Whenever someone—anyone!—comes around with the writerly advice along the lines of, “Your worldbuilding must be consistent! Unchanging! Immutable!” I truly want to wince. When justification of that advice is couched as a reflection of the “Real World,” my wince turns into a grimace. Sometimes an eye-roll. On rare occasions, I might indulge in an under-the-breath “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
I’m not to the point of shouting about it. Not quite yet, though I’m getting close. Y’see, I believe the whole “Worldbuilding must be stable” school of thought was a product of the time when exploration of ideas of was cool and hip, but only if everything else remained comfortingly the same. After all, what kind of chaotic world would it be if we knew how to make people young forever, travel to distant galaxies, and maintain a state of war for centuries if we also GASP didn’t let men fuck women on demand? I mean, that’s the state of things, yes?
Consistent, unchallenged worldbuilding. It is a comfort to many, truly.
A moment’s pause for definition…
Worldbuilding is the creation of a secondary world in which a story takes place. Some writers build the world on the fly. Others fill six-inch binders with interconnected details before writing a word of actual story. Neither method is better than another. What does fall on the “better or worse” spectrum is the inability to tweak what has been determined as Story True in light of new needs, evidence, and preference.
I once had a writer tell me I couldn’t change my worldbuilding mid-story because readers would no longer trust me. Truly, I do pity the person whose real-life world has been so stable, who has explored so little since one’s worldview was solidified, that any variation is a betrayal, an upheaval, a reason to quit.
Fewer than a hundred years ago, the worldbuilding of nighttime lighting included live flames and the constant risk of uncontrollable fire. Then the combination of invention, political decision, and material availability expanded electric lighting across the United States. Every bit of those folks’ worldbuilding changed—purchasing decisions, food storage, day to night rhythms, social interactions, workday lengths, evening entertainment, medical accessibility, everything.
So the claim that worldbuilding must be consistent? It is bullshit. Well-meaning bullshit, perhaps, but bullshit unexamined nonetheless.
My Darlings, climate change is upending every aspect of our current real-life worldbuilding. “This regional seaside culture has been built upon generations of lobster fishing” is upended when the lobsters move north to find colder waters. “The society I’ve created lives peacefully as a semi-nomadic people moving their herds between seasonal watering holes” can become “The society must fight settled villages to access water in order to preserve their own herds” in an instant.
And advances in science change our real-life worldbuilding all the time. Babies are conceived as a result of intercourse… until artificial insemination. Injured limbs must always be amputated… until we learn how to set bones with plates and screws, and treat infection with antibiotics. Antibiotics make us quite casual about infections… until infections become resistant to those antibiotics. Shaking off a concussion is a sign of strength… until we learn concussions lead to severe brain damage and mental disorders we once dismissed as a “natural” result of aging. Fourteen-year-olds are considered adults… until we understand brain development.
Women don’t hold positions in government… until they do. Leadership is only permitted to those who inherit power… until it isn’t. Same sex marriage is outlawed… until it isn’t. The rule of law supersedes the wishes of one person… until it doesn’t.
Each of those examples carry massive and far-reaching implications on our assumptions of worldbuilding. Just raising the age at which a person can legally marry impacts childrearing, education, labor pools, family life, the rate of demographic change, the cycle of economic development, and more. And if we want to argue about how the Law of Gravity is immutable, I invite you to consider the four humours were once considered so as well.
In reality, there is no such thing—if one wants to reflect “real life”—as omni-consistent worldbuilding. In real life, our worldbuilding shifts based upon our experience and understanding of the world.
Really, not even the gods adhere to consistency. When someone tells me worldbuilding must be consistent because the writer is God of the story, I’m fairly certain the person hasn’t much examined the evolution set out in religious texts. A single example: Biblical worldbuilding changed considerably over the course of the Old Testament, and radically in the New Testament. Want to talk about how worldbuilding loses all stability when a god decides to make a change? FFS, the Biblical god changed the rules of LIFE AND DEATH ITSELF.
This does indeed make many, many people uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to demand fictional worldbuilding be stable and unchanging.
But when you start reading/viewing with worldbuilding in mind, you’ll see just how many stories are actually about the disruption of established worldbuilding, because worldbuilding is but marginally about stability.
It IS about how our characters presently understand their world.
It IS about choosing where our characters believe they fit within it.
It is NOT about eternity.
Some stories are about the battle to maintain worldbuilding at all costs, and some are about the battle to grow and transform it.
Both demonstrate the truth: Worldbuilding is quite fragile.
We are drawn to the upheaval of transformative worldbuilding. We aren’t much interested in the year-to-year consistency of global agriculture before 1883. But damn do we want to know how the collapse of Krakatoa impacted geography, climate, finance, travel, politics, artwork, and scientific exploration.
We even love worldbuilding disruptions that haven’t yet happened! If you really want to see worldbuilding-upheaval fascination, watch a documentary on the Yellowstone caldera. Watch Doomsday Preppers. Heck, watch The Walking Dead.
Plot is the disruption of worldbuilding. It can be driven to and from the smallest detail. Hang an entire epic on the introduction of the potato, the innovation of the stirrup, the invention of non-electric lighting, the revolution of gender equality, the discovery of gut bacteria’s influence on mental function, the cessation of rain, the taming of sentient spiders. Or break the world apart when new beings appear on the horizon or from the heavens, when bees refuse to pollinate human food crops until a non-aggression treaty is agreed upon, when the gods decide humanity is a waste of time, when the days grow longer minute by minute and no one knows why.
So the truth is, my Darlings, your worldbuilding can change any fucking moment you want, as long as you do three things:
Acknowledge the change. Real life offers unlimited examples here for the reactions of both individuals and a larger society (and they are often strikingly different). Deal with the shock, the fear, the joy, the uncertainty, the embracing and the denial, the knowledge and the ignorance. Sometimes the acknowledgement can be as direct as a character saying, “That’s never happened before!” Sometimes the acknowledgement involves an explanation from a character versed in history or science. It depends on your story, your characters, and your plot.
Put it in context. Massive worldbuilding changes can occur with very little impact on characters and plot, and seemingly small changes can disrupt the underpinnings of the story’s entire design. The change can be immediate—one massive storm destroys a primary food source—or it can be slow moving—the quiet and years-long emigration of a class of professionals.
By all means, use the consequences. After all, there is no reason to change your worldbuilding if it isn’t going to either solve a problem or create a compelling problem to solve. The consequences of a change are most likely to be a combination of positive and negative, and the characters you’ve created will determine the outcome. Or the consequences of a seemingly major worldbuilding change might seem minor—your characters must arrive three days sooner than planned because the designated festival has been moved forward to meet the whims of rulers who believe they hear the voice of the gods in the rippling of the river—but solve a huge problem of timing for the writer.
Argue with any one of these examples, but please do acknowledge the truth that worldbuilding is not rigid, firm, and unchangable. Instead, it is flexible, adjustable, and pliable. It is, indeed, biddable.
And if the writer is the god of any story, the writer damn well better take responsibility for evolution and revolution as well as stability.