Saturday, January 15, 2011

Worldbuilding is not just Fantasy: the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In the last two weeks since I started my worldbuilding workshop (Submit here!), I've run into a number of comments about worldbuilding on the forums where I've announced it. One of those comments is that genre people should head over here and check out the workshop. Of course, I do actively encourage this! But the flip side of a comment like that is that if you're not writing science fiction and fantasy, you must not be doing worldbuilding, so you might as well give it a miss.

I couldn't disagree more.

Every story builds a world. The only difference is that a mainstream world has many more known or expected elements. So, if you're building a fantasy or science fictional world, each word that contributes to worldbuilding will be expanding or refining the reader's sense of what that created world is like. The reader can't reasonably assume that all rules of our own world will apply, and will continue to have a sense of the fantasy world expanding. By contrast, it doesn't take more than a few words to establish that we're in a mainstream world. Each word that contributes to the world thereafter comes with a lot more automatic baggage. Thus, our focus in mainstream shifts quickly away from "what world are we in?" and starts to focus more on the specifics of the location and time period, and on the particulars of the milieu we're exploring.

To demonstrate the importance of worldbuilding in mainstream fiction, I've decided to do a little worldbuilding analysis - in roughly the same style as my workshop - on a book which immediately impressed me as having fantastic worldbuilding: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Think about it. The title alone doesn't tell you what world we're in - I could easily imagine a science fiction or fantasy book with the same title. Imagine if you found this book and had read no clues as to when and where it takes place. How much could you learn about the world of the book in the first 500 words?

In fact, you could be certain it occurs in our own world within the first three words - "A Friday in November" - since these time measurements are restricted to our own world. But it doesn't end there. This book may have been written by a Swede, but it wouldn't necessarily be set in Sweden. So what I've done below is taken the first (roughly) 500 words of the book and blue-highlighted the words that I feel contribute to an ongoing sense of world, time period, specific location, and social context. Some of them provide new information to refine our sense of location. Others simply confirm and reconfirm what has already been established, but are words that might be used differently for worldbuilding in a genre work. Either way, they are everywhere. Take a look:


A Friday in November

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day – which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

"It arrived."

"What is it this year?"

"I don't know what kind it is. I'll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It's white."

"No letter, I suppose."

"Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones."




"Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering."

With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy commentary or any sharp question which would shed new light on the case. Those days had long passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.

The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across.

The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. Someone at the botanical gardens in Uppsala would later confirm that it was a plant seldom cultivated in Sweden. The botanist wrote in her report that it was related to the tea tree and that it was sometimes confused with its more common cousin Leptospermum scoparium, which grew in abundance in New Zealand. What distinguished them, she pointed out, was that rubinette had a small number of microscopic pink dots at the tips of the petals, giving the flower a faint pinkish tinge.

Rubinette was altogether an unpretentious flower. It had no known medicinal properties, and it could not induce hallucinatory experiences. It was neither edible, nor had a use in the manufacture of plant dyes. On the other hand, the aboriginal people of Australia regarded as sacred the region and the flora around Ayers rock.

The botanist said that she herself had never seen one before, but after consulting her colleagues she was to report that attempts had been made to introduce the plant at a nursery in Göteborg, and that it might, of course, be cultivated by amateur botanists. It was difficult to grow in Sweden because it thrived in a dry climate had to remain indoors half the year.


If I were to comment about the process of world entry for me, it would look something like this:

  1. I figure out that we're in the real world by word #2.
  2. I figure out that we're in a region of the world where birthdays are celebrated by word #18.
  3. I figure out that we're in an era following the invention of the telephone by word #37.
  4. Word #51 is our first direct hint that we're in Sweden; for someone unfamiliar with the place, like me, it serves to show that we're not in a place I'm familiar with.
  5. The certainty that we're in Sweden arrives for me with word #139, "Stockholm," and word 313, "Sweden."

Other blue-marked words confirm these deductions and start pointing me toward the genre of the book (thriller), as well as the nature of the narrator (detail-oriented observer and examiner of evidence).

This book would not function as it does without these words. Our own writing must reflect the world we've chosen - real world or created world - in details, continually, or it will start to feel vague and disconnected.

Call it worldbuilding or what you like; it's not solely a genre issue.


  1. This makes me realize that we live in a built world full of built cultures. Not built in the immediate, conscious way a writer does it, but our names and words and customs still had to come from somewhere.

  2. Good thought, Heidi. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. I have been meaning to write a blog post since September about "worldbuilding" from a non-fiction perspective. I have been reading off-and-on T.E. Lawrence's (Lawrence of Arabia) "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." One of the things that has struck me about his writing is the vast amount of detail he put into his writing, which gives the reader a very strong mental picture of the Arabian landscape and the Arabs living there. That's why, when you say that you disagree with the notion that "if you're not writing science fiction and fantasy, you must not be doing worldbuilding, so you might as well give it a miss," I would agree with you. Lawrence's worldbuilding was not intended as "worldbuilding" from a SF/F perspective, but the world that he described is just as powerful as any one would find in a SF/F novel.

    JDsg (under a different nom de plume)

  4. Thanks for the comment, JDsg/JJTM ;)! Thanks for giving that terrific example.