Worldbuilding Part I: The Five Levels of Reality

Worldbuilding Part I: The Five Levels of Reality

Worldbuilding: the concept of creating the universe in which your fictional characters live. For the avid writer, world building is an exhilarating process, filled with endless possibilities. Beginning worldbuilding is like being given a blank canvas; it is up to you the individual to create the masterpiece.

The concept of worldbuilding is not one that should be taken lightly. Always keep in mind the fact that you are creating the habitat in which your fictional players will act out the drama. This being the case, a slapped together reality will kill your story right from the beginning, in the same way that cheesy sets or clumsy design would ruin a film. For readers to fully engage in your story, they will have to be able to accept the universe you are presenting. If readers can’t engage, if they won’t visualize what you have written or immerse themselves in the description, and will not be willing to give the attention necessary for your story to have an impact.

There are many important elements of worldbuilding, but the one you should first concern yourself with is the reality: what level of reality are you going to build your world in? Keep in mind, fiction covers an EXTREMELY broad range of possibilities. Your story could take place anywhere, from Nevada to Neverland. With this in mind, it is important to establish the reality right from page 1. What can your readers expect? Gangsters or unicorns? Attorneys or aliens? Carpooling or time travel? In short, just how “fictional” is your fiction going to be? Will you play close to reality but toy around with physics? Will your characters live everyday lives, but be ruled by a dystopian government?

In order to help writers visualize the world which they wish to build, I find it helpful to break fictional realities into five levels, ranging from thoroughly realistic to utterly fantastic. Your goal as the writer should be to determine at which level you wish to build your world:

Level 1:  Purely Realistic

A world built in Level One would be classified as one which could easily be taken as a true story. Books and films which are based on actual events fit nicely into this category. When building a world in Level One, a writer’s motivation should be to sway the audience towards the plausibility of his/her story. The reader should walk away thinking, “Wow. That could happen to me.” Level One stories thrive on the interest in everyday things: workplace interactions, current events, even conversations over coffee. An example of a Level One story would be “Johnny Tremain” which depicts a fictional character placed in a world which includes historically accurate events.

Level 2: The Slight Bend

Level Two worlds thrive within one word: “maybe”. Stories built in this level take place within the “true reality” as we know it, but tend to lean towards the more exotic side of life. It is fairly safe to say that the large majority of fiction takes place within Level Two, with settings which the reader will easily understand, but with characters and stories that are slightly larger than life. Level Two world builders will often push the envelope a bit in regards to physics and technology, presenting scenarios that may or may not be physically possible, residing in the gray area of “maybe.” The entire “Mission: Impossible” franchise resides in and around the Level Two reality, as do most action based novels and films.

Level 3: The Reality Jump

If Level Two worlds thrive on “maybe”, Level Three stories reside within the question “what if?” The hallmark difference between Level Three and Level Two worlds is the “Fantastic X”. This, in essence, is the object or concept that does not exist in true reality. The “Fantastic X” generally manifests itself in the form of an object or physical ability that goes well above and beyond what we currently know to be possible. Books/movies involving time travel, superhuman abilities, teleportation etc. all exist within the Level Three reality. Worlds within this reality often possess all the characteristics of Levels One and Two with the exception of the aforementioned “Fantastic X”. A prime example of a Level Three reality would be the film “Frequency” in which all elements fall within the realm of plausibility with the exception of the characters’ ability to talk through time with a radio.

Level 4: The Skewed World

Worlds built in the Level Four take place within a reality that has been rotated on its axis. Reading a story written at Level Four is like looking at the negative of a photograph. These stories contain everything we know from true reality, but from a totally different perspective. Dystopian and speculative novels and films thrive within the Level Four reality. Where Level Three may alter one aspect of reality, Level Four stories alter the world itself, changing the rules for society, community, and government. The skewed perspective of Level Four is what allows animals to form governments in “Animal Farm,” children to fight to the death in “Hunger Games”, and the world to be drained of color in “The Giver.”

Level 5: The Sky is the Limit

Level Five is “creative mode” kicked into overdrive. Stories built within the Level Five reality are constrained by virtually no ties to reality whatsoever. World’s built within Level Five allow for anything and everything that could happen to happen. Aliens, space colonies, flying pigs, invisible cities, even alternate universes all are allowed within this catchall realm of fiction. Whereas the other levels all alter reality to a certain extent, Level Five worlds exist entirely within their own reality, the rules of which are decided entirely by the author. “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and the “Dr. Who” franchise all thrive within the “anything goes” nature of Level Five worldbuilding.

One important point to keep in mind is that adhering strictly to one Level when worldbuilding is not a hard-set rule. Many famous worldbuilders have blurred the lines between these levels throughout the course of their works. In the aforementioned “Chronicles of Narnia”, C.S. Lewis cleverly creates “portals” through which the characters travel from a “Level Two reality” to a “Level Five reality”. In essence, that’s what worldbuilding is: learning to combine the real with the imagined to create a setting in which your characters can thrive. At the end of the day, you are the artist. The canvas is blank. It is up to you to create the masterpiece.

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