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There is a LOT of information in the world and unlike the days of yore, it's available instantly. Most of that information is good. Some of it is bad. Some of it is really bad. But even if we only consider the good information — there is a risk to worldbuilders.

We are sometimes led to believe that worldbuilding isn't about rules, but about expressing an idea in terms of known science.

Inexperienced worldbuilders may trip over the belief that due to the volume of information they discover in the real world, it isn't rules that they should be creating, but existing science they need help discovering. In that regard, they perhaps see Worldbuilding.SE, not as a place to help them develop consistent rules for their imaginary world,1 but as a free research service that will uncover the facts that their experience on the Internet has led them to believe should exist.

How is this issue reflected in posts?

In a recent question about teleportation a new user was asking how to achieve an effect due to teleportation. In comments to my answer it appeared to me that the user didn't realize the difference between the need to set rules in an imaginary world and the belief that there's enough science involved with the idea that changing the application of science would change how he/she achieved the effect.2

Said another way: the user was confusing the aesthetic of the idea with the operation of the idea.

And what that means (at least to me...) is that the user — not realizing that there wasn't enough science to actually realize (vs. rationalize) his/her goal — kept throwing more technobabble at the problem believing that somehow the goal would be achieved.

I could be wrong, but I suspect the worldbuilder didn't realize that it's the obligation of the worldbuilder to set the rules of their world, and then use the Real World to rationalize (if necessary!) the rules. Too many worldbuilders think it's not their obligation to set those rules because (I suspect) they believe the rules "already exist" in the form of science they haven't been able to find with a Google search.

Question: What advice can we give worldbuilders to help them distinguish between "real life" and "worldbuilding rules" in a world that has so much instantly available information that it seems like a "real" answer should exist and they shouldn't need to set a rule?3


1I sometimes worry that some worldbuilders don't believe they're building an imaginary world, but are trying to build an entirely real world. There's nothing wrong with "realistic" so long as everyone remembers that it has very practical limits.

2Please note that I can't read the OP's mind and don't really know if what I just explained is the case. As I mentioned, it simply appeared that way to me. However, I've run into a fair number of questions over the last six months where users appeared to believe there should be science to solve their problem, not realizing that what they were asking about didn't actually exist, didn't actually have science to back it, or that the science was being misapplied in an effort to achieve the goal. Please do not construe anything I've said to believe I'm disparaging of the user who is only trying to build a world or write a story. Although, to be fair, I am running thin on patience with users who read something on the Internet or watch some Youtube video and believe they have a PhD's understanding of the issue.

3This issue is NOT helped by tools like ChatGPT which can express an idea that's completely wrong in a way that to someone not educated in the art seems completely right. I'm beyond worried that the average user of ChatGPT-style services will become addicted to the sincerity of the response and be led to believe that every question they ask will have a decisive and veritable answer. Said another way, I'm worried that new worldbuilders don't think they need an imagination to achieve their goals.

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    $\begingroup$ Most of the time, world building is not about rules at all. The rules of the real world are just fine for the vast majority of fictional worlds. World building is about building worlds, not rules. For example, lots of people admire the intricate world built by Balzac in his Human Comedy. I would say that a fair amount of worldbuilding effort went into it. As the help center says, this site is about helping to create imaginary worlds, including geography, culture and creatures. Balzac's Eugène de Rastignac is a most interesting creature. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 18, 2023 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Any explicable difference from the Real World is a rule by definition. Are you hanging up on alternative uses of the word, as in those that establish limitations? I guess we could call the list of explicable differences "bullet points," but it wouldn't change how they're treated here. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 22, 2023 at 19:15

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Advice n°1 : Ask "why?"

– Often times we want to explain how everything we create works, but sometimes that's actually not needed or worse, detrimental to your work. Do you have good reasons you feel you need this explained? I mean, beyond telling some technobabble like the quantum hypermaterialization makes transitioning matter stable?
– @Tortliena mostly just since the description I’m envisioning and would like to have, in many readers (and in the type of character in that situation as well), does likely immediately evoke the question “so how come that didn’t kill them/break their bones/etc?”. And I personally would also just enjoy having some sort of supporting concept there, even if it is somewhat technobabble-y as long as it’s still rooted in some sort of real concept or known science (be it literal or hypothetical)
From the teleporter question

I would say that the underlying reason new users do that is that they just don't feel that creating custom rules make an huge part of making good worlds. There can be multiple reasons behind that :

  • They are fearing they will be sliced in half by some mad scientist's laser as soon as they fail to explain every concept of their work. Exactly like in the example above.
  • They are still shifting from the perspective of a world explorer to a world writer 🔍➡️🖋️. Readers, viewers and players don't create rules, they use and review the ones which have been put in front of them.
  • Creating new rules implies you need to get yourself out of existing systems and processes. it's not that easy when you haven't learned to innovate and experiment (this happens quite more often than we think!).

But most importantly, to create rules you need to understand when and why you need them. This meta-thinking is the most complex part, even for the most experimented of us. That's why you need to ask "Why do you need it?" first. Indeed, you can check whether they actually have good worldbuilding reasons behind (instead of just hiding under the real-world safety blanket). Then you can more easily work on the issue, using the next advice for instance :

Advice n°2 : Set the expectations the querent should have for answers

Ah and yes, don't forget that since this component is the source of magic, remember you are the one to set the rules. Real world knowledge won't help you at all to circumvent the harmful effects of magic this component could make. We can only answer about how to make the non-magic part of it less dangerous.
On how to add a magic component to blood

Rookie world writers can have very-high expectations from us. It can be especially bothering when they think only their question can solve their problem.

