Worldbuilding

The Seven Worldbuilding Sins of Storytellers

Planet colliding with moon

Last week, I described how avid worldbuilders often sideline the stories they’re telling in favor of parading the setting around. Now I’m pointing at storytellers who treat their worlds as an afterthought. We know who they are because their stories are committing these sins.

1. Creating Magic Powered by Plot

Girl wearing cardboard tv costume. Apparently good technology shows up when needed, then it ceases to exist as soon as it isn’t. arts fest by Guy Evans used under CC BY 2.0

The characters are in the midst of a scene when a new spell or gadget is introduced. It’s never been mentioned in the story previously, and it’s suspiciously convenient for the conflict at hand. When that conflict is over, it is never mentioned again. Then the next conflict shows up and with it another new item. Pretty soon the world has a whole collection of technomagical novelties that feel arbitrary. There’s a spell that can turn clothes red and yellow, but only if it’s on Saturday and the buttons are still attached.

Sinner: Harry Potter Series

harry-hermioneHarry: Why is Wormtail responsible for my parents’ deaths if Voldemort is the one who killed them?

Hermione: There was a powerful spell that made it so Voldemort couldn’t find them by any means, unless Wormtail told him how to.

Harry: Couldn’t they just use a spell that hid them even if Wormtail told everyone?

Hermione: No, of course not. That spell can’t exist because plot.

Harry: But what about that unbreakable vow spell that made Snape kill Dumbledore even though he really didn’t want to? Why didn’t my parents cast that on Wormtail to keep him quiet?

Hermione: Because then you wouldn’t be the tortured chosen one! Really Harry, read the books sometime.

Penance

Choose a basic metaphysical template for how your world works. Does magic exist because everyone is a figment in the mind of the divine? Is there faster than light travel because of quantum entanglement? You need some concept that underlies all the magic and futuristic technology in your world. Once you have that, you can invent specific spells or tech by extrapolating from the core concept. That way, even if you introduce your technomagic late, it won’t feel arbitrary because it clearly fits in with everything else.

2. Making Characters Too Stupid to Use Tech

You operate this by eating it, right? You operate this by eating it, right? Poicephalus senegalus by Tamás Majoros used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Since these storytellers are inventing magic and technology on the spot for their plot convenience, they rarely think through just what it’s capable of. Only later do they realize that if their technomagic was used by people with half a brain, it could cure all diseases or destroy the solar system. That’s a problem; it would eliminate every plot opportunity available. So instead the characters act stupid, endangering lives rather than using the reality-shaping gun they have waiting in their closet.

Sinner: Legend of Korra

Korra uses the Avatar State to win a race against a small child.

Jinora: Korra, you can’t let the villain capture you. You must go into the all-powerful avatar state!

Korra: That’s only for the most dire circumstances!

Jinora: But you used it to beat us in a race last summer.

Korra: Saving my pride was dire, okay?

Penance

It’s important to think through the ramifications of your technomagic before it’s introduced and create built-in limits. If you don’t realize the problem until it’s too late, create more limits retroactively and explain them to your audience. It won’t be perfect, but it’s better than hoping they’ll forget there’s an easy solution to the hero’s problem.

3. Using a Setting the Size of a Snow Globe

Snow globe with barren tree and giant spider inside. There is literally no where to run. Snow globes by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz by Becky Stern used under CC BY-SA 2.0

If the heroes went someplace new, the storyteller would have to lift a finger to invent it and describe it to the audience. Instead the characters stay within five minutes walking distance at all times and epic-level problems come to them. Somehow their home town never runs out of serial killers, cultists, or angry spirits, even though the heroes kill them out at every opportunity. There are buildings still standing despite how many are wrecked every episode, and unarmed citizens stick around rather than fleeing what is clearly a terrible place to live.

Sinner: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

potientialsPotential 1: Could you tell us how to get to the mall?

Buffy: Sure! Just pass the university, underground secret military base, Dracula’s castle, two abandoned mansions and one abandoned warehouse, several ancient temples, the museum, the convent…

Potential 2: We’ll bring crossbows.

Buffy: You can’t; we have traditions here. Humans go about their business as though demons aren’t about to kill them, and demons go about their business as though I’m not about to kill them.

Potential 3: Maybe we should go to some other town with sane traditions?

Buffy: Well I suppose you could teleport to the Los Angeles Universe. But only if you’re going to learn life lessons from Angel.

