Why Worldbuilding Matters

A staple in genre fiction is the act of worldbuilding; when a creator crafts a mythology of certain fantastic elements and illustrates how they interact within the setting of the story. It is not just throwing in spaceships or flashy magic and calling it a sci-fi or fantasy story, but rather showing how the inclusion of such things changes the world from what we know to what we don’t know. There are many examples spread across fiction in books, television, movies, etc. However, in my comic readings, I have noticed that this medium lacks the detail of other media. Their worlds are not as detailed as others. Personally, I find this to derail the impact of the medium and hinder the enjoyment of the story.

But why does this all matter? Why should the casual reader care about how well a creator builds his or her world? The reason that worldbuilding is important is that the mythology is deeply seated in the story’s setting. From epic space operas to intricate crime stories, the first thing the reader sees is not the characters but the setting. The setting is what connects the reader to the story and is the gateway to the mythology. Indeed, the characters are what really sell trade paperbacks, but it is not the first thing that the reader encounters. They encounter the world. Thus, if the worldbuilding is not up to par, the reader cannot connect to the setting as well as they would a crime story taking place in a city they recognize. This is because the reader has an image in their minds of what New York looks like, how it operates, etc. The readers don’t have to stretch their imaginations as much as if they were reading Dune or some Heavy Metal comics. When dealing with a fantastic setting, a detailed world is essential to create that sense of realism that would naturally outflow from that crime story set in New York City.

The World of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

The mythology is also key in establishing the limits and rules of the setting. Rules are key in these fantastic settings because most stories use our world as the setting. We understand how bullets work, how the police operate, how our economies, and political systems work. However, the reader does not know how the creator’s new world operates. The reader wants to know how the magic works, how the science works, how the organizations interact with each other. They want to know that the rules established in the setting are iron clad. They want to know that the answer to the problems in the story can be found in the mythology surrounding the story. An example would be The Wheel of Time. It has a immaculately fleshed out world, with immense glossaries at the end of each book. However, that information serves a purpose. Those glossaries help readers understand the different organizations of the world, how the magic operates, how the fantastic elements of the setting work. Thus, when those elements come up in the main narrative, the reader doesn’t feel cheated when it saves the heroes from a near death situation, because the world elements and limitations are clearly defined. In a less fleshed out universe, where the rules of the mythology are kept fluid, the mythology can operate in any way the author wants it to. Narrative flexibility can become an easy way of moving the plot forward, of fixing a plot holes with an all encompassing answer. This ultimately destabilizes the fantastic realism that the reader has tried to build for himself / herself. Worse, it can kill the reader’s trust in that story.

I find that comics suffer from this fluid mythology a lot more than other genres in fiction entertainment. Poorly crafted magic systems, members of powerful organizations that use antique weapons when the universe has established incredible technology, or whether or not the UN adhere to Green Lantern law are chief offenders. The argument to justify narrative fluidity is that, if the mythology is fleshed out, one takes away the fun in creating or incorporating new features into a growing universe. One can grasp why creators would say that defining a universe can kill the fun of making it up as the story goes along.  But, if you are working with an established universe, the properties of that universe should be defined. The authors of the Forgotten Realms, Warhammer, and Warhammer 40k novels don’t seem to have a hard time enjoying the crafting of stories in these richly detailed universes. These are properties that may not be as old as Marvel or DC, but they demonstrate how the publishing arms of each company operates. Each put out fiction titles concerning a predefined, expansive universe, but they do their best to not disrupt the status quo of the setting. The only real difference is that the novel companies are dealing with a more fleshed out mythology than the comic companies.

But why should that be? There is no inherent gain in keeping the universes so fluid. The stories being released offer no inherent, systemic realism. That is not to say that the entire story suffers. It could just be one fight scene, one narrow escape. But if the creative team keeps fabricating plots in this way, why should I believe in their story? Why would I want to continue reading it? One minute, the technology can only do X, then, suddenly, Y. Why does the Hand not integrate black market Stark tech into their assassins’ uniforms? Are these trivial questions? These mythological elements coexist in these universes, which means that they ought to interact with one another. Each connection shows how real the setting can be, how credible the story, and they reinforce the trust in the rules of the universe. Without that level of worldbuilding to give me that imaginary realism, how can I believe in this story and trust in its quality?

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Colby Pryor has been fascinated by comics since he saw his first comic shop on Big Bad Beetleborgs and really got into them with Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 2. He is a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's in English. He is known for his outlandish taste in fiction and his completely off-the-wall opinions. He aspires to be a comic book writer.

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Also by Colby Pryor:

Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice



  1. I definitely agree about the importance of world-building. Back when I bothered to maintain a personal blog I wrote about it’s importance in SF movies, comparing the nonsense of Star Trek Into Darkness with Elysium. I think you’re right that it’s a grossly under-employed part of the writing process, and it’s importance is rather underestimated. The lack of consistent world building in some comics series has always bugged me, I’m glad to know I’m not alone!

  2. Mainstream superhero comics have put themselves in a position where keeping a well-defined set of rules is pretty much impossible. The obsession to have dozens of titles (sometimes with very different tones and premises) coexist within a single universe, as well as trying to cram decades of stories into a single continuity means that we are dealing with narrative tapestries that are way too unwieldly to be consistent. If you add corporate interest in keeping the major characters’ status quos relatively unchanged and in perpetual publication (while keeping the impression that the story is actually moving forward), logic-defying plot contrivances and deus-ex-machina resolutions start to become the norm.

    That doesn’t mean there are not narrative benefits of dealing with those massive universes. Grant Morrison, for example, is an author that I think has managed to exploit the richness of a massive, incoherent universe in some of his DC stories. But those are exceptions rather than rules. For the most part, in the last few years I’ve tried to avoid mainstream titles that are too tied to the main contnuity of their universe. I prefer relatively stand-alone titles that are at least consistent withtin themselves.

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