How to Build a World in Both History and Fiction

It’s been a month since I’ve posted anything.

Goodness. Life sometimes sneaks up on you and then drops a piano on your head. It’s ok, it’s good for the humility. And there may be something in all there about a certain someone being a workaholic incapable of putting limits on himself.

But I digress.

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the question of worldbuilding. For those who don’t know, it’s a technical term for what writers do, especially in fiction and sci-fi, when they use specific details to create a fully immersive secondary world for their fiction. Tolkien is the undisputed master of worldbuilding.

But worldbuilding is not limited to fiction. As I’ve been doing more reading of, and listening to, books and podcasts on subjects relating to human behavior (have you read The Social Animal? It’s good), I’ve noticed something that I’m not sure we’ve all considered enough. It’s the almost indisputable fact that what we call “reality” is actually a fairy limited construct that depends very much on each individual person. Jordan Peterson even calls it something like a two-dimensional cartoon that our brain creates for us, lest we be overwhelmed with sensory input.

I’ve seen this in my life in very clear ways. You know when you’re talking to someone about an event that both of you witnessed, and your version seems to be the exact opposite of the other person’s version of events? What was that person even doing, right? Except, this seems to be a hard reality about the way people experience life. They do it through the mediation of stories they unconsciously tell about themselves.

Most often, people don’t think about these stories. They passively construct their own story out of the fabric of the story society tells them. But that, in our time, is a very, very bad idea. Modern society is fractured and seemingly incapable of creating hopeful stories, certainly not stories of redemption that involve sacrifice and love. I talked about this at Doxamoot, and in a recent video I did for my youtube channel.

Why Good Storytelling is Important 

So when I hear very, very ultra-Orthodox people tell me that reading fiction is sinful, I can’t help thinking that they’re really missing the point. The underlying assumption that such people seem to have is that their default position as human beings is already on the way to sanctity, and so all worldly distractions are exactly that–a distraction. Perhaps that’s true of some of us. It’s certainly not true of the vast majority of us.

The truth is, I’m afraid, that we have become so thoroughly modern, so completely de-sacralized in our relation to the world, that we need to learn first how to be normal human beings. Fr. Seraphim Rose understood this when he encouraged people to listen to Haydn and read Dickens. Many of us have simply lost the ability to perceive the beautiful. and without that, we will never learn to commune with the One Who is Beautiful and the source of Beauty.

So now, more than ever, we need to tell and listen to good stories. They soften our hard hearts. They take us outside our own sinful selves, forcing us to empathize with those who are NOT US. This is fundamentally a good thing.

And the fact is that secular humanists understand this very well. A certain fantasy writer named M John Harrison has written on the idea of “good worldbuilding,” and he attacks the kind of immersive secondary world sub-creation that Tolkien is known for, precisely because it has the power to influence readers to see the world in the way the author wants them to:

The whole idea of worldbuilding is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker. It reveals the bad old underpinnings of the humanist stance. It centralises the author, who hands down her mechanical toy to a complaisant audience (which rarely thinks to ask itself if language can deliver on any of the representational promises it is assumed to make), as a little god. And it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.

In other words, this author recognizes the power of worldbuilding to influence listeners. And far from that meaning that we shouldn’t read fiction (for fear of being badly influenced), it means we must seek out and tell (and listen to) only the good stories. Because we can be influenced very badly by bad storytelling, but we can be transformed by good storytelling.

I speak more about this in a recent podcast episode with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick over at the Amon Sul podcast:

The Trouble with History

What we might not have thought about is that our view of history is similarly tainted by the worldview, or worldbuilding, of the historian. I’ve written before about the fallacy of history being a scientific endeavor of recording and transmitting “true facts.” For example, many of us, though we don’t know it, follow a default reading of progressivist history that assumes as its end goal the idyllic formation of some kind of heaven on earth.

