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Worldbuilding with generic archetypes

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Yora, Feb 17, 2020.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    The last months I've been playing some old fantasy games and rewatched a few old movies, and I noticed that many of them are almost painfully straightforward generic European medievalesque fantasy worlds with very little originality. And their worlds are still really quite good.
    I've also recently been thinking about how I want the world that I am writing about to really not feel generic medieval Europe with magic and much more like an alien world with unique creatures and cultures, but I also want readers to almost effortlessly get into it. To just follow the story as it goes along without really having to do any work to create a complex mental picture out of mountains of exposition.

    And a bit to my own surprise, I think this is not actually that contradictory.

    If you want to, you can invest absolutely stupendous amounts of time and effort in worldbuilding to create a setting of huge details and originality, and you'll have no problems finding piles of advice on how to approach such a process. But I have come to see settings like that as something that primarily exist for their own sake. Which is of course a perfectly valid and sufficient reason to create such words. But I am feeling that this is not actually adding much to the storytelling of a story. Complex and detailed settings have a value of their own, but they don't contribute much value to a story. My hypothesis is that great stories with a unique setting would still be pretty great stories in a terribly generic setting.

    When I make it part of my concept that I want to have an "alien world", I am not actually thinking about creating something that is really new or original. What I mean by that is that I want to capture an overall feel and style that I really enjoy in a good number of already existing stories. Not the generic medieval Europe style, but a different "generic" style nonetheless.
    My priority is more to evoke the feel of that style efficiently in a way that seems effortlessly to readers, without them feeling like they are going on a long educational tour to learn about new cultures, special powers, and supernatural creatures. The whole idea of having "lore" is something that doesn't quite sit right with me.

    Two great examples come to my mind about great works of fantasy that do something in that general direction.
    The old classic that you can reference over and over is of course Star Wars. If you just take the three classic movies before all the tie ins and later movies brought in mountains of lore, the setting is stupidly simple. You have Rebels fighting the Space Nazis with a little bit of help of a few Space Smurai-wizards and there's also a skeleton knight and some gunslingers running around. But it's in space! Star Wars probably does not have a single original idea and yet the result is amazing.
    The other one is the world of the Witcher series, with Sapkowski infamously being known to have said he really doesn't care about worldbuilding. And his world also is really very unoriginal. You have human kingdoms, an "evil" empire, elves, dwarves, dragons, undead, and sorcerers. Nothing about these elements is really noteworthy, and it only feels unique because the people inhabiting the world see it in the terms of 20th century society and science. Which is a bit quirky, but not really complex worldbuilding.

    Now to perhaps my point to all of this. Has complex and original worldbuilding perhaps become too emphasized and put on a pedestal? Do generic elements have real beneficial values of their own, which are being falsely dismissed and overlooked?
    How has the balance between originality and the benefits of familiarity affected your own worldbulding?
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I've always seen the "important" parts of worldbuilding to be logos, pathos and mythos.
    Logos is how everything logically fits together. Pathos is the personality (which can be as multifaceted as a person's personality) of the setting and then mythos is the in-universe mythology and general "worldbuilding".

    Star Wars has a very clear logos: evil=dark side=sith=empire vs. good=the Force=jedi=rebels. The logos is built on association between elements on the different levels of the setting with the metaphysics (morality and the Force) being the highest level while the temporal conflicts (the wars) being the lower level. It would go against the story's logos for the Jedi to be involved in the evil empire or for the Sith to act as heroic rebels.
    The personality of the setting, its pathos, is represented by the three leads: Luke brings the heroic fantasy adventure with a touch of Samurai fiction and pulp adventure serials, Leia brings the actual wars to Star Wars and Han represents the seedy underbelly of the setting with smugglers, crime, bounty hunters and a general influence from westerns. Westerns, as any film buff would tell you, have always had an influence on samurai fiction and vice versa which is how these elements are able to blend together so naturally. That's the real genius behind Star Wars: how it created a wide blend of genres but covered the blend in a sci-fi coat of paint so that the seams where the genres were stitched together can't be seen.
    Then the mythos is all that business with the Force and the Jedi and so forth. Basically, all the in-universe stuff and how these elements interact with each other.
    So, all three are interconnected which makes it feel very (for a better term) "right" and natural. I would wager that if you did try to take Star Wars out of its "sci fi" setting, you'd notice the genre clashes a lot more clearly.

