How a Fictional Universe is Created
VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Have you ever wondered what goes into your favorite stories and worlds? For this video, we're looking at the entire process of building a world from scratch, from an author taking notes to the costume department of a movie adaptation. Our video includes the fictional worlds of “The Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, “Star Wars”, and more!
How a Fictional Universe Is Created
Have you ever wondered what goes into your favorite stories and worlds? Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be taking a look at how a fictional universe is created.
For this video, we’re looking at the entire process of building a world from scratch, from an author taking notes to the costume department of a movie adaptation.
The quintessential example of world-building is J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, where “The Lord of the Rings” takes place, but you could make a case for earlier works making up “fictional universes” of their own. Mythologies like the Greeks and Romans developed could arguably be considered a shared world, as could the England that King Arthur reigned over, that romantic fodder of so many poems and stories from across Europe. But a fictional universe as the brainchild of a singular person certainly does date back to Tolkien, and has only become more proliferate in the last century. As far as creating one goes, Tolkien literally wrote the book, and he left very large shoes to fill.
A good fictional universe has to have good lore, but this doesn’t mean it’s necessary to spend years beforehand coming up with histories, side characters, rules, and maps. It’s possible to come up with a rich universe after already developing the bones of the story you want to tell, and often you can tell that new layers are being added to a big franchise the longer they go on. The original “Star Wars” trilogy wasn’t created with full, exact outlines for the prequel and sequel trilogies in mind, but it’s not the lack of '70s foresight that makes those movies good or bad. Similarly, the sprawling world of the MCU was not planned out in its entirety in a room by Kevin Feige in the days leading up to “Iron Man”. Nobody knew exactly what would happen in “Endgame” when the MCU was set into motion. That being said, creating a rich mythology should still be part of the process, and it’s the worlds themselves that make franchises like “Harry Potter”, “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” so beloved.
One of the things Tolkien is most famous for, and which often sets a good fictional world apart from a great one, is the creation of fictional languages. He studied English literature and language at Oxford University, eventually becoming a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, and he put this knowledge of linguistics to work when he came up with Elvish. But Elvish and its many dialects isn’t the most popular fictional language, that honor belongs to Klingon, the most widely spoken fictional language in the world which – along with High Valyrian – is available to learn as a course on Duolingo. The fist smatterings of Klingon were first sparked into being by James Doohan – a D-Day veteran better known as Star Trek's Captain Montgomery Scott, and better known still as “Scotty”. However, the germs of what Doohan began were fleshed out, organized, and developed by Marc Okrand, a linguist hired to work on the third “Star Trek” film, which was the franchise's first big-screen Klingon-heavy adventure. Okrand has said that the best way to make the Klingon language sound like a “real” language was to make it one; people even have wedding ceremonies in Klingon.
But you don’t need to learn another language to understand why people love “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Trek”; away from the minds of writers like Tolkien, Martin and Lucas, universes are made whole when they reach the silver screen, and a lot more people are involved in making them shine. While Peter Jackson was certainly able to make the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy the way he wanted, there were hundreds more people working behind the scenes. Multiple people worked on the screenplay and “Fellowship of the Ring” spent three years in pre-production before filming began, during which dozens of people worked on concept art, costume design, set design, and the creation of props. All of these people are integral to the process, not to mention the actors who brought the novel’s characters to life. And while “Star Wars” is often held up on a world-building pedestal and an example of George Lucas’s unobstructed creative vision, the original trilogy also had multiple screenwriters in addition to Lucas. Though he did provide the story, he didn’t direct “Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi” because the workload of both writing and director was too much. So, while we may think of fictional universes being the property of a singular creator, this is rarely the case, as the more popular a piece of media gets the more people are involved in bringing it to life – and they all deserve recognition.
But just because something isn’t the product of one person’s creative vision doesn’t make it any less valid; the MCU isn’t bad because isn't the work of one single writer-director – in fact, that's rarely even through its comic book source material. Innumerable writers have also done wonders for the Cthulhu Mythos. While the tropes and themes of the Mythos were created by H.P. Lovecraft, even during Lovecraft’s lifetime he encouraged his writer friends to liberally use his creations if they wanted – and a lot of them did. Lovecraft’s bigotry has left an unpleasant legacy, but today diverse and marginalized writers latch onto the Cthulhu Mythos and keep it alive and thriving far more than Lovecraft ever did; only twelve of his short stories are actually counted in the official “Mythos”.
While a fictional universe can be vast and exciting if only one person has worked on it, it takes an army to realize the depth and scope of Middle-Earth, the Wizarding World, Westeros, and that galaxy far, far away. And that’s how a fictional universe is created.