Penance

The scope of your setting must fit the scope of the conflicts that take place there. You can stay within a small town for personal threats, but if your hero will be saving the world on a regular basis, you’ll need a bigger playground to work with. Try starting with a small town and slowly adding the surrounding areas as the scope of the conflict rises. You don’t even have to narrate your heroes traveling; they can just be in a new place at the start of the next scene. If you have to keep epic struggles in a small area, come up with a reason why no one can leave. Then show how desperate being trapped makes them feel.

4. Giving Everyone the Same Outfit

A group of air hostesses wearing identical clothes and accessories. My shoes are a slightly darker black than everyone else’s, how embarrassing. Air Hostess Uniform 1965 Gold 003 by Archives New Zealand used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Finally the heroes travel and meet new people. But even though they’re visiting an entire planet or nation, it feels like a small compound of cultists. Everything is too perfect or too desolate, too warlike or too peaceful, and definitely too unreal. The denizens act the same way, wear the same clothes, and hold the same opinions. It’s as if an entire society was made of clones. Because in the storyteller’s head, that’s what it is. After all, giving a new world a healthy level of diversity would require some effort, and they can’t have that.

Sinner: Star Wars

luke+obiwanObi Wan: Luke, go to Dagobah.

Luke: Where?

Obi: Dagobah, you know, the swamp?

Luke: Hmmm… I’m on the north pole planet right now; the swamp must be pretty far away.

Obi: You must go to complete your training. Find Yoda.

Luke: That’s it, just Yoda? You don’t have an address? Or even a continent?

Obi: It’s the swamp planet. There aren’t addresses or continents, just swamp. I’m sure you’ll find him, you only have to look through an entire planet full of living things.

Penance

You may not always have time to cover the full diversity of a place or culture. However, you can still acknowledge the existence of aspects that do not fit stereotypes. Don’t let all of your characters refer to an entire society as though it’s an undifferentiated mass. If a space ship scans the planet, it should come up with different results in different places. In a large area there should be more than one language and religion. If you understand the variety that exists in a society, that understanding will come through in your work, even if you never stop to describe it.

5. Inventing Humans That Aren’t Human

Man in plaid shirt and glasses wearing a clown mask. It’s a clownian, from the planet Clowntopia. They have a physiology similar to humans, but they aren’t actually related. Ignore the plaid shirt and glasses, that’s their… umm… ritual garb. Scary Scary Clown Mask by Andrew used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The universe isn’t a monogamous mass; it’s full of sentient species. Naturally, at least one hero has their first encounter with a member of another species. They look a lot like humans and there aren’t any language barriers, but the hero is still baffled by how bizarre the aliens are. No one wonders why these “strange” beings are about as different from humans as humans are from each other. Or why some of them are downright sexy.

Sinner: Star Trek

spock-dataData: If I may ask a personal question, are you indeed half Vulcan and half Human?

Spock: I am.

Data: I do not see how that is possible. Two species by definition cannot interbreed and produce viable offspring.

Spock: Allow me to explain. When a Vulcan male and a Human female love each other very much, they do this very personal thing called genetic engineering.

Penance

If you want aliens in your setting, make them alien! Otherwise, your futuristic races could be colonists that split off thousands of years ago, or they could be creations made by humans. Don’t rewrite the biological history of Earth if you don’t have to. In science fiction, that feels hokey more often than not. Luckily there’s more leeway with fantasy races; an alternate history where humans and other races split off from each other fits genre expectations. Even so, fantasy races should have a culture that’s more than superficially different.

6. Forgetting History Exists

A book with blank pages. This is a diary entry from last year, when I was floating in a state of oblivion. an open book by kate hiscock used under CC BY 2.0

The world is deep and elaborate – there are multiple factions with different abilities, all involved in battles, intrigue, and politics. But it must have sprung fully formed from Zeus’ head because it operates as though it doesn’t have a past. The story demonstrates that it only takes a bad decision from one person to topple the entire society, yet somehow it’s still around after a thousand years. The world is plagued by the same threat day in and day out, yet somehow no one has come up with any defense against it. Then the heroes just step in and shake everything up; naturally no one has tried that before.

Sinner: Frozen

Anna and ElsaElsa: That’s it! The solution is love!!!

Anna: You’ve been trying to control your powers for our entire lives, and you never figured that out?

Elsa: It never occurred to me.

Anna: So… you didn’t love me before now?