    Originality, I guess, is most critical for the "pathos" of the setting. In your post, you seem to be talking about familiarity within the setting's mythos. The conventions and general surface-level worldbuilding may be familiar but if the setting's personality is original, these conventional aspects can feel new.
    My big problem with conventionality in fantasy is more in how so many fantasy settings seem to have the same personality, attitudes and priorities while also operating under the same system of internal logic. I don't like conventionality in the pathos and logos.

    In my setting, I like to imagine that the logos is conventional fantasy archetypes and comparative mythology-inspired thinking (closer to the "dream logic" of fairy tales than what you'd see in more post-Tolkien fantasy fiction), the pathos is basically more in-line with westerns and crime fiction while the mythos is a blend of those two elements. You can't transpose the story to a different or more realistic setting because the logos is mostly built on mythology but you can't put the setting in a "generic fantasy world" because the pathos - the story's attitude - clashes with it. The setting has to be a blend of myth and grit otherwise the logos and the pathos will be at odds with each other.
    S.T. Ockenner and Yora like this.
  3. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

    I personally think that what you discovered is that the most important thing needed to enjoy the story by far is not the setting (or the plot or the characters) but the voice of the author. How is the story told matters the most by far. The rest is secondary to that. A good example for me personally is the books by Raymond E. Feist. They're nothing very special in terms of the story, setting, characters or plots. But his voice is such that I get pulled through the story and find them hard to put down.

    As a counter example, I also really enjoy Brandon Sanderson's books. And he does a ton of worldbuilding. But it's not the worldbuilding itself, but how he weaves it into the story that make his books great to read. It's his voice.

    So, world build if you enjoy it and / or if you need it to tell your story and it brings out your voice. Handwave everything else.
  4. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I am absolutely in full agreement with everything! This sounds like something that deserves scholarly doorstoppers to be written about. This really is what I consider worldbuilding to be about, and why I think "worldbuilding" is an unfortunately misleading term. It's about establishing the setting, not "building" a "world".

    Going back to the Witcher world, I think that is a good example of a setting that has all its effort put into logos. It's an interesting world because of the the interactions between all the primary factions. The mythos of the setting is almost cardboard cutouts.
    I'd say the pathos of the series is quite interesting in that the protagonists seem to have a very different perception of it than the other major players. (At least in the first half of the books that I have read.)

    Any advice and guides about worldbuilding seems to be pretty much entirely about mythos. Even drawing geography and creating governments fall into that category for me. These are all just static pieces. They constitute the stage, but they are not the play. All of that stuff only becomes interesting once you add the elements of logos to it. What are the consequences of the geography and power structures? How does it impact and influence the behavior of characters in the story and how will it affect the outcome of events? Or in other words "why does it matter?"

    I think a solid plan for creating a new setting should begin with the logos to create structures and dynamics for the world. Once you have made choices about how things should be arranged and interact with each other, then it makes sense to start thinking about the mythos you want to hang on it. Of course, in practice you generally begin with some inspirations and idea for a world, which I think more often than not are mythos elements. But what I found to be very useful in my time making worlds for RPGs is to keep these mythos elements at the ready and always in sight, but to move them to the side for the early stage. Don't try to build a logos-structure on these mythos-elements. Instead begin with the basic logos framework of the setting, and then go to your box of mythos-ideas and search through it for elements that fit well on that structure. And most likely you will be able to find great places to put many of those idea, but you'll still be left with some other ideas that don't really seem to fit anywhere in the structure.

    And that is where you come to "kill your darlings". Yes, they might be really cool ideas that you really want to use, but throwing them into the mythos of the setting when they serve no function to its logos, they will feel out of place and most likely not gain much appreciation from the audience. They will dilute the focus of the setting, not sharpen it.
    I made worlds for RPGs for probably over 10 years, and what I found was that with each new draft and new cycle of refinement, I almost never added anything new as the mythos was concerned, but only removed things that were not really adding anything meaningful to the world.

