Seven Deadly Sins of World-Building

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Steerpike, Aug 12, 2017.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

    This article is a few years old, but if I've read it before I've forgotten it. Some interesting points raised here. My take:

    1. You really only need to consider this to the extent it impacts the story. Beyond that, you certainly can consider such things as a way to paint a more complete picture of your world, but it isn't a sin to decide not to address this.

    2. I agree with this one. It gets to the logic behind the world, and to the sense that the world has existed before you threw the reader into it in chapter 1, rather than something that has been created around the story and doesn't have its own history.

    3. This one is tricky. If the groups are tangential to the story, there may not be a need to discuss them in any detail whatsoever. It's hard, at that point, to say they're an analog of any real life culture. If you're putting enough detail into them to make it clear that they have analogs in the real world, then they're important enough that they shouldn't be one-dimensional.

    4. Applies for humans. Doesn't apply for fantasy or alien races who may be entirely different from humans, both biochemically and otherwise.

    5. I think this kind of linear history can be problematic, but it doesn't have to be. It comes down to how the writer approaches it. In a fantasy world that's a lot like earth, it may seem strange for history to unfold in the manner described, but in a completely different kind of fantasy world you may have good reasons for it.

    6. Yes, in most cases I like a strong sense of place. There may be certain types of stories where you don't need them, but as a general rule I think it aids immersion.

    7. I think this is important. It also goes to immersion. My willingness to suspend disbelief breaks down in a hurry if I have to many "why don't they just do X" moments. If you're writing comedic fantasy, satire, or in an established IP that doesn't bother with such things, then you can get away with it.
  2. elemtilas

    elemtilas Mystagogue

    I'll piggy-back my take, as a reader of fantasy, and as a potential reader of some of ya'lls' works. I think we're pretty much on the same page on this one, though I just have some comments I'd like to make.

    I would say that if you don't want to consider these things at all, please just write a fantasy set on Earth or a true Earth-analogue. If your story is set in a rather different world or in a world with very different histories and cultures, then these basics need to be considered very seriously!

    It's not that all those road builders and fungus tenders and dunnikin divers are necessarily going to have prominent places in your novels, but a fully considered and well constructed world, built up from solid foundations will give your stories its own realism. It will be an organic work, and I as the reader will be made to feel at home in it because you the writer went above and beyond in making your world believable.

    Agreed. But you don't have to "explain" the History of Everything in the prologue to your first novel! Learned hints and remembered folk lore should suffice to explain why the hordes of dark Elves have been kept at bay. Perhaps come back later and explore the truth in an other novel set before in time.

    Tangential to the story being the key term here! I agree: if they're tangential to this particular novel or story, then of course they don't really need to be fully explained or described. However, you as the writer should have a good working knowledge of their history, culture, beliefs and all that. They may come up more front and center in a future work, and you don't want to be caught with your metaphorical britches down.

    Goes hand in hand with No. 3. You are correct: there could be whole races that quite plausibly share the same opinion and behaviour. Chances are they might be some kind of clone race or a hive being or uniquely created race. We know from twin studies that even twins are not perfect clones of one another. Chemistry & biology being what they are, I think we can be fairly safe in presuming that similar biological life forms --- aliens and fantasy people human analogues are likely to interact with --- will also sport individualism.

    That said, I don't have a problem with the One Race, One Opinion, One Culture motif per se; but would hope that you as writers do not over do it. I think it can be a very interesting motif in a broader story. I really would nòt want to read your thousand page trilogy set entirely within such a culture! I think I would be bored to tears --- there could be no conflict, only social stasis. A (very) short story set in such a culture could indeed be a good read if done well.

    True, but it would have to be very well done. And the writer would have to prepare the reader for that kind of strangeness.

    Right. This goes hand in hand with No. 1. You don't really have to wax poetical about the smell of rain --- especially if your world is similar to Earth. Unless you live in Atacama or someplace like that, you know what rain smells like. But I agree with the underlying point: I as reader really do want to experience what your characters are experiencing. If the world you're writing in is very different (say, something like an inhabitable Mars), then you really need to work even harder to bring me into that world and make me feel at home in it.

    Right. Again, goes hand in hand with No. 1. If a writer says, with a straight face, "It's just like our world, except everybody can turn invisible at will", then she really hasn't done enough worldbuilding. Time to go back to the drafting table and sort out why it's not really possible for the place to be "just like our world". Then rewrite all of history and culture accordingly. Then rewrite the story to fit the premise.
  3. Peat

    Peat Mystagogue

    I too will be piggybacking Elemtilas style. In general though, my thoughts that based on the idea of world building only really matters insofar as it supports the story by making the reader go "Cool!" and not go "WTF". I think a lot of this is good advice for world building in general, but in terms of the world that are popular, seem a bit irrelevant.

    God's ain truth. If Lucas considered how they kept the Death Star supplied, or if Tolkien considered the effects of trade, or if Rowling considered why Wizards need their own currency, I never realised that and I largely suspect all three could be reduced to "Hmm, good question" by a fan questioning the infrastructure of the setting in five minutes tops. And those are the three who've created today's most popular fantasy cultures.

    Honestly, I'd say this is more or less totally irrelevant, unless the aim is to create a world for the sake of creating a world.

    Testify. Worlds that feel lived in are cool. Stories with momentum are cool. Best bit of advice on this list.

    I think this gets trickiest when you've got a culture that's tangential aside from one or two important cast members. At which point its very different to represent a culture without using a bit too much stereotype - or going the opposite direction and having someone who doesn't really represent the culture at all. Easiest handled by not doing it, of course, but plenty do (and plenty do it and have popular pieces of art too).

    But yeah. I'm all for not doing this. Although I'd add that if Rowling developed the French beyond sexy emotional ladies in her books I missed it, but it didn't seem to matter. People still enjoy stereotypes.

    Sorta agreed... although if said fantasy or alien races are reflections of real world cultures, we're back to 3, and using "But they're not human" to justify a mono-cultural alien race that just happen to be totes Native American gets right up my nose at least.

    I would also add that while this is good advice, it can be taken too far. Most branches of dissident/alternate thought simply aren't important to your story, or even to your world. Does the Potterverse have wizards researching whether you can perform magic using something other than a wand? Who cares when reading the story? I don't think we meet any out and out rebels against ji'e'toh in the Wheel of Time and I don't think I've seen anyone complain about that. I'd say be sure to do this for the important stuff in the world and do it for the other stuff only if you get a cool idea.

    I think this one is completely irrelevant. I've never seen anyone complain about the omission of historical oddities from world building. I'm pretty sure I have sometimes seen people complain about them and say they're not realistic.

    The point of a story is not to be entirely realistic, but to present the image of reality. It's why Hollywood turned down the true story of the Colombian drug cartel that tried to buy a Russian submarine, and why people complain about heroes showing Rasputin-esque powers of endurance, but don't complain about historical time lines where the most likely thing happens all the time.

    Plus, every time you have to explain why the unlikely thing happened, you're wasting words and momentum in your story.

    Yeah, although I'd add that everyone's idea of what adds immersion is a little different. Tbh, I incredibly rarely get this sense of immersion from a place, and frequently skip long scenes of description. I am immersed by situations, not places.

    I think maybe 9/10 fantasy books I see don't really do this. They do some consideration but it feels paper thin. I see a lot of people say this sort of thing bothers them but I find it difficult to marry up the number of authors I see introducing magic with little thought to the consequences with the number of people who say it bothers them. You can certainly get away with scanting it.

    edit: p.s. The 20 great info dumps thing linked to in the article is baller though.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2017

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