Fantasy worldbuilding is often complicated and confusing. The writer has to build a new world from scratch, the laws of physics, fauna, and flora have to be different than our own but familiar enough to seem plausible.
Fortunately, John Truby, author of The anatomy of story, has laid down a few guidelines that can help writers find inspiration for their worldbuilding.
Here are a few of those guidelines with the awesome anime Made in Abyss as an example.
The “Arena” of the story
“The arena is the basic space of drama. It is a single, unified place surrounded by some kind of wall. Everything inside the arena is part of the story. Everything outside the arena is not.”The Anatomy of story
Why do we need to set “boundaries” to our story? Isn’t fantasy worldbuilding all about new lands to discover and different worlds to explore?
This is the reason why every story world needs an “arena”, the defined space where the story takes place.
In Made in Abyss the arena is not just the Abyss itself, but the town of Orth + the Abyss. Riko and Reg’s story begins with their training in the orphanage and only after the inciting incident it moves to the Abyss.
But this is not the only reason why the town is just as important as its mysterious pit, in fact, the two locations are linked to each other.
If the Abyss wasn’t there, the explorers wouldn’t have founded a city around it, and without Orth, there would be no one willing to risk their lives in order to uncover the secrets of the Abyss.
In short, Made in Abyss has good fantasy worldbuilding. So many lesser stories waste time describing places that sound wonderful and everything, but are not “connected” in any way.
Any world must be coherent in its internal logic, just like the real world. If a bomb goes off in a town in the real world, you cannot expect that the town right next to it will in no way be affected by this event.
Same goes for fantasy worlds, each location might have its own landscape, climate, fauna, etc… but it cannot exist in a bubble. If it exists, it must be affected by what happens around it.
In his book, John Truby describes different ways to structure the arena, in another post I’ve already talked about the Umbrella method and how it applies to the first Fantastic Beasts movie.
Made in Abyss uses a different technique for its fantasy worldbuilding: The journey.
It is basically a journey that takes the protagonist through different locations, each one different from the other, but somehow connected thematically.
The connection that links the different locations in Made in Abyss is obviously the Abyss itself.
This story overall is about the passion for exploration and the desire to solve the greatest mysteries of life, but also the danger that comes with such desires. Each layer of the pit is unique, it comes with its own fauna and rules of physics but what they all have in common is the fact that they all challenge the ones who try to reach the bottom.
Reg and Riko encounter all sorts of animals, plants, and people through their descent, but the core theme of ambition and the price to pay for it is reflected in each of their encounters.
“To those who devote themselves to challenge the Abyss, a place where darkness itself fears to go, the Abyss shall return all. Life, death. Curse and blessing. The entirety of it all. At the end of your journey, what will be the closure that you shall obtain? The ones who shall decide are only those who dare to challenge”Made in Abyss
Worldbuilding through conflict
What is the real purpose of a good story world? To surprise the viewer with a breathtaking shot of the landscape? To let the writer flex his creative muscle in peace?
Nope. A fantasy world doesn’t exist just to be pretty, its most important function is to challenge the characters.
This is the most important thing to keep in mind about fantasy worldbuilding: the world must provide both problems and solutions and it’s up to the protagonist to learn how to use the resources at his disposal.
The Abyss provides an incredibly hard challenge for our little protagonists. It’s an unforgiving place that has proven itself deadly for most of the people who tried to reach the bottom.
The creatures that inhabit it can be either predators or preys for the human explorers. Plants can be either poison or medicine.
For example, in episode 8 Riko and Reg have to find a way to survive for 10 days on their own in the Inverted forest. They manage to find a small pond where they can drink water, but it is inhabited by a dangerous hippo.
The kids use their own strengths (Riko’s knowledge and sharp thinking, Reg’s physical power and robotic arms) to kill the animal. Now they have managed to acquire both water and food to sustain them for the entire period of time.
With this example it’s easy to see why Made in Abyss makes for such an exciting story. The challenge that the protagonists have to face is difficult, but not impossible. Each layer of the pit forces them to learn and to adapt in order to survive.
On the other hand, if the amount of danger and the amount of hope were disproportioned the adventure would certainly fall flat.
A story about an impossible descent into the Abyss that ends with Both of them being eaten alive by a Crimson Splitjaw in the 1st layer would be pretty short and pointless.
A story about an easy, fun walk down a short and innocuous Abyss would be just boring.
In conclusion, the biggest strength of the anime Made in Abyss is its clever use of the Journey method that makes its fantasy worldbuilding both believable and incredible.