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  • peterabomann

Why Are You Building This?

Little sandcastles on a golden midday beach, by Hello I'm Nik.

A Problem

I was stuck.

For three months, up until recently, I had worldbuilder's block about Project Courtyardia. Three of its four lilliputian kingdoms had concrete themes, the kinds of short phrases that let loose the floodgates of creativity. But the fourth one was proving difficult. I threw idea after idea at the wall, and nothing stuck. Too redundant, or one-dimensional, or haltative.

It was gnawing at me.

Until I remembered the most important question in any creative activity, the world-shouldering Atlas of our profession.


In worldbuilding (indeed, in nearly every occupation), understanding purpose is heavily important. Before beginning the earliest of brainstorms, it pays to determine the reason(s) you are making what you are making, and to post that reason above your desk until the project is over.

"Why" is the most straightforward prompt to determine your reason(s). With its answer, you have a meta-foundation, an invisible framework, guiding your creative process past pitfalls and toward cohesion. Without it, you will flounder in the infinite possibilities of imaginary worlds. It is, without a doubt, the most important question you will ask and answer in a given project.

Specific answers to "Why are you building this world?" are legion, but usually fall under one or two of a few general labels. If an answer falls into more, it runs the risk of being too unfocused as a concept. Let's go over these categories, and their impact upon your project.

For Fun

Most answers fall into this category. You're building a world for the sheer joy of it, from that fundamental human desire to create.

When you're creating a world for fun, it's important not to sweat the details. The answers will probably come later; but even if they don't, it won't matter as much. The important thing is to have something complete enough that you can play around with it.

For Profit

In some ways, the polar opposite of fun (though the two are not mutually exclusive). The instructions can be exacting, the specifications often conflicting, since people other than those on the design team are involved in said design.

When creating for profit, keep especially in mind the sentiments and desires of your audience: your employer, yes; but especially your intended consumers.

For Exploration

Exploration as a reason encompasses that broad category of using fake worlds to conceptualize circumstances that wouldn't happen otherwise. What if an offshoot of lizards gained human levels of intelligence before mammals? What if we discover faster-than-light travel?

When creating for exploration, there is usually a central idea you want to explore. It's best to focus in on that idea and its effects. Accurate plate tectonics probably don't matter when you want to examine class dynamics. In fact, adding too many nonessential details may distract from the central concept, to the detriment of your primary goal.

When the world is also intended for exploration by others, their perspectives as audience members should be accounted for. But exploration as a reason does not supply concrete answers. Instead, it supplies soft answers, and useful questions. Understanding that difference will save you from frustration later on.

For Education

If it's education for yourself, it will happen regardless of your reasons for worldbuilding. If you're trying to teach someone else, however, that's a slightly different ballgame. You're using the world as a vehicle to transmit concrete ideas.

Education works similarly to exploration as a reason. A central idea is often the foundation, and extraneous details should be set aside. The difference, however, is that you need to account for your intended audience in a way you don't so much with exploration. The ideas must get across clearly to other people, not just yourself.

A Solution

The Courtyardian kingdom of Anthos was eluding me like a greased fish. None of my ideas worked. Until I returned to why I was building this world in the first place: fun.

I realized I had been taking this world too seriously, trying too hard to mesh everything perfectly. So I abandoned attempts at perfection, and picked the first decent theme that wandered into my head. It worked; not perfectly, but serviceably, given the reason for the entire project.

Why has been a fantastically useful question for thousands of years. Why not try it now?


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