything is ultimately susceptible to logic, human cultures and activities are far less simple and obvious than some people seem to assume.

When someone thinks they entirely understand the logic of human behaviour, the world-building is very flat, and the shadows that might have given it depth are filled in with the very schematic, simplistic assumptions the world builder assumes are universal truths.

Just as there’s a deeper “why” behind what villains do, that “why” extends to their effect on the world—the institutions and cultures they create, and the institutions and cultures they come from, that helped form their worldview.

To me, that’s the heart of worldbuilding: a context for the worldview of each of our characters.

—Philip Athans

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Where Story Meets World™

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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