I said a while ago that I wanted to talk about world building (maybe worldbuilding or world-building, as you prefer). That I do. Doing so seems likely to take more than a couple entries here. This essay is the beginning, written as much for me to explore what I know as for anyone who cares enough to read it. (1)
Generation of the world or universe, the setting, is important to numerous aspects of creating media, from novels to games. Careful design can’t be undervalued. Assumptions should be avoided, while reasoned relationships should take prominence. Aim to build novelty and interest, but include enough of the familiar to build resonance with the audience.
We need to define a few terms before the discussion begins. This essay waxes philosophical. (3)
World building is the construction of an imaginary setting, a fictional space. In this space, stories take place. Such a setting has coherence. That system of logical connectivity and consistency needn’t be readily apparent to someone interacting with the setting. Rather, coherence is more often revealed through the process of interaction. It is discovered. When discovered, a coherent element either makes obvious sense or serves as a link for further exploration, and sometimes it does both. Such a link is an actual connection in a well-constructed world, but it might connect to another link. That linkage is still coherent as long as the revelations along the path follow logically, or they at least point to deeper mysteries.
I suspect that’s why, for instance, Rey is the way she is in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (4) We don’t know everything there is to know about Rey and her background. In fact, the movie likely reveals only part of what Rey knows, which seems, in turn, to be an incomplete story. That all makes sense. A little child doesn’t remember the way an adult does. Who knows what might happen to memory if some trauma is involved, and abandonment is Rey’s story.
Evidence of this layer-peeling of character development exists elsewhere in the new Star Wars. It’s especially apparent in Kylo Ren. We learn Ren has done some terrible things, and we come to know he’s estranged from his parents, especially his father. But The Force Awakens doesn’t tell us what he’s done (completely) or why he’s estranged from his parents. We do know that Ren blames his father for elements of the past, but we aren’t told what those factors are.
One might expect a clearer picture. However, knowledge that emerges through interaction can be much more satisfying than knowing up front. (It also sells sequel tickets.) To the point, coherence doesn’t require fulfilling expectations. It often does so, but entertainment also demands some surprises. Novelty is important. It makes what we engage in more memorable, and even affects our sense of time passing.
Speaking of memory, though, coherent does not mean true. Coherence might be “truth” in the sense that what you say about your created world is, by definition, true. However, a constructed world is imaginary. No there is there. No truth. As long as any new aspect of the setting maintains coherence with previous aspects, regardless of whether that coherence is easily discerned, the new can’t really contradict the old. Unreal worlds contain no facts. Any claim that a newer element of an imaginary world is untrue is really an assertion of a perceived lack of coherence. Again, coherence is discovered, and sometimes an element is only a link to something yet to be revealed.
When a created world is coherent, it better evokes a sense of realness in those who engage with it. I call this sense resonance. This evocation of reality requires no correspondence to facts and laws of our universe. It isn’t realism. Instead, resonance relies on what the audience knows and what the audience might expect given previous information. Resonance either lives up to that knowledge or expectation, or it works to offer novelty in a coherent way.
As a world’s creator, you have to deal with a fundamental expectation that your Earthling audience has. Absent contrary information, your audience expects the laws of our reality to apply to your creation. You have to clue your audience in to world elements that fail to meet this expectation. The opposite is also true. If your world has humans, your audience knows what those people are like. You need to detail only what’s different about humans in your world. The same goes for elements such as Earth animals and plants, gravity, and so forth.
You can use what your audience expects as a shorthand, too. In Shadows Linger, second novel in the chronicles of the Black Company, Glen Cook writes the following:
Crossing the Plain of Fear was faster by air, but still harrowing. Windwhales quartered across our path. We zipped around them. They were too slow to keep pace. Turquoise manta things rose from their backs, flapped clumsily, caught updrafts, rose above us, then dived past like plunging eagles, challenging our presence in their airspace.
