Review: “Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation” by Mark J. P. Wolf’

Mark J. P. Wolf. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York: Routledge, 2012.

In Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation, Mark J. P. Wolf develops a framework and criteria for describing and examining imaginary worlds, subcreated worlds. Indeed, Wolf accomplishes this goal, exploring various issues related to philosophy, narratology, storytelling, readers, characters, authorship, transmedia storytelling, and more. Thus, Wolf’s volume is quite thorough. At the same time, some of Wolf’s analysis felt cut short and left me wanting more. Nonetheless, the book forms a helpful foundation for analyzing and exploring notions of world building not only in fan fiction, media, and cultural studies but in other fields as well.


In the Introduction, Wolf acknowledges that while some readers are primarily and only interested in narrative, other readers may be especially interested in the world building aspects of a book inasmuch as those elements enhance the reader’s experience (e.g., glossaries, maps, timelines). As such, imaginary worlds do not necessarily rely on narratives. Thus, the nature of imaginary worlds and reader preferences necessitate a critical approach distinct from one focusing on narrative. Moreover, building imaginary worlds, Wolf rightly contends, is a universal human behavior [1]. Additionally, Wolf provides a general overview of how previous writers and theorists explored making imaginary worlds. Much of this work was written by the world authors themselves or took a distinctly philosophical perspective of “possible worlds” and modal logic. Wolf’s book, though, continues this discourse by focusing not only on the language and text of imaginary worlds but by including the audiovisual aspects of imaginary worlds in his analysis. This shift away toward media studies for understanding world building is pertinent because, as Wolf highlights, media consumption patterns are changing with media types (i.e., more focus on world building through audiovisual elements) and “the more traditional literary criticism are not world-centered and constitute a different focus” (12).

In Chapter 1, Wolf describes various aspects of how an imaginary world, subcreated world, or Secondary World works. As a jumping-off point, he briefly explains the history of imaginary worlds within philosophy, otherwise known as possible worlds. While foundational to fictional worlds more broadly, such philosophical approaches, Wolf contends, inadequately address audiovisual-based worlds, instead focusing primarily on literature. He shifts to world-builders themselves and traces a thread regarding how those people approached fictional worlds. Beginning with the notion of imagination presented by Coleridge and George MacDonald’s considerations of such imaginative worlds necessitating internally consistent laws, Wolf leans especially on J. R. R. Tolkein’s works. Because humans are created by a god, Tolkein asserts, so human have the ability to subcreate, which Wolf describes in detail: “Subcreation . . . involves new combinations of existing concepts, which, in the building of a secondary world, become the inventions that replace or reset the Primary World defaults . . . . The more one changes these defaults, the more the secondary world becomes different and distinct from the Primary World. It is not surprising, then, that secondary worlds will in many way resemble the Primary World . . . . Secondary Worlds, then, have the same ddefault assumptions as does the Primary World, except where the author has indicated otherwise” (24). In light of this idea, Wolf starts to discuss to what he calls the “secondariness” of a world, namely, the degree to which it is connected to the Primary World. Secondary, imaginative worlds are best arranged “along a spectrum of attachment to, or reliance on, the Primary World (as we know it) and its defaults” (27) so that people experience different worlds in different ways.

These worlds are often more than a story, though. As Wolf comments, “A compelling story and a compelling world are very different things, and one need not require the other” (29). A text, then, can become world-building when the narrative goes beyond what is necessary to advance the story. He articulate the aspects of world-building through three categories: invention, completeness, and consistency. These categories link to three descriptions of how one experiences a world: immersion, absorption, and saturation. Speaking less about the reader’s experience and more toward how readers fill gaps, he discusses the world Gestalten of ellipsis, logic, and extrapolation, or how “a structure or configuration of details together implies the existence of an imaginary world, and causes the audiences to automatically fill in the missing pieces of that world, based on the details that are given” (52). Shifting away from perception and Gestalten, Wolf draws attention to catalysts of speculation, how certain worlds make people curious and result in people attempting “to answer questions in more etail, either by the world’s originator, by those authorized to add to it, or even by unauthorized fan additions” (61). Finally, Wolf concludes by highlighting that the framing of clear boundaries between Primary World and Secondary World has lessened overtime as people have become more used to these imaginary worlds.

