How to create a fictional world – The lego movie


There isn’t one perfect way to create a fictional world. The techniques are many and even if you follow them you might still make mistakes.

But isn’t it better to start writing your story with the basic rules in mind rather than just making it up as you go?

In his book “The anatomy of story” John Truby talks about different worldbuilding techniques. I’ve already talked about one of those (the umbrella technique) in another post, but in this one I want to focus on the circular journey.


Why the circular journey helps to create a fictional world

The most famous story to use the circular journey as a technique for worldbuilding is The wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s journey is circular because she doesn’t just peace out of Kansas and goes “Over the rainbow”. At the end of the story, she comes back to her home.

It’s the act of coming back to where you started that differentiates the circular journey from other kinds of stories where the hero never returns.

The essential elements of this kind of story are:

  1. multiple locations (home + one or more additional worlds/realms/countries etc…)
  2. a physical or thematic connection (the places that the protagonist visits must have something in common)
  3. different challenges for the protagonist (ideally, increasingly difficult challenges)

Let’s start from the beginning of the journey. The hero is living is life in a certain place (maybe he likes it, or maybe he doesn’t), then for some reason he has to move to another location. That’s when an event so groundbreaking makes it impossible for him to come back home.

While he is out in the wild (metaphorical wild), the hero might be:

  • looking for a certain person or object (Marlin in Finding Nemo)
  • trying to go back home (like Dorothy)
  • completing a certain mission or task
  • training or learning something new (Bruce in Batman Begins)

But at the end of the journey, he has to go back.

What makes the circular journey so special, is the fact that it’s not JUST a tool to create a fictional world. It does force the writer to be creative, but its greatest feature is that it emphasizes the change within the hero.

Think about this concept as a “before and after” pictures of the ugly duckling turning into the supermodel she acttually is a beautiful girl:

The princess diaries - create a fictional world

At the beginning of the story, we get to know how the hero lives in his home. At the end of the story, we see him back where he started but, after his journey gave him a makeover, he’s changed.

Not only that, but if there’s more than one location he visits we can see him changing gradually and facing different environments with increasing confidence.

The lego movie

The lego movie follows Emmet, a simple construction worker who finds out to be “the special”, in his journey to save the world from the evil President Business.

Multiple locations

Emmet is forced to leave his city and travel to meet the other master builders who will help him in his quest. And in each new place he finds an ally:

This is not just a coincidence, each character more or less represents the world where he/she comes from and also, since the movies is about legos, some of the most famous lego sets ever distributed.

Spaceman - create a fictional world

In the end, we end up with a wide variety of characters each with a different personality and set of skills that will be useful to the adventure.

A physical or thematic connection

In order to write a fictional world you must establish connections between the locations. You cannot just have your character run around aimlessly or place a futuristic town to an abandoned dusty village. Your fictional world needs something that ties it all together.

In The Lord of the rings all the locations are visually connected by New Zealand the landscape which reminds of Europe in the middle ages. And also by the fact that all the people that live in Middle-earth will be affected if the heroes can’t succeed in their mission.

The most evident connection in The lego movie is the fact that all the locations are made of legos. But there is also something else: in each location there is at least one master builder who is part of the alliance against President Business.

The fact that the locations are so different from one another is also relevant regarding Emmet’s character arc.

He has never seen anything different than the city, never experienced a world without rules and instructions, now he finds himself in a different environment with different rules every 5 minutes. Ultimately, this leads him to change and think outside the box.

Different challenges

As I said before, Emmet is not good at improvising. He is so used to “follow the instructions” that the idea of not being able to do that is terrifying for him.

But this discomfort and this struggle are actually good for him, because they force him to think for himself and find a way out of trouble. It’s a basic rule of screenwriting:

discomfort = forced change

All the silly faces and the yelling (especially the yelling) make the situation seem light and funny, but if YOU were in his shoes you probably wouldn’t feel good.

Think about it this way: you’re lost in a neighborhood where you’ve never been before. Naturally the first thing you want to do is reach for your phone and use an app to find the way home, or call someone for help. But your pocket is empty.

What do you do? You start to think of a different solution, and by doing so you are already changing your habits and your attitude.

At the very end of the movie, when Emmet comes back and saves his city, you can see how much he has changed. Now, like all the other master builders, he can use his imagination at its full potential and doesn’t feel the need to to follow the instruction manual anymore.

This is what the circular journey does best: highlight the difference. When the protagonist is back to the point where he started, you can clearly see that he is not the same as before.

So if you want to write a story that involves a big change in the hero and you have no idea on how you’re going to make that change happen or how to create a fictional world, the circular journey can help you do both.