He describes neither the windwhales nor the mantas. However, in both cases, given our knowledge (whales and manta rays), the context (the characters are traveling by air), we have a good idea what these creatures look like. That the genre is fantasy helps. (5)
Genre also creates expectations. No one familiar with the fantasy genre is surprised when a dragon can fly and breathe fire. Wizards cast spells. Magic allows mysterious, wondrous, or horrible things to come into being. Further, magical things needn’t conform to science. Dragons might not be aerodynamic or have a proper wingspan to maintain lift. A fireball spell, although its effect resembles an explosion, can create no concussive force and require no oxygen. Trying to conform to our universe’s physical laws might be fun when trying to create a fantasy world. Doing so can also become maddening. “It’s magic!” is an acceptable explanation for fantasy.
In any created world, the rules are the creator’s to set. That freedom is a double-edged sword. It can be satisfying to see this freedom used to conform to aspects of our reality. Hard sci-fi is fun, because it’s cool to see a protagonist “science the shit out of” problems. On the flip side, the parameters imposed can be dismaying. If women are second-class citizens in a created world, the creator either decided to make that so, or chose to enforce other factors that make it so. Using Earth as a basis for a created world can lead to such results. Yet, such an alternate Earth is still an imaginary place, and it needs to have only enough accuracy for us to believe it could be Earth.
When you share a created world, you create a cultural object. Cultural objects have meaning. Too often, choices creators make end up giving an unintentionally negative aspect, which is something to avoid. Be intentional. Know the whys and wherefores of what you create. Try to see it from various angles, and imagine what your creation points to in the real world. It matters.
An example of my point can be found in this review of The Division and its cultural subtext, which is an interesting critique by Andrew Todd. Here’s a short version, excerpted from the review:
You are a government agent assigned to protect property from poor people.
You do this by killing the poor people.
Agree with Todd or not, choices the creators made when designing the setting for the game led to this possible interpretation. Todd’s criticism springs from there. (6)
When writing for a product with a long legacy and existing canon, such as Tom Clancy’s milieu or a Dungeons & Dragons product, you’re likely to be constrained by what came before. The decisions of previous creators influences and limits your work. Some of the choices you might have made differently. That’s one difference between creating your own world or working with an existing or shared one. You can’t just create to suit yourself for a shared world, especially not for publication. This consideration was a major one in the genesis of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. (7)
All this philosophizing and opining is rooted in practicality. I practice what I preach. These factors are ones I impose on myself when designing and developing material for games, from a mechanical element to adventures to worlds. I care deeply about the coherence of my work and the resonance it has. My aim is to know what I’m creating and the message it sends. I try to learn the limits of any shared world I work with. When I can, I expand those limits.
Knowing and learning is the point of this series on world building. I’m exploring what I know, and expanding and sharing it as I go. As I continue, I’ll get into more specifics. We’ll start at the beginning. Cosmogony should lead to cosmology, pointing the way to finer details such as ecology, religion, culture and its trappings, and conflicts. Along the way, I’ll be referring back to the concepts of coherence and resonance, as well as to expectations and to the idea that a world’s creator has great freedom.
I hope exploring this world is fun.
1) Thanks for reading!
2) From the Hubble Telescope and NASA. If you don’t know what Barsoom is, click that link. Short version: It’s Mars. Or, if you prefer, Athas with guns. Without Barsoom, Dark Sun might have been a very different AD&D setting.
3) Forgive me.
4) Let’s not forget this work involves J. J. Abrams, known for peeling layers in a story rather than giving a linear path to comprehension.
5) This foreshadowing pays off big in the next novel, The White Rose, wherein we witness the windwhales and mantas in spectacular action and learn much more about the mysterious Plain of Fear.
6) I’m not saying I agree with Todd. I can’t. I haven’t played The Division, and therefore, I have no legitimate opinion of the game. Todd’s critique is interesting to me for its angle, which tries to drive deeper than aesthetics, playability, and mechanics into the game’s social value as a cultural object. I admire that sort of thinking.
7) Some think Wizards R&D was not careful enough with fourth edition in this regard. It can be a tough line to walk. To my pal Shawn Merwin: That’s one of the big differences between writing for D&D publication and writing for your own D&D game, among many others.