Because I hope to schedule a panel discussion on world-building soon, I've been giving the topic some thought. I intend to invite local writers of fantasy, science fiction, and perhaps horror writers to the discussion. World-building is an essential element in their toolboxes. But does the technique extend beyond those genres?
I'm currently reading The American, a suspense/revenge novel with paranormal undertones, written by Jeffrey Thomas. The story takes place almost entirely in Vietnam, with some backstory during the Vietnam War. Thomas, who has visited Vietnam often, knows the region and its culture. But most of his readers do not. Obviously, the novel is more than a travelogue. We're talking about setting here, but how much of his writing involved world-building? Where does "setting" end? And where does "world-building" begin?
In my novel, Harvester of Sorrow, much of the story takes place in a city much like Wilmington, Delaware. In fact, I used a map of Wilmington as a blueprint for my fictional city, New Warfield. Wilmington exists. New Warfield does not. In that sense, I used world-building to create a fictional city. Is it just a setting? Well, yes—but it's more than that. It's a different world existing nowhere else but on the page. I built that world.
Tolkien used world-building to create The Lord of the Rings, which likely required an enormous amount of research, lore, and imagination. We can say the same about C. S. Lewis and The Chronicle of Narnia books. Herbert's Dune books. Even Stephen King's The Stand and Robert McCammon's Swan Song. So many fantasy and science fiction novels have a foundation in world-building.
But what about Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, all based in the fictional city of Isola? Sure, Isola sounds a lot like New York City. Or any large city. Nonetheless, Isola does not exist and was solely "built" by McBain. I'd argue all mystery and suspense novels, especially series, rely on world-building to some degree. Perhaps all fiction does.
Thinking back to Thomas's The American, his settings are superb and provide vivid depictions of Vietnam. I've never been to Vietnam, yet it's as if I'm there with the characters. He has pulled me into that world—a world he built with his imagination and made real for his readers. And isn't that the goal of all world-building?
I believe there is a necessary marriage of setting and world-building. Often, those elements form the foundation for exceptional fiction. When world-building, the writer's goal is to make the story—no matter how outlandish or otherworldly, no matter how molded from reality—believable. The strategy is to foster verisimilitude and pull the reader into the story and keep them there. World-building must also provide continuity. Setting and world-building go hand-in-hand, creating a world in which your characters live—whether on Arrakis or in the Land of Oz, or in Isola or New Warfield.