In chapter 2, Wolf broadly descries the history of imaginary worlds. He begins with transnarrative characters and literary cycles, suggesting that wold build begins to take off when characters from one story appear in another, thereby causing audiences to fill the gaps of such transnarrative characters. Moving forward, and in some cases at the same time, world building happened in mythical stories, such as in the Odyssey, Herodotus, Lucian, or Plato. The next major shift occurred closer to the turn of the first millenium, which gave rise to travelers’ tales during the age of exploration (up to the nineteenth century), of which many explorations were simply fantastical stories with world building. During this time, we also see the emergence of utopias and dystopias. Beginning in the nineteenth century, and based on the various world-building groupings before, fantasy and science fiction books emerged and proliferated as a genre. Such proliferation changed how people understood such imaginary worlds: “People grew more accustomed to experiencing and forming a mental image of distant parts of the world through media representations, which often involved a wide range of sources of varying reliability. In this way, mass media helped to lessen the gap between real foreign countries which were experienced solely through media, and imaginary worlds, which could only be experienced through media” (112). So emerged new forms of world building in mediums that readers of the twenty-first century are more familiar with: early cinema and comic strips, the first world building of Oz, pulp magazines, movies and theater, radio and television, Tolkien’s work, and the rise of world-building media franchises (e.g., Star Wars, Dune, Star Trek, etc.). With technology changes in the last fifty to seventy years, we have also see interactive worlds, such as video games, become a major medium for experiencing other worlds. Overall, Wolf’s outline of world-building history demonstrates the role of secondary, imaginary worlds as places where humans have been able to perform art and thought experiences.

In chapter 3, Wolf explores various aspects involved in structure imaginary worlds and the systems therein. While narrative plays an important role in world-building, he focuses more on the specific experiential elements and how those elements can overlap: maps, timelines, nature, culture, language, mythology, and philosophy. World-builders can tie together different aspects of these categories to create infrastructure for a complex, imaginary world. What makes this chapter more than a simple description the aspects involved in constructing a world is that Wolf make clear how world-builders incorporate these elements in distinct ways and in distinct contexts. Similarly, he explains how these particular elements function to form the infrastructure for a secondary work.

In chapter 4, Wolf examines how “narrative operates within a world and helps to structure it” (198). He first discusses narrative threads, braids, and fabric, drawing on narrative theory to explain how the weaving together of narrative braids can play a central role in world-building. Although Wolf does not give this example, Game of Thrones (at least the TV show, as I haven’t read the books) is a great example of how various narrative braids are woven together into a fabric to construct a broader world, each braid coming together to form a fabric. Second, and related to the issue of narratives, Wolf highlights the importance of backstory and world history, and such stories often have “low narrative resolution” (202) and involve characters different from the original stories. He also calls these “nested stories” (204), which link stories within an imaginary world. Third, he addresses sequence elements and internarrative theory, which concerns how world-building occurs through sequels and prequels, and even stories coming in between stories, which Wolf coins midquels, interquels, and intraquels, and framing stories, which he coins transquels. These various ways to think about world-building and sequencing provide helpful categories for describing the history of world building. Third, he addressing retroactive continuity (retcon) and reboots. Fourth, he identifies how crossovers, multiverses, and retroactive linkages can create larger, overarching world. Moving to a different form of media, and fifth, he addresses how certain technologies enable interactivity and alternate story lines that “raise questions regarding the status of a world and the canonicity of events in that world” (221). Finally, he discusses how “making of” documentation serve world-building by highlighting details, demonstrating world consistency, and adding new content. And narrative links all of these things together.

In chapter 5, Wolf addresses the next level after subcreations: when a subcreation creates its own subcreated world. In these contexts, words play a central role because they give rise to a sub-subcreated world. With this process in transmedia, creators often bring a degree of self-reflexivity to the table, reflecting on their own acts of subcreation. So, Wolf identifies multiple examples. Within this context, he highlights evil subcreators, who become importance to the broader narrative fabric of a story and world.

In chapter 6, Wolf describes how worlds grow not just in books (e.g., Baum’s Wizard of Oz) but in different media forms (i.e., transmedia) either via adaption or growth. Key to this matter is transmediality, which is “the state of being represented in multiple media” (247). And while acknowledging that exploring how each media form transfers to another would be valuable, it would also be repetitive and lengthy. So, he focuses mainly on looking “at each of the properties present in different media, their capabilities and peculiarities, and the process of using each as a window that reveals an imaginary world” (248). He focuses, then, on five elements: description, something often originating with words on a page and relates to “describing the experience of perception as much as the object being perceived” (252); visualization, which uses a certain vantage point “to further comment on the scene, enhance aspects of it, and suggest a certain attitude towards what is portrayed” (253); auralization, which uses sound to create a world; interactivation, combining various forms of media into an interactive media (e.g., video games); and deinteractivation, fixed forms of media such as turning Super Mario Bros. into a movies and dispensing of the interactive elements. For these various media windows, Wolf highlights they can be experienced in a variety of ways as follows, and not always in the same order, thereby changing the viewer’s experience: “order of public appearance, order of creation, internal chronological order, canonical order, order of media preference, and age-appropriate order” (265).