One way to solve this is to reframe the querent's expectations. While we all have to admit we don't have every knowledge in the world, we -the experts- are supposedly more knowledgeable. Use this knowledge to make the querent see the circle they will land in with their question. This can help understand the limit between the rules they have to set and the things they can make more scientific.

Advice n°3 : Offer an alternate viewpoint

Rookie world writers can have very-high expectations from us. It can be especially bothering when they think only their question can solve their problem.

You can also offer another viewpoint which should be able to reach the user's actual goal. I'd say this is most of the time done as frame-challenges or with potent "no" answers to "yes/no" questions. A good example of mine is this question about the feasibility of fairies in space. After answering by the negative, I went on to help the querent overcome their false need1 for science and let out their creativity :

I'm now going to frame-challenge your question because you'll benefit much more from these lasting words than absolutely everything I wrote above.

Long ago, when I raised my doubts about Santa Claus and company, I was told this :

Well, this is a very beautiful story.

And this is indeed the most important. It's not to make hardcore scientists happy. It's whether it makes you happy with your creation. It's about making your world blossom, not letting the real-world take control of you. If this doesn't work realistically and yet you really want it, there's always the path of leaving some magic, some mystery. A story.

When challenging, don't forget to put the efforts to answer the question, even partially. If we were on the teleporter question, tell either that it won't work or that we can't reasonably know (that can be an answer for me!), then show your perspective on making good teleporters with the given goals (make characters feel distorted, und so weiter...).

And as always, be polite even if what you believe they're doing total nonsense. Shifting to another perspective will never happen if you throw in a bucket of condescending observations 🪣🤕.

Advice n°4 : Until the end, persevere

No matter what you do, each and every user will do the same kind of mistakes. It's not even due to the person scoffing at your comments or having an hard time learning. It's just not the same person so they don't have (yet!) what you gave to the others. That's just what teaching is : A never ending case of repetitions 🔂. Not that I mind it 🦋!


1 : Understand by that it is not a need, but a desire often fueled by uncertainty. A desire which impedes other, more important ones.

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The best answer we could give is a number of Examples to choose from to highlight the concept.

For example - The Heisenberg Compensator as part of Star Trek's Teleportation technology. It references a real problem (Heisenbergs uncertainty theorem), it creates a rule of sorts and is internally consistent. The best bit is that it is never fully explained further than 'this exists' and 'this is it's job'.

Having a compendium of good literary examples of this to highlight the difference between an internally consistent yet fictional world and a hard science real world so that the asker can hopefully get the idea of the differentiation between the two is probably the best we can hope for.

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It's important to understand the difference between worldbuilding and storybuilding

Many users over the years have come to this Stack in the hopes of making their fiction factual. They want their magic system to be science-based or their super powers to be realistic.

What they don't understand is that they're not seeking help to build their worlds, they're seeking help to write their stories. "Factually" explaining magic, super powers, or any other form of fantasy is an aesthetic, not a world rule.

World rules describe the way the world outside the story operates. In the Real World, the "rule" of gravity states that if you throw an apple into the air it will fall to the ground. In the Real World, the "rule" of wind states that if you spit into it you are likely to suffer uncomfortable consequences.

But in your fictional world (the only kind of world we help build), you can set a "rule" that says gravity works in reverse. The closer you get to a celestial body, the higher the repulsive force of gravity becomes.

Storybuilding is how an author uses the rules of worldbuilding to describe a circumstance. One such circumstance could be that a civilization lives and flies through the aether of space and that flying to the surface of a planet is impossible because no individual has the strength to overcome the effects of that world's "gravity."

We help build world rules (gravity works in reverse on your world!). We do NOT help tell stories (your creatures have wings and don't have the strength to fly to the world).

The problem with asking for help describing your fantasy (magic, super powers...) as science is that you're asking us to help tell your story. It feels like it's the other way around, but it's not. You've already set the rules of your world. Your world has (e.g.) magic! That magic is capable of specific consequences. And now you're asking for help explaining those consequences in a specific way.

It doesn't matter if that "way" is science. What matters is that all you're looking for is an explanation. That's storybuilding. And that's off-topic.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid I completely disagree with the answer. This site is about world building, not about rules building. For example, consider the world of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. It is an entirely fictional world, and it needed world building; but the rules of that world are quite similar to the rules of the real world. That vast majority of fiction is set in fictional worlds which operate under rules similar to the real world, possibly with a small set of changes. Only rarely, and only in certain genres, are the fictional worlds completely divorced from the real world. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 18, 2023 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP You're straining at a gnat. Since the help center states we're here to help build worlds and not to tell stories, any fictional world that is entirely the Real World is just storybuilding, not worldbuilding. To quote from the help center, "Worldbuilding Stack Exchange is a site for designers, writers, artists, gamers and enthusiasts to get help creating imaginary worlds." Even the smallest difference between the OP's imaginary world and the Real World qualifies as worldbuilding. And that difference is a rule. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 22, 2023 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ All fiction is set in imaginary worlds, because otherwise it would be history or biography. And in the vast majority of cases these imaginary worlds differ from the real world not in the rules but in the accidental details. London is London and Baker Street is Baker Street, but on the imaginary Baker Street there is an address at 221B, whereas on the real Baker Street there isn't. Paris is Paris, but in the imaginary Paris there lived a great financier named Frédéric de Nucingen, whereas in the real Paris there was no such rich family. This absolutely is worldbuilding. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 22, 2023 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That's false. A large amount of fiction (OK, vast) is merely imaginary circumstances set in the real world. We don't tell stories, so none of that fiction is relevant on this site. Since we don't deal with the choices made by individuals or organizations, the fictional actions of fictional human beings dealing with fictional circumstances in the real world are off-topic here. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 23, 2023 at 0:59

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