How World Building Can Be Therapeutic

Feb 28, 2024 by S. R. Watts

When I was first cutting my teeth as a young storyteller, I came to realize just how therapeutic it was to create a world in which I could escape and be free from the more traumatic elements of real life. It even helped me sort out some difficult emotions I was having, giving me greater insight into the ways I could tackle the problems I was facing as a child growing up with mental illness. Over time, the process became easier as I learned some vital rules about what goes into creating a compelling world that is not only fantastical, but believable to the readers who come to discover it in the books they read.

World Building

No matter what story you're trying to tell, it doesn’t take place in a void. Stories occur in a setting of some kind, whether the Real world or a world of one’s imagination. Some stories even take place within an imaginary world hiding within the real world (i.e., Harry Potter’s Wizarding World). These worlds not only provided a place for the story to play out but also influenced everything from the characters to the plot, the theme, and so on.

When crafting a story that heals, you must create a setting that reflects the issues you are facing in your real life. There are many forms in which this world can take, and no one world is quite the same as another. Just think of all the stories you have read and the worlds they are set in. J. R. R. Tolkien’s work had Middle Earth. C.S. Lewis had Narnia. Frank Herbert’s Science Fiction masterpiece “Dune” featured a desert planet called Arrakis that contained the highly valuable Spice that drives the story's plot forward. While their physical setups may vary quite a bit, the one thing they all have in common is a structure based on two factors: the Natural Setting and the Arbitrary Setting.

Natural Setting

By itself, a natural setting is a place void of Human civilization. Its environments, from temperate mountain climates to tropical rain forests to Frozen Tundras and Scorching deserts, were naturally formed by phenomena beyond human influence. A natural setting is raw, untamed, and subjugated by the law of nature. Without humans to cultivate it, the primitive setting of a newly formed world is often an unforgiving place where even the smallest mishap could lead even the mightiest creature to its death.

As a rule, natural settings are the foundation for a world where sentient beings can develop and flourish. When creating a setting for your story, you must consider how such a foundation will influence the creatures living on it. Everything from the topography to the flora and fauna can be used to create a mighty civilization with a rich culture that’s fun to explore. The Possibilities are endless, for the limits to which you can develop such a primordial world into a thriving nation are only limited by your imagination.

Artificial Settings

Once you understand the rules of a natural setting, you then need to consider what artificial settings will be built on top of this primitive world. Put simply, the Artificial setting is nothing more or less than human civilization itself—or another humanoid or sentient species, depending on the story you are telling. Humans tend to produce civilizations based on how the natural setting has influenced their perception of reality.

For example, one anthropologist has suggested that the religious dietary restrictions of many Middle Eastern cultures (i.e., Jews and Muslims) sprung from the fact that these civilizations were born in harsh desert climates, meaning they were forced to create a set of rules for the type of livestock they could raise to increase the chances of survival of their people. Furthermore, many religions are born from humanity’s interactions with the natural world. Entire belief systems have been created based on both the positive and negative interactions people have had with the natural world around them.

While the Dietary restrictions of Semitic cultures are just one example, another is the Ancient Egyptians who built their entire Civilization around the Nile River. Since water was the basis of all life on earth, the Nile was the center of the universe for the Kingdom of Egyptian, and the surrounding geography was cultivated to reflect the Egyptians’ belief in both the natural and supernatural progression of life and existence. Another example would be the Inca of the Andes mountains in South America. This pre-colonial empire had a religion and economy that was based on their interactions with the conditions of the mountains where they lived. According to archeologists, the Inca built their cities high up in the Andes to be closer to their gods, believing that these deities would bless them more the closer they were to them.

How this helps you

By Studying ancient and modern civilizations and how their natural environments influenced their development, you can see how your environment has made you into the person you are today. Maybe you grew up in a rural community where activities such as farming and mining made you into a hard-working individual who may have seen some tragedies resulting from natural disasters and harsh working conditions. Maybe you grew up in a large city where the cut-throat nature of urban life led you to have a few run-ins with less-than-savory individuals who scared you for life. And no matter where you grew up, you likely were raised by someone, ranging from loving parents to the director of a foster home, whose attitudes about life, work, and politics have shaped your own views of the world we all live in.

No matter what environment you grew up in, it doesn’t have to determine what route your life goes. By understanding how your settings have negatively affected you, you can begin to think about the ways in which you will develop the world within the story you want to tell. Once your world is fully fleshed out, you will begin to see the ways in which the characters born from such an environment will take your story. Said character may even help you come to a revelation that will help you heal from past traumas, allowing you to build the life you always wanted.