October 14th, 2019


Two Kinds of Worldbuilding

Inspired by my recent Two Kinds of Badness post, I thought I might make an occasional series.

Today, I'm thinking about worldbuilding, and once again it occurs to me that there are two kinds of it, which we might call Static and Dynamic.

Tolkien can stand in as my example of the ultimate Static world builder. By this I don't mean, of course, that he didn't develop and revise his world over time, but that, by and large, his aim was to have a world that, as a sub-creator, he could survey and find good: full of detail, self-consistent, multi-faceted. A good static world is one which you can draw maps and write histories of, a landscape you can wander all day, confident that you won't tumble into a bottomless lacuna or fall prey to a contradiction.

The Dynamic world is a zoetrope that has to be kept continually spinning to maintain the illusion of reality. The builder of such worlds is a rhetorician, a magician, a sculptor in ice. They must continually weave new threads to replace the old, which start to fade at the touch of sunlight, and their concern is not the finished product but the performance. J. M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy is perhaps the ultimate example in its virtuoso mercuriality, but you can find elements of it in much less obviously flamboyant writers. Kenneth Grahame's riverbank world makes no sense when you think about it, especially in its interactions with the human (just how big is Toad?), but the pleasure lies in being persuaded not to think about it, or only when the author chooses to prompt awareness, as one astringent element in a highly complex flavour. (If the contradictions become the main point, then of course you have entered the world of metafiction, which is a different fish kettle.)