    Now the pathos of a setting is a bit more elusive. I think that aspect is really intrinsically tied to the story that is set in the setting. It probably makes little sense to talk about it in isolation, disconnected from the story. The one thing that I think can be said definitively about it is that the pathos of the setting has to work together with the pathos of the story. I think it does not have to be identical. Stories about alienation perhaps might require that the two are in conflict and opposition. But even in that case they are deliberately in conflict to serve the purpose of the story.
    WooHooMan likes this.
  5. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    The RPG medium has a uniform logos. That’s a necessity for the medium. Everything has to be quantifiable, mechanical and with a clear relationship between all in-universe variables. However, I find it very obnoxious when non-rpg fiction uses rpg logic. I see it a lot in fantasy anime and comics but it is starting to seep into other forms of fiction.
    Worldbuilders tend to default to whatever logos they know best be it rpg mechanics, “realism” or Tolkien-inspired constructed history. I think it depends on how they make sense of the world. Some people see the word as a machine (the rpg mindset), some people see the world as a living being (the Tolkien approach), some people see it as a narrative (the fairy tale approach) and some people see at as a mixture where the different innumerable elements keep themselves in check (the “realism” mindset). That’s the best I can describe it right now.
    I made a conscious effort to move towards emotion-focused fairy tale dream logic in my story.

    Although, I started with the pathos in my story and I think that’s a good way to do it. I think it real helps to give you direction when you know how the story should “feel”.
    I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do a story with a spaghetti western pathos: loaded with grit but with a heavy grandeur to it despite being a small scale story in a huge world. From there, I knew it had to be a story about crime and from there, I knew I wanted the immediate setting to be more urban and modern-ish which then spawned the mythos.
    I think I did the logos last and that was basically a last minute attempt to insert some fantasicness somewhere in the story.
    I could’ve just inserted elves or dragons in the setting and called it a day but that would have been lazy.
    Yora likes this.
  6. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    Has complex and original worldbuilding perhaps become too emphasized and put on a pedestal? Do generic elements have real beneficial values of their own, which are being falsely dismissed and overlooked?

    I would argue the opposite is the problem. Too much fantasy world building is boring because it's too heavily influenced by Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. The creatures, the pseudo-medieval European settings and the failure to even think about changing basic institutions like marriage and types of government has made fantasy boring for many readers and it's a key factor as to why people stop reading it. The differences, if there are any, are cosmetic at most. One of the few exceptions to this is J K Rowling's Harry Potter series. Making the magical world, including Hogwort's, late Victorian rather than pseudo-medieval and having elements of the story set in the contemporary world was a stroke of world building genius.

    If done well the generic elements of world building in fantasy can still work well. George R R Martin proved that with his series that became the Game of Thrones TV series. The basic problem is that far too much fantasy lacks both originality and complexity. At least that is what I have found with the fantasy books I've read.

    How has the balance between originality and the benefits of familiarity affected your own worldbulding?

    My world building was influenced by factors that had little to do with how fantasy writers did their world building except that it was not going to be set in any world where short skirts, the internal combustion engine and radio did not exist. It was influenced by where I live, the cultures I have come into contact with over the years, my knowledge of inter-war history, a loathing of stories featuring female lead characters that ended up with her being married with children and a genuine curiosity about how basic things like religion, families, marriage, architecture and society would be shaped if the vast majority of people were bisexual rather than heterosexual.
  7. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Though in this case, RPGs really means just Dungeons & Dragons. Other RPGs have quite different internal logics, but I've never seen any of those appear in fiction.
    I am in full agreement that D&D-isms in fiction are terrible. It might be my number one reason to feel like a work is hopeless. Perhaps even somewhat ironically, I think even players in D&D games tend to bring the rules of the game way too much into the fiction of the game. I don't see characters in the game having awareness of the mechanics of the game. That already feels cringy, and its worse in fiction that isn't even a game.