Someone who has consistently spoken about this subject is Fr. John Strickland, in his excellent podcast, Paradise and Utopia. He has finally begun putting his invaluable perspective on the history of Christendom (and therefore “the history of us”) in a wonderful book that I had the pleasure of editing, The Age of ParadiseThis is book 1 in a planned series of 4 books that will cover the entire history of Christendom to this day.

This is a wonderful book, and it speaks very much to an important aspect of culture creation: knowledge of our own history. Let’s be honest, many of us simply don’t have it. So now’s the time to learn.

Live Q&A with Father John

And so, I invite you to a live chat I’ll be having tomorrow with Fr. John on the Ancient Faith Radio facebook page. If you’re not on facebook, the interview will be available on youtube in the near future. Click on the image below to be taken to the event page and to sign up:

I look forward to seeing some of you there!


  1. The only major problem I see with world building in writing is that a lot of writers get lost in their worlds and forget that the world is part of the stories in it. That is, they get too technical, and too in love with their own creation, that they end up with these tortured plot-driven stories. I remember Stephen King, in On Writing, making such a complaint when grumbling something along the lines of “And of course there’s a map. There’s always a map.”

    World building is vital. But it needs to be appropriate to the story you’re telling, particularly in the way you unfold the world. You do not necessarily need to hammer your reader with the entirety of the cosmos at once (there are stories where you should explain a bit up front of course). Good short-form writers know this already, and have to practice an economy, but the temptation in longer-form writing is to abandon the craftwork.

    In all cases, the world and the story need to belong to each other too. Sometimes it is better to let your world unfold to you as you write the story out. If you what truths you are trying to convey, those will out as you unfold your story, and they should be visible in your world.

    1. yes, agreed. But you’re talking about style and about modern reading preferences. Earlier readers (even 50 years ago) wouldn’t have minded the more expansive style of worldbuilding.

      1. I said nothing about readers or their preferences, that wasn’t my point at all.

        I’m saying writers should not let the world building either come at the expense of telling their story, or be end unto itself, or (and this is the style point I did raise) feel they need to throw the whole thing out there before they can get to their story. Expansive worlds are fine, and some stories need them, but writers should exercise care.

        I’ve read both mediocre and terrible fiction (fantasy, sci fi, contemporary) where it seems the world, the setting, the universe (whatever the frame) is almost an idol, and it gets terribly in the way. I’ve also seen writers get so hung up on trying to plot out their worlds that they never actually get around to writing anything else – they’re trying to be the next Tolkien without realizing thatTolkien himself spent his entire life working and reworking his mythologies, all the while spinning tales out – he did not finish his worlds before he wrote LOTR, but instead LOTR helped clarify his world.

  2. Hello, Nicholas. This was an important post to make. God seems to be almost aggressively throwing Language into the forefront at this closing down of 2019. Perhaps(probably) in direct response to the hellish excavation of reality that the Technocracy is running full bore with.
    It is interesting, and I’m in agreement, on the secularized, mechanical dumbing down the western mind places on ‘mere fiction’.

    That mindset leads to a host of other symptomatic narratives we are suffering through, including ‘God is *over there somewhere else* and I am *here* but when I die I’ll *go over there* (thank you Enlightenment, De Cartes, Calvinist and others)

    Language can ontologically flood the world, make it taste a lot better. Bring God here and now and always. Which is another way to say bring Life here… to make our experiences life affirming instead of world-denying. That world-denying/God is largely removed from me/I have free will (as opposed to Agency-in-Fate) makes us incredibly arrogant as well as fine participants in mindless consumerism.

    Anyways. There is a great podcast episode that came out last week talking about this very thing in the context of Tolkien. If you had interest, the pod is Runesoup and the episode is ‘Talking Creation, Faerie and facing 2020 with Dr. Becca Tarnas’.

    God Bless, sir

    1. Thank you for a wonderful, though-provoking comment. I agree. As much as language can obscure, it can also illuminate under the right circumstances. thank you for the recommendation on the podcast. I will definitely check it out.

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