World-building is essential to telling stories that people can connect. One of the hallmarks of a great story is when a world is so alluring; people would choose to exist there if they had the choice. When it comes to world-building, the science fiction and fantasy genres are the typical recipients. Where it involves creating a fictional universe that serves as the setting for your story, this universe can include everything from the physical environment and the cultures that inhabit it to the laws of physics and magic that govern it.
There are two primary approaches to world-building: soft and hard. While both have their strengths and weaknesses, the choice between them often depends on the type of story you want to tell. Let’s take a look at these two approaches and explore their differences.
Soft World Building
Soft world-building is often characterized by its flexibility. The focus is often on the narrative, characters, and themes rather than the minute details of the world itself. The rules of the world are perpetually subject to the rule of cool.
For example, in a soft science fiction setting, technology might be used in a way that isn’t entirely consistent with our understanding of physics as they are at this moment. The technology serves the story rather than the story serving the technology. Similarly, in a soft fantasy setting, magic might be used without a clear explanation of how it works. This, unfortunately, can lead to a feeling of Deus Ex Machina when it happens. However, in a soft setting, you can tailor the technology or the magic to fit the scenes or characters in a way that helps carry the story forward.
Soft world-building can be incredibly effective for stories where the world is more of a backdrop for the characters and their journeys. It allows for a greater focus on the narrative and can create a sense of wonder and mystery. This can also lead to inconsistencies if not handled carefully. Yet some of the greatest stories we know by heart started as soft-built worlds before their ethos was established.
Soft Science Fiction: “Star Wars” Series
The “Star Wars” universe is a classic example of soft science fiction. The technology, such as lightsabers and faster-than-light travel, is not explained in detail and doesn’t adhere to our current understanding of physics. The Force, a mystical energy field that gives Jedi their power, is more akin to magic than science. The focus of “Star Wars” is more on the epic space opera narrative and the characters’ journeys than on the scientific accuracy of its world. That being said “Star Wars” is a perfect example of the Cement Phenomon we will talk about below.
Soft Fantasy: “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien
While Tolkien’s Middle-earth is incredibly detailed in terms of history, languages, and cultures, the magic system is an example of soft world-building. The magic in “The Lord of the Rings” is often mysterious and unexplained. For example, Gandalf’s abilities as a wizard are never clearly defined and seem to change based on the needs of the story. The focus is more on the epic quest and the themes of friendship, courage, and the struggle against evil.
Hard World Building
Hard world-building, on the other hand, is all about consistency and detail. The rules of the world are clearly defined and strictly adhered to. This approach is often used in hard science fiction, where the technology is based on real scientific principles and is consistently applied throughout the story. Although in some stories, those principles are made up, like FLT Drives, Mecha, and entire sections of the periodic tables. The key to it being hard is that whatever is created is adhered to as law. If a spark drive takes 10 minutes, it will always take 10 minutes. If mechs require two human brains to function, that won’t change just cause the protagonist needs it to.
In a hard fantasy setting, you could focus on the ridgid relationships and politics of the world. However, magic is usually the deciding factor. In Hard Fantasy, magic would have clear rules and limitations. The reader may not know at first, but they eventually learn how it all works. Conversely, the author knows exactly how the system works and what can and can’t be done.
The goal of Hard world-building is to create a sense of immersion. While that may also come with a level of realism, it more or less seeks to set the rules for which you will suspend disbelief. It can also provide a solid foundation for plot development, as the constraints of the world can drive the story. The drawback is it can be time-consuming and complex. You may also risk overshadowing the characters and narrative with jargon and descriptions if done incorrectly.
Hard Fantasy: “Mistborn” Series by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson is known for his magic systems. In his “Mistborn” series, the magic of Allomancy is based on the ingestion and “burning” of different types of metals, each granting a specific power. This magic system’s rules, limitations, and consequences are clearly defined and consistently applied throughout the series. This detailed magic system drives the plot and shapes the characters’ strategies and conflicts. It also creates a situation where he can write the same system in a different book, and his fans will understand it and know it takes place in the same world.
Hard Science Fiction: “The Expanse” Series by James S.A. Corey
“The Expanse” series is a space opera that spans across the solar system, featuring a diverse cast of characters and a complex, politically-charged plot. However, it also pays significant attention to scientific accuracy and detail, making it a good example of hard science fiction.
The series is set in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system, but not beyond. The technology used for space travel is plausible and based on our current understanding of physics. For example, the effects of gravity and inertia are a constant concern for the characters, and space travel is depicted as a slow and arduous process.
The series also explores the potential consequences of discovering alien technology that operates on principles beyond our current understanding of science. However, even this alien technology follows consistent rules and has logical consequences, adhering to the principles of hard science fiction.
Choosing Between Soft and Hard World Building
The choice between soft and hard world-building often comes down to what serves your story best. Soft world-building might be the best choice if you want to focus on character development and thematic exploration. Hard world-building might be more appropriate if you want to create a complex, detailed world that can drive the plot and challenge your characters.
It’s also worth noting that these are not binary choices but rather ends of a spectrum. Many stories fall somewhere in between, using soft and hard world-building elements. For example, you might have a detailed and consistent magic system (hard world-building) but leave the history and cultures of your world more loosely defined (soft world-building).
An interesting thing I call the Fanstone Effect. It is when a story develops a fandom, it becomes harder over time as if taking physical form and turning to stone. This allows fans to stand on the base story and create fanfictions, figures, personas, etc. Those fans also tend to suffer from Canon adherence and may revolt if you change things along the way for the sake of changing them. In a way, it shows the rule of cool as a limit to how far into a story it can be expressed before it breaks the suspension of disbelief and shatters the world-building. Be very careful once a fandom has been established, as trying to subvert their expectations may cause irreparable harm to that stone structure.
In the end, no matter what it is, your story. Whether you choose soft or hard world-building, creating a world that you enjoy enough to tell the story of is all that matters. People will love it or hate it, but you are the one that has to spend hundreds of hours there.