Storytelling and Worldbuilding in The Force Awakens

By Nicholas Mizer

Last month Salon posted an insightful article by Gerry Canavan, an assistant professor of English at Marquette University. Canavan talks about similarities between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium. Specifically, he references “The New Shadow,” an unfinished sequel set over a century after the events of The Lord of the Rings. The similarity between the two works, according to Canavan, is that both show worlds in which evil is never completely eradicated. This is in contrast to both The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars trilogy. As he puts it, “’Return of the Jedi’ never asked us what we thought would happen when those people woke up the next morning and the Empire still had 90 percent of its guns, ships, territory, generals, and soldiers, ready to descend into vicious, scorched-earth fanaticism as they slid into defeat; it just wasn’t that kind of story.” As the Star Wars saga moves forward into the post-Endor era, this is the exact thing The Force Awakens is asking us.


If you haven’t read the article, I recommend checking it out. I disagree with the somewhat nihilist assessment that the reoccurrence of evil necessitates viewing these worlds as without hope, and think it could be a littler richer if Canavan referenced Star Wars canon about the rise of the Resistance, but the first point is too big for me to want to tackle here, and the second is a minor quibble. What I’d like to suggest is that the most important similarity between Tolkien’s legendarium and Star Wars is not that both show worlds in which evil is never completely eradicated, but simply the fact that they both show worlds.

To some extent, every piece of fiction (and, arguably non-fiction) ever written presents an alternate reality, even if that reality is almost identical to our own. The Grapes of Wrath is set in an alternate version of the Great Depression where the main difference from our world is that the Joad family exists. In these cases, of course, the imagined world is backgrounded to the point of being hardly noticeable. Steinbeck was interested in characters and plots, not in creating a world. In contrast to this we have the creative tradition to which Tolkien belongs, which focuses on what he called “subcreation.” Here, much of the point of the creative work is that it presents a cohesive world that is very different from our own. There are actually two things going on in Star Wars, the legendarium, and most geek-related fiction: the worldbuilding and the storytelling. These two work in different ways, according to different rules, but they are often confused in the way we talk about a thing like Star Wars.


Artist: Mario Zoots

Mark J.P. Wolf, communications professor at Columbia and member of the World Building Institute (yes, it’s a thing), has written a great book on the history and theory of imagined worlds, Building Imaginary Worlds. There, he points out one of the key differences between storytelling and worldbuilding:

“One of the cardinal rules often given to new writers has to do with narrative economy; they are told to pare down their prose and remove anything that does not actively advance the story.  World-building, however, often results in data, exposition, and digressions that provide information about a world, slowing down narrative or even bringing it to a halt temporarily, yet much of the excess detail and descriptive richness can be an important part of the audience’s experience” (29)

By looking at how we construct imagined worlds, we can get a better idea of how we construct our own; by looking at the ways that our world resists our constructions we can get a better sense of how our world differs from “subcreated” worlds.

As Star Wars moves forward, it is drawing larger audiences into what the now-apocryphal Expanded Universe (EU) stories have been doing with the world for a long time: expanding the horizons, filling in gaps, and doing the other work necessary for worldbuilding. And here’s the thing: we’ve spent a lot of time studying stories, and not that much time studying worlds. Why should we be thinking about worlds? Well, for one, as Wolf points out, “worlds can exist without stories, but stories cannot exist without worlds” (29). When we ignore the study of worlds, we ignore the foundations out of which stories emerge. Another reason to focus on the creation of worlds, as anthropologist Tom Boellstorf has said, “virtual [or imagined] worlds show us how, under our very noses, our ‘real’ lives have been ‘virtual’ all along” (5). By looking at how we construct imagined worlds, we can get a better idea of how we construct our own; by looking at the ways that our world resists our constructions we can get a better sense of how our world differs from “subcreated” worlds.


Source: @emokylo

Given all of this, one of the most important aspects of Canavan’s article is that it demonstrates the kind of discussions we can have when we focus on the worlds of fiction rather than only the story. Story and character are important, but a more fundamental question than whether we think Kylo Ren is too emo are the questions that Canavan raises: what is the nature of a world in which the dark side always seems to come back? Is such a world without hope? How does that imagined world relate to our own?


About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

There are 4 comments

  1. laurentdsb

    To each work of fiction it’s cosmology ; we could probably make the bridge between this and oral stories as well, and the other alternate universes and their uses for different society ; like the spirit world for Inuit and the Dream for Australian aborigine. Its then not just seen as ”believe that are not scientific” or modern, but rather as discourse, world building and perpetually changing through oral stories in which they can analyse the relations between things in the real world. How far can we retrace world building in occidental, cosmology, religion or philosophy?


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