In this post, we look at hard worldbuilding and soft worldbuilding. We give you examples of each and tell you which one is best for you.
If you’re a fan of Sci-fi and Fantasy, you’ve heard of High and Low Fantasy, Hard and Soft Sci-fi, and Hard and Soft Magic Systems.
Have you heard of Hard and Soft Worldbuilding? Until recently, I hadn’t heard of it either. But since I learned about this concept, the way I look at writing Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction has both changed and deepened.
If you’d like to add another tool to your literary tool belt, read on. I’ll share everything I’ve learned on this fascinating subject!
Hard Or Soft Worldbuilding: Which Is Right For You?
Whichever Fantasy subgenre an author writes, how they introduce the world has a tremendous effect on the story.
1. Hard Worldbuilding
J.R.R. Tolkien was the Champion of Hard Worldbuilding.
He spent over a decade creating a cosmology, history, cultures, and even languages for Middle-Earth. He knew every element of his world and shared as much of that info as he could with readers within the text itself.
That is Hard World-building in a nutshell.
And, while we’re on the topic of Tolkien, here’s a quick anecdote on how passionate he was about his method of worldbuilding:
Wait, what? Why?
Well, because Tolkien spent so much time taking the Hard worldbuilding approach, he saw Lewis’s much looser (and thus Softer) approach to worldbuilding with Narnia frustrating. See, while Tolkien drew inspiration for Middle-Earth and its races almost exclusively from Norse and Celtic mythology, Lewis borrowed from any Myth, Fable, and Fairy tale tradition he liked. Narnia has magic carpets from Arabic folktales, centaurs from Greco-Roman myth, and talking animals a la Aesop’s fables. Tolkien couldn’t stand this haphazard, inconsistent approach.
Maybe you’re starting to get an idea of what Soft Worldbuilding looks like and strives for.
Let’s take a closer look!
2. Soft Worldbuilding
An example of Soft Worldbuilding in Fantasy would be the works of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. In his film, Spirited Away, there are all kinds of gods and spirits who visit a bath house. However, we never find out where these creatures are from, what their function is in the world, or how their society is stratified. And, based on how little consistency there is within the world and the magic systems Miyazaki creates, it’s unlikely he had any intended coherency. In fact, Miyazaki admitted he’s often so focused on the aesthetics and emotional quality of his stories, he neglects the internal consistency of his narratives.
A Quick Recap
- A Hard Worldbuilder knows and shares as much as they can about their Fantasy world.
- A Soft Worldbuilder only shares what little they know about their world (which they don’t work-out fully).
The payoff for Hard Worldbuilding is verisimilitude. Meanwhile, Soft Worldbuilding’s hazily defined world allows for greater flexibility for what can happen in the story.
We are talking about plausibility and immersion versus possibility and wonder.
3. A Middle Way
But is there a Middle way between Hard and Soft worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is, after all, a spectrum—a continuum.
Take Neil Gaiman, for instance. He uses Hemingway’s Iceberg method: he knows around 90% of everything there is to know about his story world, but only reveals 10-25%. And, to fill in the gaps, and create a greater sense of realism, he includes as much mundanity as possible. You will never find another author who talks about his character’s bodily functions more often than Gaiman, and this is by design. When a gnome shows up using magic in Stardust, we are on our guard. But when that gnome later has to pause mid-sentence to run off and relieve himself, according to Gaiman, we are less likely to deny the gnome’s existence because the gnome has to do ordinary things like we do.
A Middle-way Worldbuilder, will, like many Hard Worldbuilders, construct their Fantasy worlds as fully as they can, so that the worlds are as logically and logistically coherent and consistent as possible. But, like a Soft Worldbuilder, they only reveal what is absolutely necessary for readers to know to follow the story. And, thus, they are less likely to overwhelm the audience with so much exposition that it breaks the reader’s immersion.
Choosing Your Worldbuilding Method
As with the Plotting vs Pantsing debate, which method of worldbuilding you choose is largely a matter of personal preference.
- Soft Worldbuilding: Do like to control the feel and aesthetic of your world more than anything? Soft Worldbuilding is probably right for you! Just be aware this method can mean sacrificing plausibility and immersion for more discerning readers. But never fear—you are among titans such as Lewis, Miyazaki, and Rowling!
- Hard Worldbuilding: Do you want to make your world feel as plausible and richly detailed as possible? Hard Worldbuilding is right for you. Great! But be sure to clear your schedule for the next couple years. And beware: it will be tempting to include everything you come up with in the text, which risks boring some readers rather than fascinating them. Tolkien and Brandon Sanderson await your arrival in their prestigious camp.
- Middle-way worldbuilding: Are you the sort of person who likes to have your cake and eat it? Then, like Gaiman, you are probably a Middle-way Worldbuilder. While your approach may appeal to a wider audience, it may also be the hardest. You must do the same amount of work as the Hard Worldbuilders on the front end, then you have to the added work of choosing only the bare essentials to convey your world. It’s tough, but the rich, cleanly presented world you’ll end up with is worth it.
Now get out there and start Worldbuilding!
If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.
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by Oliver Fox
Oliver earned his BFA from the University of Memphis (2015). After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch (’16). Currently, he works as a manuscript analyst and is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans.
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