    I feel its most annoying when you get the impression that the writers think their worldbuilding is amazing and original and are clearly excited to show you their wonderful creation.
    Works that use fairly generic settings in a good way tend to not show it off. It's just there in the background, doing its job of being the stage for the story to play out on. When you are taken on a grand tour to see the wonders of a world that feels completely interchangeable, that's where it gets infuriating.
    Somehow I have a gut feeling that this happens most prominently in anime, and perhaps in that case it really is the creators showing something to their main audience that they are not very familiar with.

    Maybe there's something interesting about cultural appropriation going on there in fantasy anime, though that's an entirely different discussion. I'm fully in support of the Japanese doing it, though. It's not like it's hurting any European or American fantasy writers.
  8. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I wasn’t referring to just d&d, it expands to other conventional rpgs. The D&D system is one of the more extreme examples while things like World of Darkness games or Call of Cthulhu are far less extreme examples.
    But they all use that “mechanical universe” approach. It makes for more fair and efficient games and better stories told through the medium of games.

    These tabletop games as well as video games based on them are the primary vehicle in which the “generic fantasy setting” are delivered to Japan. Then Japanese creators make fiction which incorporates the RPG logos into their setting - probably because they see the RPG logos as intrinsic to that kind of setting.
    Then that comes to Western creators who go even harder on it. But these Westerners are probably also taking cues from the fantasy games that inspired the Japanese stuff so it’s all, you know, some taste different flavor.

    That’s how I see it. I wouldn’t call it “appropriation” as it’s a two-way exchange of ideas.
    I’ll also admit that I’ve rarely seen a Japanese work which uses a “conventional fantasy” setting that I would consider good worldbuilding (whether the work itself is good is another story). I find the Japanese fantasy works with good settings tend to overtly (though apparently, unintentionally) avoid western fantasy conventions.

    In any case, I don’t believe comparing Western and Eastern fantasy would do a whole lot of good in determining how to make good settings. I like to think good art transcends these kinds of cultural distinctions.
  9. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Record of Lodoss War is often considered to be the first anime that really brought American fantasy to Japan, and it's actually based directly on D&D. Yet that one completely avoided bringing mechanics into the story.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    A game is a game. It has to have rules, in detail, in a way that a novel doesn't. It seems unfair to blame a game for being what it is. The blame belongs on the author who writes a bad book. I suspect that such an author would have written a bad book even had D&D never existed. Never underestimate the capacity of humans to be mediocre.

    When I look at reader groups, or at sales figures, or at shelves in a bookstore, I see an enormous demand and capacity for fantasy in all its flavors. Maybe at some point it will top out, but I don't see signs of that yet. Let us all go forth and write whatever flavor of fantasy strikes our fantasy fancy, but above all let us go forth and write it well.
    Miles Lacey likes this.
  11. Yora

    Yora Maester

    There was never a time when fantasy was not popular. Fantasy today is the same kinds of stories that are found in the oldest known tales. The religious component may be gone, but magical adventure stories don't seem to have drastically changed in 4000 years.
  12. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Taking this into a somewhat different direction, I've frequently been thinking of what special distinctive feature the world for my story should have. Some kind of special supernatural power, original mythology, or unusual political situation. And most of the time I find myself thinking that I don't really feel like making up something complex and detailed just for the sake of having something.

    Not having any special semi-divine dragons or demons seems fine to me. Not having any major international conflicts going on in the background also seems absolutely serviceable. Generic, soft magic sorcery that the story won't be getting much into also sounds great. When I think of the world as I see it right now, I can't really think of anything that stands out about it and distinguishes it. I kind of feel that there should be something that is special on principle, but intuitively it feels pretty okay to me.

    How much do you think that impacts the ability to tell a fresh story?
  13. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Probably very little. As by-the-numbers or conventional as your setting may be, there’s still an infinite amount of perspectives within that world.
    i think most people default to globetrotting adventures and political intrigue because it allows them to go “macro” with their setting.
    You could just as easily pick anyone of any career as the protagonist and focus on whatever business they got going on to get more of a “micro” look at the setting.
  14. Yora

    Yora Maester

    My overarching theme idea is basically 42. The protagonist is on a quest to truly understand the nature of existence, with the only answer very far down the line being that this is a nonsensical question.
    I feel this theme requires that there are not any big metaphysical secrets to uncover and explain in detail. That would only create a false promise of an amazing revelation at the end where everything that has been shown about magic systems, mythology, and ancient history comes together.
    The protagonist realizing that the quest is foolish and impossible is supposed to be a positive resolution, not a disappointing deflation. Giving the readers details that look like puzzle pieces that gradually form a picture when arranged the right way seem to be counter-productive.
  15. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    A lot of Buddhist fables about monks who become enlightened usually has them reaching that enlightenment after encountering something very mundane.