Elsa:

Penance

Look at the events of your story as they relate to the world and its technology or magic system. Ask yourself: why now? What has prevented this plot point from happening before? What’s different this time? You might decide it has happened before. If so, this history would be very relevant to the story, and it should affect how characters relate to the problem. Whenever you’re creating a world, put a little thought into its history in general. If you have a secret society that’s a thousand years old, make a rough timeline that outlines how they formed around 1000 CE, and how they were impacted by major world events since them.

7. Not Building a World at All

Copy machine My plot to create LotR 2 is almost complete. Now I just have to figure out how to put Tolkien’s fanbase through this thing. DADF by Guruleninn used under CC BY-SA 3.0

If storytellers don’t want to do their own worldbuilding, they can just copy the founding works of their genre and change a few names around. Elves are now called the Elthran, and vampires are… vampires, but now they’re sad and tragic! Soon libraries are filled with stories that copy the same world template without adding substantial innovations of their own. No one bothers to visit new worlds anymore, instead they take another vacation to faux Middle Earth. The storyteller has given up their chance to make a lasting impression by jumping on the fad bandwagon.

Sinner: Underworld

underworldMichael: I’m becoming a werewolf? Like in some bad horror flick?

Selene: Not like that, for the moon no longer holds her sway.

Michael: What?

Selene: Werewolves can transform whenever they want.

Michael: So just like a terrible horror movie.

Selene: No! There are complex inter-species politics.

Michael: You mean like you’re a vampire, and your people and the werewolves are involved in some ancient war?

Selene: Umm… no…

Michael: That’s it, isn’t it?

Selene: Fine, instead of a werewolf, I’ll make you into a crazy werewolf-vampire-mary-sue creature. Happy now?

Penance

Many classic settings are well loved by fans. There’s nothing wrong with using them provided you contribute something unique to the concept or world. Give it a twist like Keith Baker did in Eberron, a D&D setting with magitech. Create a thoughtful deconstruction similar to Soon I Will Be Invincible or Madoka Magica. Fashion a parody such as Galaxy Quest or a subversion like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.*


Unique worlds are the distinguishing feature of the speculative fiction genre. Many fans enjoy stories based on their world alone. It’s difficult for storytellers to give their worlds enough thought without getting lost in them, and to show them off without letting them take over. But those who find the right balance will enjoy a wider audience, because their work can be appreciated on many levels.

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Comments

  1. Qondomon

    AHAHAH!
    “Obi: You must go to complete your training. Find Yoda.
    Luke: That’s it, just Yoda? You don’t have an address? Or even a continent?”

    I’m laughing but I did something similar (not an entire planet, but kinda). Or a person has superpowers, which makes it a little convenient or Luke would never find Yoda! That part in the film was much convenience, I think

    Also, the aliens make me always disappointed (except Aliens movies), they are so human like :c
    ” When a Vulcan male and a Human female love each other very much, they do this very personal thing called genetic engineering.” This one will be in mind mine a while!

    BTW, i love these sins! If you know more, please post! Sometimes (always) our eyes don’t see our mistakes.

  2. Jeremy

    So, I feel the need to point out that aliens are often used to demonstrate the human condition in another setting – which means that the aliens are very human like.

    Also, I’ll point out that the character of Spock was/is incredibly popular, and central to the Star Trek concept. Using him as an example of a worldbuilding sin seems odd. “As our example of something not to do, we’ll use one of the most popular characters in science fiction.” It just seems odd.

    For Frozen, I’ll point out that the premise is that she was raised in a way that made her emotionally stunted. The whole point is that she had to find a way to experience her emotions.

    This goes to something I think is odd about critiques on Mythcreant – using example of stories and characters that have been incredibly successful at intriguing and engaging audiences to demonstrate what shouldn’t be done.

    “You know that story? The one that has touched the lives of millions of people? Yeah, don’t do that.”

    • Ryan

      The thing is, though, that popular examples of characters from successful IP’s goes a long way to showing how pervasive these flaws are. It also gives the readership a point of reference that pretty much everyone can understand. Additionally, nobody needs to point at things that have failed and say “Hey. That there story that no one likes? It’s bad.” Finding and ironing out weaknesses in otherwise strong materials is how we continue to make progress.

    • Chris Winkle

      Generally at Mythcreants our emphasis is quality, not popularity. What the practical difference is between quality and popularity? That’s a difficult and interesting question. But they must be different, because some works like Twilight are widely thought of as poor quality, but are still unquestionably popular. Generally I think of quality as the characteristics that make that make many people happier with your work, and very few people less happy.

