In defence of world-building, from Ikea

Whenever I think of world-building – as in the fantasy exercise where you build out the lay of the land, and then the land itself where you’re going to situate your story – the first thing that comes to mind, of all things, is Ikea.

Yes, the Swedish furniture brand. You’re probably thinking that I think world-building is something like putting Ikea furniture to together, but that’s not what I’m thinking. I think of Ikea first when I think of world-building because of my first visit to an Ikea store, which was in Stockholm in 2009. It was the Ikea HQ, a large cuboidal building that looks more monolithic than its interiors actually are.

Excluding fire exits, the store has one point entry and one point of exit. It was designed this way, I was told, to force all visitors to walk all the way through the building, through all floors and every section on display, before exiting. By maximising the amount of time spent inside the store, Ikea wanted to maximise sales: every visitor would have to take a look at the dazzling variety of interior decoration options, and have little by way of chickening out of a purchase. The Ikea showroom in Dubai Festival City (IIRC) that I visited later that year is designed the same way. (I went there for the amazing breakfast buffet they have over the weekend: AED 3 for all you can guzzle/gorge.)

I’m a poor writer of fantasy, or of fiction in general. The only thing I ever wrote that experienced a feeble measure of success was a story called ‘The Sea’. It was published in one edition of a magazine produced by Them Pretentious Basterds, a Chennai-based writers’ group I was a part of. ‘The Sea’, you’ll see, is so sparse with details, it’s almost as if I was afraid of taking on something only to lose control. And this would be true. The other fantasy stories I have been comfortable writing were almost all smaller vignettes from a D&D universe that Thomas Manuel created for a campaign called ‘Taxmen: High Risk Unit’.

World-building to me has always been about building an Ikea store and then sticking myself, the writer, in it, forcing me to plot my way through and emerge alive at the end. To me, the exercise of writing fantasy begins in earnest with the world-building because this is where I’m already plotting to ambush myself, my plot and my characters. The fantasy world – to me – is the world that I’m going to experience, not the world whose fate I’m going to script. Once built, this world is set in stone as far as I’m concerned, and from there I simply live it out and write down what I’m seeing, sensing, feeling to create what others read as the story.

It’s not the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’, as M. John Harrison called it. Instead, world-building is an exercise of gaming. The best games, especially of the video variety, give you control just as much as they don’t let you fly off the handle in terms of your in-game destiny. The stories of the best games are not the product of a choice between mechanical decision-making (e.g. by offering you multiple choices and then taking the narrative along what you’ve decided to do) and glorious visuals. Instead, they mimic life, forcing you to make the same choices in-game that the characters of celebrated works of literature do.

World-building would be the great clomping foot of nerdism if the world is expected to justify your entire experience of the game, or the story. To persist with Harrison’s view, world-building does “literalise the urge to invent” but it pays to ask what exactly is being invented. If you’re able to build a world whose physical, cultural and historical dynamics are together able to embody great stories – stories that force their writers to play games with themselves as they navigate fragments of their own creation – then world-building would have far outclassed the more insular view of the exercise Harrison seems to harbour in his exposition.

I realise Harrison and those who agree with him would’ve come to their conclusions because world-building as I use it is exceedingly difficult to shape and manoeuvre, and would be a horrible prescription for young fantasy writers such as myself. My defence of world-building is mine alone, and I don’t express it to rebut or rebuke Harrison. It’s the only way I can engage with fantasy. This is why, when I criticise films or books, I struggle to make sense of what the author or script-writer could’ve done better to make the product more engaging. Instead, I think to myself, “I’ve just witnessed a story unfold in this make-believe world, and it’s a so-so story”; my judgment ends there.

Ikea, in much the same way, has designed its Stockholm and Dubai stores to tell a story. If the story falls flat, I can’t blame the world because it is what it is. I can’t blame the story either because that’s what the world has engendered. The world, to me, is sacrosanct because, in my conception, they don’t exist to please. They just do, and I, the traveller, maybe even the trespasser, need to deal with that by myself.

Featured image credit: Saide Serna Marcial/Unsplash.

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