Risingshadow has the honour of publishing Zachary Jernigan's guest post.

Zachary Jernigan is the author of No Return (Night Shade Books, March 2013). No Return is his debut novel.

Click here to visit Zachary Jernigan's official website.

The Unrepentant Worldbuilder (by Zachary Jernigan)

I feel a thrill when someone says that the worldbuilding in a particular story is great. It’s awesome, the thought that someone has built a world for the reader to inhabit. It’s the ultimate fictive creation, really... “I mean, sure, you built some characters from the ground up, but I built a WHOLE WORLD.”

I also chuckle a bit when I hear people talking about worldbuilding, because it’s such a ridiculous thing to talk about... “World... building? What is the writer, a god or something? Madness, all this talk of building worlds!”

Of course, no sane person really believes that a world is being constructed – it’s merely a figure of speech reflecting the act of skating thinly over ice, of tricking the reader to believe in the impossible for a moment – and yet there are times when the fervent fan of a book (a role I know quite intimately) sounds nearly rapturous in the way they describe the details of the made-up world they’ve just read about.

To a non-genre reader, this can appear quite insane. Hell, to someone in the genre it can appear quite insane. For me, it’s the main reason I write what I do: for the merest possibility that I might see that rapturous look, I write.

Surely, there are other factors at play, other things I prioritize in my writing. Whether or not my sentences read well is my first concern, character-fidelity my second, plot my third, but overarching all of that is the speculative conceit – the various acts of narrative that convince readers to suspend disbelief for however long they’re reading my work.

Reason says that if this isn’t a top priority for an author, they’ll just write fiction that takes place in the everyday world.


I’ll be honest: I’m kind of a snob. (I know, I know. Don’t everybody rush to defend me.)

I sincerely believe that, at its best, genre fiction – speculative fiction, sf&f; basically, stuff that requires a big imagination and a great leap of cognition – is by its very nature superior to other, normalcy-bound fiction. The act of building a world, whether it be a little like our own or as different as can be imagined, is difficult.

Imagine, for a moment, how difficult it must have been to write (to pick a respected work of literature at random) Moby Dick. Now imagine how difficult it would have been to write if Melville had chosen to have the whole story occur on another planet, with oceans of mercury and a sun in the process of dying.

See? Superior.

Of course, I’m being somewhat flippant. (Which is not to say I’m wrong. In fact, I think I’m very, very, very right. But then I would think that, wouldn’t I?) I understand that worldbuilding is not the end-all in fiction, but it must be admitted that anything an author can do in literature about the real world can be done in literature about fake worlds – other than, obviously, establishing a one-on-one analogue of the real world (which I’m not saying has no use).

This fact is demonstrably true when we look at the history of literature, many seminal works of which are speculative in nature. Still, their (often barely recognized) existence doesn’t stop me from wishing there were more Moby Dicks that take place on alien worlds.


Now, don’t worry; I’m not about to turn this post into a “SF&F Versus Literature: RUMBLE ON ARRAKIS!” kind of thing. I honestly have no problem with there being a divide between Literature-with-a-big-L and genre fiction, largely because I think exemplary work is done in both ill-defined camps – and also because I’ve always intended to be shelved in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. Despite my literary pretensions (and I do have some of those), I’m explicitly writing science fiction and/or fantasy. Always.

This informs my story decisions constantly, in very purposeful ways. When I began writing No Return in the fall of 2010, I consciously planned for it to be the kind of story that a non-genre reader would find challenging.

As uppity as it sounds, I wanted it to be a Members Only kind of book.


Well, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life educating myself about the literature of the fantastic. It’s been a joyful enterprise, but also a huge effort to get to where I am, both as a writer and especially as a reader. I take joy in picking up a book that would confound someone who typically reads about marriages quietly breaking apart in pricey Manhattan lofts. It makes sense for me to try to write the kind of book that rewards years of burying one’s nose in books with strange titles and even stranger locales.

It make sense because of love, honestly.

I love that a book can be opened and with some effort flower a virtual world for the reader to inhabit. Next to having someone tell you they care about you, it is literally the coolest thing I can imagine happening to a person during their day. Even the writing of it pales in comparison to living it through the gift of another author’s words.


You know, it’s funny. Several times now I’ve gone back to the beginning of this post and nearly started over. It strikes me as a bunch of words not knowing where they’re going, and yet as I typed the last two paragraphs of the previous section I realized just what I wanted to communicate.

I’m grateful to be here, right now, writing a post about worldbuilding.

I’m grateful, and I’m stunned.

I wrote something that Sami Airola (Seregil of Rhiminee) – one of the moderators of this blog – read and reviewed and apparently liked enough to want me to write a post about. And while I realize that I’ve only lightly touched on my own work in particular, the effort has made me realize once again just how amazing it is to connect with a reader.

And you know what? It’s all because of worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is what binds all of us genre weirdos together. It’s what sustains us, gives us cause to smile and share and complain on a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute basis.

Among worldbuilders is the best subworld of Earth to live in.

And may we never forget it.

- Zachary Jernigan is a pretty large mammal with a bald head and an increasingly hairy body. He’d love it if you visited him at zacharyjernigan.com.

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