How worldbuilding has evolved with humanity's urge to tell stories
And how marketers, creators, and studios hit and miss the mark
Ah, worldbuilding… 🗺️ It’s an age-old ritual of storytelling, one of the key things that defines humans as a species. For as long as we have been drawing our little stories on cave walls, humans have explored new ways to tell stories that feel real and enduring. The myths our ancestors conjured were powerful, not just as entertainment, but as a method of imparting wisdom from one generation to the next. Not heeding these lessons could lead to painful and unnecessary mistakes or even death. 💀 For that critical reason, and because life was probably extremely boring without Netflix, electricity, and the creature comforts of our modern era, our forebears loved worldbuilding.
Today, with an endless stream of stories at our disposal, elaborate worldbuilding is still a practice that draws us in. The entire ecosystem of fan fiction is a perfect example of this human trait: millions of fans are inherently drawn to the minor details and nuances of a canonical story, and they use those details to fill in the gaps. ✍🏽Whether fan fiction seems plausible to the canonical author or even most fans is irrelevant; by creating their own fan canon (or fanon), they are participating in the worldbuilding tradition.
As with many fan practices, major studios, publishers, and marketers have picked up on the trend, which has led to some pretty fun, wacky, or downright weird immersive marketing campaigns. 💸 Last week, the horror movie Smile opened at the top of the box office, with a viral marketing scheme involving the placement of “smilers” at public events, like Major League Baseball games. 🤡 (RIP to all the innocent baseball fans who pooped their pants 💩 in public because of Paramount Pictures. Everyone deserves to enjoy hot dogs and the 7th inning stretch in peace.)
Beyond marketing schtick, worldbuilding can sustain a creator and their franchise for decades. The Harry Potter series has long been lauded, not for its adverb-saturated prose, but for the world therein. Every fan knew their Hogwarts House and wanted a taste of Butterbeer, and Warner Bros. and Universal Studios built several immersive experiences at studios, external filming locations, and theme parks around the world to reflect that desire. ⚡ Though many fan creators have disengaged with the brand due to J.K. Rowling’s comments about gender and trans rights, Harry Potter is a prime example of how worldbuilding can be transformative, economically and culturally, for both the intellectual property holders and fans.
While we as a species seem to have figured out our grasp on worldbuilding as a concept, storytellers are still finding ways to take the idea into new realms. Nathan Fielder’s new show The Rehearsal 🚪 allowed average people to conduct elaborate rehearsals for everyday scenarios, from raising a child to disputing your inheritance with a sibling. Fielder’s comedic style and unconventional approach to worldbuilding showed viewers that it’s nearly impossible—and ethically dubious—to try and anticipate how people will respond in emotionally-charged conversations. It is, however, a great way to blow through an HBO budget.
Some critics believe worldbuilding is overdone in many stories. Former Electric Literature editor-in-chief Lincoln Mitchell once argued against worldbuilding in favor of “worldconjuring.” In his view, “Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.” Instead of weighing down a fictional world with endless details, there are benefits to leaving something to the imagination.
This is the alchemy of worldbuilding 🌎 (or rather, worldconjuring as Electric Literature would frame it). Many creators and marketers have tried and failed to immerse fans in their fictional universes because they try to control the whole narrative up front, leaving few gaps for fans to fill. There is a profound anxiety about intellectual property and who owns stories, and while today’s copyright law insists that creators own the universes they build, history tells another story altogether. Like The Rehearsal, trying to control the outcomes of fiction is a fool’s errand.
It is often the creators who are willing to co-create with fans that find their creations have a lasting presence in the zeitgeist, and it’s the marketers who follow the natural path of storytelling that tend to succeed. There is something so simple, yet outrageous and terrifying about seeing a horror character at a baseball game, just as it’s fun and enthralling to write to the Office Ladies as they watch The Office 🏢 or go away to a fall camp with the Fan Fest Society. ☂️
Whatever its form, worldbuilding continues to be reshaped by storytellers of all kinds as we continue to figure out who we are, what kind of ancestors we hope to be, and how we’ll impart our stories to the next generation.
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