In chapter 7, Wolf discusses the circles of authorship and how the relationship between various stakeholders involved in the world-building process, or recipients of it, maintain a degree of authorship, depending on the media. To address this matter, Wolf first distinguishes between closed world and open world, though he recognizes the role that things like merchandise and fan fiction can play in expanding even a closed world. Based on these categories, he also identifies how different worlds can have different levels of canonicity. When it comes to canonicity, many folks are involved, each with a different type of stake in the media or product: the originator and main author; estates, heirs, and torchbearers; employees and freelancers; approved, derivative, and ancillary products, and elaborationists and fan productions. He discusses nuances for each of these groups. In a somewhat secondary category, he discusses participatory worlds as places where authorship also plays a role, such as in MMORPGs. He concludes the chapter, and indeed the book, by highlighting how subcreation “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice with the default assumptions we make about reality” (287).

In the appendix, Wolf includes an appendix of imaginary worlds.


In this section, I lay out a range of criticisms, engage constructively with Wolf’s work, and push the boundaries of where Wolf’s method and approach to world building might help fields outside media studies.

First, though media in the modern world is undoubtedly more diverse than it was seven hundred years ago, Wolf may have missed an important opportunity to consider world building in light of diverse, historically contingent frameworks for what constitutes different types of media. Indeed, he is right that “books, drawings, photographs, film, radio, television, video games, websites, and other media,” as well as their proliferation, “have opened portals through which these world grow in clarity and detail” (1-2). Likewise, such world building through these new media forms is undoubtedly historically unique due to the role that sound and images often play in the process. But in describing the history of world building, he should have considered how different societies perceived and enacted world building with their various media forms. For example, although we of view pamphlets, printed manuscripts, hand-written manuscripts, and scrolls as similar things, namely, some form of parchment or paper on which people wrote, the art, physical texture, creation process, general appearance, and general assumptions differed. As such, people would have different experiences reading the various media forms, comparable to the difference between watching movie on a small laptop as opposed to in a movie theater.

Second, one major weakness Wolf’s discussion of world-building history regard transnarrative characters. In particular, Wolf comments that “the simplest literary indication that a world exists beyond the details needed [. . .] is a transnarrative character. A character who appears in more than one story links the stories’ world together by being present in them” (66). He then mentions King Nebuchadnezzar II as an example of a historical, transnarrative character because he appears or is mentioned in 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Josephus. This perspective, though, fails to consider these texts and Nebuchadnezzar’s representation in each text. Moreover, since his representation in these various texts did not collectively aim to construct a complex, nuanced world (i.e., world-building), how Nebuchadnezzar is somehow a transnarrative character related to world-building is unclear.

Third, although beyond the scope of Wolf’s work, his discussion of Bibles is pertinent to tracking how the Christian religious imagination developed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries through books. In particular, he highlights that “during the 1500s, maps were already appearing in printed Bibles, which may have encouraged the inclusion of more maps of imaginary worlds” (156). Admittedly, I would have liked if Wolf demonstrated how maps in printed Bibles and maps for imaginary worlds were (or were not) historically related to each other, the former giving rise to the latter. Nonetheless, if we accept Wolf’s assertion, we can make some preliminary observations on the nature of imaginary worlds and world building regarding conceptions of religion in the 1500s. First, I wonder to what extent world-building and religion overlap cognitively to the effect that some world-building groups become perceived as so-called religious. Indeed, some folks in the 1500s perceived the world of the Bible as something to be expanded upon, something that needed world-building in its own right. And we see this trend continuing today, to a degree, through new study Bibles, replete with essays, maps, historical context, and more. That is, religious practitioners build out and seek to better understand the Bible’s historical contexts in order to expand its universe. And fandoms perform such intellectual endeavors as well for fictional books. Therefore, this overlap in creating an imaginative world may explain, in part, why some scholars have looked at fandoms and viewed them as a sort of quasi-religious group.

Fourth, Wolf’s work would have been stronger if he had identified alternative ways of framing world-building. In the boo, he frames world-building as a form of subcreation, an idea from Tolkien’s work about humans being created by God and thus subcreating other things. Even at the end of the volume, while he rightly points out that world-building “renews our vision and gives us new perspective and insight into ontological questions that might otherwise escape our notice within the default assumptions we make about reality” (287), Wolf nonetheless brings everything back around to appreciating “the Divine design of Creation.” One alternative to simply wrapping his conclusion back to a sort of theological conclusion would be to explore the notion of world-building through an interdisciplinary lens, to show how anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology might shed light on the phenomenon of world-building.


Overall, Mark Wolf’s book is worth reading and offers a helpful way to approach, frame, describe, and think about world-building, a important skill in a world wherein world-building is becoming more important than the narrative itself, where franchise trumps story. And while the book has a few shortcoming, it offers a range of avenues for future scholarship.

[1] Vulcans might not be interested in building imaginary worlds, but they are part of an imaginary world. In facts, Vulcans in this light may be an imaginative opposite of what constitutes a human being.