Misused Words by Anime Fans: What Is World Building?

So I’m back for another segment of Misused Words by Anime Fans! If you haven’t checked out the very first segment, I covered character development. And for this week’s topic: World Building. This term is very concise,  but still proves to be confusing many people. Don’t fret though, I’m here to help!

What exactly is World Building?

I feel like when people talk about the term “world building”, they mistake it only for the setting of the story. In reality, world-building is much deeper than just the setting alone. It’s the process of the setting being built from complete scratch. Just like how character development is used to make a character more dynamic, world building is used to flesh out the setting in a way to make it more immersive. This is most essential when the universe depicted in story takes place in a fictional setting.

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The depth that world building has can vary from series to series. It could be minimal or could extend to the most intricate detail, just as long as each bit of information brought up will have some significance whether it be in the present or the future. Fabricating information that holds little value along the way without further explanation can be considered as lazy world building.

There are many techniques that could be utilized to build a world from ground zero. Important elements such as the geography of the world, a system of rules it follows, and the history of the world or area ― all these work in tandem with each other in order to bring depth to a world. Let’s examine some of these elements!

Geography:
Geography is crucial because not only are the viewers introduced to brand new locations but these locations are given meaning throughout the series in small amounts. Each destination the characters may travel to serves some sort of purpose. The world itself is a device that drives the plot forward. Each location should be distinct from one another. Fully equipped with different people/culture, stronger opponents, and even different architecture styles from previous areas. Whatever is ultimately decided, the other places within the world should hold something memorable for the audience. Most of the time this is executed by having the characters engage in unique interactions with the environment.

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Take for example a more recent anime that came out just last year, Made in Abyss. The anime showcased a vast world underground, sectioned into different Layers which consists of different species, treasures, and “The Curse” that becomes more dangerous for whoever decides to go deeper it. The Abyss is shrouded in mystery mostly because only a few were brave enough to delve into it. Much of the information we do know about the unexplored places are nothing short of speculations.

But as our main cast go deeper and deeper into the Abyss, we are exposed to this vast and mysterious world underground. We can differentiate the Layers from each other and recognize the spacial relation between them. The beasts that dwell in the Abyss are more evolved the lower they go, and even the sunlight that shined bright upon the first layers has become fully nonexistent . The audience also comes to a harsh realization of how unforgiving the Curse’s influence is on the characters and the consequences that comes with going deeper. The strong sense of fear and danger in Abyss is brought to life through the world that has been fleshed out in front of us.

The Rules:

Fictional universes need a system of rules to govern them. If these base foundations were not in place, then certain loopholes or inconsistencies could surface later on and possibly leave the viewers dissatisfied or confused.

If the series somehow introduce a new power that could break these system of rules, then they would have to account for how it would change the rest of the world.

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An example I could think of instantly when I think of a series with base rules intact is FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Alchemy is the central theme of FMA, equivalent exchange governing over them.

Equivalent exchange constitutes creating or transforming one object to another one that is entirely different from its original form. Of course, there are laws and limitations to this. One of them is to never perform human transmutation. You cannot create another human or bring a human back to life. This limitation is further established when the Elric Brothers performed human transmutation to bring their dead mother back but, that failed with dire consequences attached. Not only did it fail, but the two brothers lost parts of their bodies as punishment for trying to defy these laws.

Although there were certain laws and limitations, this didn’t stop Fullmetal Alchemist from using the full potential of alchemy as a concept. We are familiarized with different styles of alchemy, whether it be destructive or beneficial.

Even the existence of the Philosopher’s Stone, which was initially thought to not follow the system of rules, turned out to meet these criteria after all.

History/Lore:

Anime with lore or history behind it is always interesting. Certain events that occurred in the past and its effect on what the world has become in present-day gives the story more meaning and can also serve as a plot device.

An example off the top of my head right now is how the history affected the plot of Code Geass. Code Geass is set in an alternate universe where the world has been divided between three superpowers: The Holy Britannian Empire, The Chinese Federation, and The Europia United. Out of the three, the Britannian Empire is the largest and most powerful. Because Japan is home to 70% of the world’s supply of sakuradite. they were overtaken by the Holy Britannian Empire and renamed Area 11. The main character, Lelouch Lamperouge, his sister Nunnally, and their friend, Suzaku Kururugi, got caught in between the crossfire and this event changed their lives forever.

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The invasion of Japan is a great illustration of how the history of a certain world could have a massive influence in the plot of a story. After Japan was invaded, Lelouch and Suzaku took different routes on how to free Japan from the reins of Britannia. Lelouch’s attempt was through force and direct war while Suzaku chose to try and change it from the inside.

 

How could you tell if world building is handled well? 

The most obvious way to notice that world building is done right is when you can fully immerse yourself in it. You can imagine yourself being one of the characters in that world, bound by its rules and limitations. You can see yourself traveling from one destination to another, distinguishing the landmarks the main characters have come across and even being able to recognize the flora and fauna in certain locations would be a few examples of proper immersion into a setting.

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Another way to determine if world building is handled well is when the world follows common sense. Does the world come to life? Or is it static? The world has to feel realistic and believable to an extent, that everything is bound by some type of logic grounded and based upon the setting. You can separate a well built world from one that isn’t when it feels like you have “unlocked” everything that has been touched upon in the story so far.

The way all these details are conveyed is also crucial. The audience doesn’t want all the information all at once. Show, don’t tell.

How could you tell if world building is handled BAD?

There are stories where there was a lot of potential for world-building but the creator got lazy with it. There were concepts that were brought up, societies, culture, and destinations that the viewers were introduced to, but the creator didn’t even bother to elaborate on any of them. So what was the point of a creator introducing what could have been something interesting?

The most popular abuser of this is Naruto.

We have been introduced to ninjas from other villages and some have also been mentioned here and there. So we know for a fact that there are more nations and their respective Hidden Villages and there was more to the ninja world than just the Land of Fire and Konoha. Yet, they were all glossed over as Kishimoto tunnel visioned on giving more depth to Konoha and the Leaf Ninjas.

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We also know that there are a lot of ninja clans out there all with their specialized Jutsus that have been passed down from generation to generation. However, Kishimoto gave the supporting cast little to no screen time to focus more on Naruto and Sasuke.

So all in all, the Naruto-verse had a lot of potential yet it fell flat.


Closing Thoughts:

World-building is integral for a story especially when it is set in a fictional universe. Without world-building, how would the viewers know any detail of the foreign world where the story is set and what rules govern it?

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The audience wants to know how exactly their world works, how the battle system that exists in it operate, the relationship between each group of people and how they interact with each other. They want to know about the fauna that lives there, the flora that grows; all of these things serve as the base foundation of a world we are currently not familiar of. Therefore, it exists to help us better understand and later on make connections to our world and become genuinely more interested.
So hopefully, this cleared up any confusion about world-building! There’s more techniques that are used to build a fictional universe but writing about all of them would make this more lengthy than it already is >_>

Thanks for reading~!

 

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