    So I think it is possible to have that kind of “gnostic quest for enlightenment” without defaulting to grand world-changing events. This is a more abstract kind of goal with a more personal perspective - focusing on a single main character and what’s going on in their mind and learning a lesson.
    In any case, I think you’d probably be shooting for an “it’s about the journey, not the destination” kind of story.

    I think the way I’d do it is to have the MC character trying to find the answer to some other riddle which acts as a representation for the “meaning of life” question.
    Sort of like how the Riddle of Steel in Conan seems like a silly question about materialism but comes to signify the power of belief and the significance of intent in one’s action and all this other headier philosophy stuff.

    Actually, I more or less did all that with my own story.
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2020
  16. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    I used to avoid writing Medieval fantasy at any cost, even if some of my favorite stories, shows and games take place in a "generic" fantasy setting.

    I find the standard pseudo-Medieval European setting to be hit-or-miss. It's either very captivating or just boring and soulless.

    Now, I've started coming around to Medieval European settings again, but there are still things I like about the setting.

    I think what more authors should do is try to use European cultures that don't get a lot of representation in standard fantasy, such as Spain, Hungary, Finland, Romania, the Byzantines, etc. At least, they don't get as much compared to England and Scandinavia. I like that the Witcher is based on Polish culture, which makes it much more interesting to me despite being Medieval and European.

    I noticed many of my fantasy settings are Medieval European, but with a Mediterranean flair.

    I wonder which is more generic, a Medieval tech level or European cultures in general? Steampunk ditches the Medieval themes in favor of a Victorian English theme, but it's still European, as well as most Punk Punk genres such as Dieselpunk and Clockpunk.
  17. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I think we absolutely need more fantasy based on the Hellenistic world. The blend of ancient Greek, Persian, and Indian culture creates a very interesting combination of simultaneously feeling exotic and also appearing familiar enough to be quite easily accessible.
  18. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I don’t know, it alway feels kind of lazy when a writer thinks they can just base their setting off of an “exotic” culture like India or Persia and assume that gives their work some originality and flair. Especially when those stories still operate like traditional Western fantasy but with a king swapped-out for a raj and elves swapped-out for jinns.

    Greek-based fantasy settings tend to do a little better since writers are familiar enough with Greek mythology to include some traditional Greek themes to go along with the trappings.

    So I’ll stand by my original claim that personality and framing is what makes a fantasy setting fresh.
  19. Yora

    Yora Maester

    What is framing?
  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    "Poetry must be as new as foam and as old as the rock." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

    This, I think, describes a requirement for every medium we seek for aesthetic enjoyment, including prose fiction.

    The folks at Writing Excuses have pushed a similar idea: Writing Excuses Episode 2: Blending the Familiar and the Original

    For me personally, I say Yes to this. However, the conundrum might be related to something expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in a poem:

    The delicate shells lay on the shore;
    The bubbles of the latest wave
    Fresh pearls to their enamel gave;
    And the bellowing of the savage sea
    Greeted their safe escape to me.
    I wiped away the weeds and foam,
    I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
    But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
    Had left their beauty on the shore,
    With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.​

    —which is to say, context is everything, and I may or may not like the particular "new" foam you choose for your story, I may or may not like the particular "old" you choose for your story, or I may like each of those but not the particular combination you make of them. Heh.

    Perhaps another lesson from Emerson's poem—Each and All by Ralph Waldo Emerson | Poetry Foundation—is this idea that we can become focused on only one thing, practically turning in our as-yet-to-have graves as we mull it, worry over it...and fail to see that there's more to the picture, more to be considered, more required than this one thing. This, I think, might be a caution against one type of complacent writer's block.
    Peat likes this.

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