      And sure, these works are all successful, but it’s a fallacy to assume that means they did everything right. They could be successful in spite of these flaws, for reasons that have nothing to do with them. No story is perfect, and that includes the stories we really like.

    • Kate

      “This goes to something I think is odd about critiques on Mythcreant – using example of stories and characters that have been incredibly successful at intriguing and engaging audiences to demonstrate what shouldn’t be done.”

      I’ve noticed this to, but I think this is actually a good thing. Successful works tend not to have their weaknesses question. It’s good to see it happening for a change.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Plus, the other option is to find some self published first novel by an author who didn’t know what they were doing and then tear it apart. That just feels mean.

      • Lithp

        I can see these arguments, but they kind of only work if you assume it actually is a flaw, & that there’s no context that’s missing from the example. You could argue that the point isn’t to recap the story, but to get across a concept, but I’d counter that it’s still counter-productive, because people looking to solve these problems could just look at how the story in question solved them.

  3. Skylark

    Regarding the “human aliens” but, a series I think did this well was Mass Effect. We had some human-looking aliens, but this could be explained by having a common ancestor (particularly since 99% of other races gets wiped out every 50,000 years by the big bad, leaving a smaller genetic pool each time.) There were also a few races that were distinctly non-humanoid. Only one race, the Asari, can interbreed with other species, and they do so via genetic splicing. The resulting kids are always Asari, with some traits of the non-Asari parent.
    The tropes is does fall prey to: Asari are all sexy alien ladies, “universal translators”, and while we get some diversity, 90% of each race falls into a particular niche of behavior and culture. (Even happens with humans to some degree, though we as a species are still the “special, different, diverse” one in Mass Effect 2.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah. I really liked the Asari’s method of reproduction. I was less enthused that they were all conventionally attractive females.

      • Adam Reynolds

        One interesting suggestion that I saw that explained asari beauty quite nicely, was that their appearance depended on who was looking at them. Every race finds asari attractive because they appear subtly different to different races. Notice that on their head, only their faces appear human. And that they can fit into human armor as if they were human. Neither of those would make much sense otherwise.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          True. Although if that were the case, you’d think they would appear more masculine to a Shepard who is mostly into dudes.

  4. E Christensen

    I’d just like to point out that the Unbreakable Vow Snape made was after he’d already promised Dumbledore he would kill him, and that the Vow was made with Snape’s consent. It wasn’t just a spell they cast on him. Also if you don’t think realistically about magic you’ll end up with stories where everything is way too easy because all the heroes are way too powerful. The spells in Harry Potter are invented the same way we invent technology–through trial and error and a lot of hard work and research. Why don’t we just have watches that include a button to make you invisible? Because they haven’t been invented.

    • Thea

      You make a good point about Snape; the Unbreakable Vow isn’t a spell you can cast on someone, and, technically, it doesn’t force you to do anything. It’s not like the Unbreakable Vow possesses someone and makes them do something: it kills them if the don’t do what they promised.

  5. Thea

    About the Harry Potter part of the post: yes, Lily and James probably should have made an Unbreakable Vow with Wormtail, but that wouldn’t have stopped Wormtail from telling Voldemort where Lily and James were hidden. He would have died right after and been unable to driver further plot, but the vow wouldn’t have prevented Lily and James’ deaths. And besides, though this would have been a sort of flaw, too (if an evil villain wanted to kill you, you’d do anything in your reasonable power to stay alive), but Lily, James, and Wormtail were best friends. Would you think that your best friend would betray you to a murderer? They probably didn’t, either.

    • Lithp

      Basically, anyone you are suspicious enough to ask to submit to an Unbreakable Vow, you don’t trust enough to make them Secret Keeper in the 1st place.

      There’s also the matter that we expect Wormtail to betray them due to hindsight bias, but he could just as easily have been tortured or magically forced to tell, at which point killing him would be a wee bit unethical.

  6. Ezra

    I find that there are easier methods of limiting incredibly powerful magitech in stories, the primary ones being cost and effort. In one of my stories, I created a bomb that could destroy the universe (fortunately, I’m operating on an omniversal scale). I then realized how ridiculously powerful that would be, so I made it incredibly expensive and nearly impossible to make (for the bad guys, at least.)

    In terms of the same outfit thing, it’s not always a sin. You can have an entire planet speak the same language if the entire planet is ruled by one government.

  7. Shadowdancer

    Actually, Spock was created by a complex process of genetic engineering. He was the first Human/Vulcan hybrid, and as far as I can tell, there haven’t been many since.

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