Wordbuilding in literature involves designing the perfect fictional setting of your story. This process is so important to you as a writer because, as the container that houses the story, your setting (the world you have built) deeply affects character psyche, plot, tone, atmosphere and even the major themes.
Worldbuilding lays the foundation for your story. It is the platform that allows the characters to develop, the stage on which they will perform.
Depending on how good your worldbuilding is, your readership can be so drawn into your story that it leaves an indelible mark on them. Some major worldbuilding feats have created notable franchises such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, Hunger Games, Twilight, Chronicles of Narnia, et cetera. These franchises have pulled huge crowds, many of whom have dedicated significant parts of their lives delving into all the possibilities and all the angles made possible by the worldbuilding. Examples of online forums where you can find these fans include Reddit, Quora, and Wikia.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is set in a very deeply constructed world, with a whole backstory published in a separate book. The characters even have different languages constructed by the author. Some fans have spent decades studying his work and its various interpretations – such that “Tolkien scholar” is pretty much now a recognisable phrase.
More recently, George R. R. Martin has followed Tolkien’s style and published his world in a separate book from his main novels.
Different aspects of worldbuilding
Tolkien’s worldbuilding in Lord of the Rings involves an aspect of it now known as mythopoeia – the creation of one’s own myth. To design his world, known as “Middle-earth”, Tolkien created a completely fictional myth involving gods and fallen angels and quasi-human creatures like elves, dwarves, goblins, hobbits and ents. His worldbuilding included an alternate creation myth where his gods create the world in a completely different manner to what we are familiar with, although it still retains some of the elements of our own world such as a single omnipotent deity and a “flat earth” vs “round earth” divergence.
Many other writers since Tolkien have followed this pattern – though perhaps in a lesser degree of complexity and development. Writers like this include George Martin, J. Rowling, Rick Riordan and C. S. Lewis.
Rather than create novel universes, most writers just prefer to depict our own world but then introduce fantastic elements and adapt them to their story. The Superman comics, for instance, involve earth as it is, but then an alien planet called Krypton is introduced, and its inhabitants – referred to as Kryptonians – acquire superpowers whenever they come to earth and are exposed to the planet’s “yellow sun”.
One consistent thing in worldbuilding is laws. No matter what universe you are building, no matter how you are building it, you need to create laws for your world, laws that will absolutely never fail. These laws will create internal cohesion in your story and bring your work to life before your readers’ eyes.