Water, earth, fire, Amelia Earhart. Wait, what? One of those things is not like the others. This is what happens when you don’t theme your world. What does theming your world mean? I’m glad you asked, because this week we have a podcast all about it. This is our second time on the topic, but the last one is from 2014, and who even knows what we said in it. This time, we talk about how to make sure your setting elements fit together, why that’s an advantage, and how real life is different from fiction.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Bellis. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
CHRIS: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
OREN: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…
OREN: And I’ll be honest, I tried to come up with an opening joke, but I just attached random lines to it and it just didn’t work out. And also, I couldn’t think of a way to make theming your world funny.[Wes and Chris laugh]
OREN: Cause that’s what we’re talking about today, is we’re theming worlds… Again! This is another of our episodes where we did this topic like six years ago. But we’re doing it again and I’m excited to find out what I think is wrong about what I’m saying now in six years, that will be a fun experience.
CHRIS (slightly alarmed): Did you listen to it?
OREN: I did not.[laughter]
CHRIS: Cause we’ll be perfectly honest, we don’t want to know what we said six years ago. [laughs]
WES: Yeah, no mashups please.[laughter]
OREN: It’s like Oren in 2020 versus Oren in 2014. 2014 Oren: “Game of Thrones is the best novel series ever!” 2020 Oren: “Game of Thrones is bad, actually.”[laughter]
OREN: Alright, so: Theming your world. What does it mean? Chris, you wrote an article on this, do you want to tell us what it means?
CHRIS: We’ve previously compared it to having a theme at a party, [laughs] which, I like this analogy. So for instance, if you have a Superbowl party, you probably get food that has little footballs on them and snacks that are associated with the Superbowl and you’re doing activities like playing the Superbowl for people to watch. People might wear jerseys. The entire party is designed to emphasize this Superbowl theme. So it’s just like that with worldbuilding. I’ve never seen a Superbowl world. And I hope I won’t.[laughter]
CHRIS: But basically it means choosing one thing to emphasize in your world where everything you put in your world is sort of styled to create, usually, a certain aesthetic. This is what steampunk is known for, for instance, having a very particular aesthetic, where we’re doing alternate history Victorian era with weird technology that’s futuristic, but looks like Victorian era technology. Again, it has a very concrete aesthetic about it.
Some other world themes have really strong moods. Like cosmic horror for instance, has a very particular type of mood where the supernatural is not just mysterious, but also very menacing, particularly psychologically damaging. That kind of thing.
OREN: Yeah. And to me it means creating a world that feels cohesive. Different elements seem like they belong together. And that is admittedly a little squishy, but I think it’s a reasonable definition to go on. Before we get into drilling down any further, I thought it might be useful to set some examples of what is a well themed and what is a poorly themed world. So I’ll go first: My well themed world pick is Avatar: The Last Airbender.
WES: Surprise, surprise. [laughs]
OREN: I like grabbing low hanging fruit.[laughter]
OREN: But you know, basically everything in Avatar is elemental themed. It’s a whole world, so it’s not like everything is a hundred percent perfect, but you’ve got things like, you have your elemental themes, you have your martial arts themes, your spirit themes and your weird animal themes. Those are sort of your big ones. And the world feels pretty cohesive because of that. Things feel like natural extensions of each other. It’s easy to get into.
As opposed to something like the MCU, which I think is very poorly themed, because it features heroes from vastly different backgrounds and aesthetics. So you’ve got, you know, one movie it’s a fairly grounded drama world. And then in another, it’s a high science playground where Tony Stark’s messing with these weird holograms and synthesizing new elements. And then later there’s just magic running around and also gods are here? And you know, this is what happens when you have a bunch of different comics that you mash together to increase sales.
CHRIS: Or one character is a raccoon.
OREN: Yeah. One character’s a raccoon. For reasons.[laughter]
OREN: I’d say that’s an example of a pretty poorly themed world.
WES: I’ll start with bad, even though I really liked the show, obviously. I don’t think Teen Wolf is very well themed between the seasons.
CHRIS: Oh, really? Ooh!
WES: I thought it was woefully inconsistent. And I’m mostly speaking about the excellent season where, spoilers, Allison dies. But it got so horror for me that it was just out of nowhere. I don’t know why. I thought it was kind of a fun, darker, you know, supernatural elements. In season three got a little too extreme. I mean, I still enjoyed it, but I just felt like that cracked it for me. And it didn’t feel consistent. It’s still a good show and it’s still pretty good world building. I was struggling to think for a real bad one and that one came to mind. I think I’m thinking more on like what you said about mood. There was not a consistent mood throughout the seasons for me. Aesthetics kind of are consistent.
CHRIS: Yeah. I was going to say about Teen Wolf, I see what you mean about the horror. It definitely starts to dip more and more into horror. And for people who are expecting that urban fantasy romp, like they do a really good job in season one of making this alpha wolf decently scary, which is actually hard with werewolves, but it’s still not full on horror like it becomes later. But it’s unusual in urban fantasies in that everything– They don’t have vampires, right. Everything is, we have werewolves. And then when they bring in other creatures, it’s werecoyotes, werejaguars, the only exception is like these druid characters that they’ve got in there.
WES: Yeah, that’s right.
OREN: There’s also the banshee, is kind of out of theme. Most of the creatures are animalistic in some way, but then also there’s just a banshee and it’s like, “What is a banshee?” It’s just a fairy, right? It’s like, you know, it’s a fay myth, it has nothing to do with animals or shifters.
WES: Let’s also not forget the riders on the storm or the wild hunt, where they just like plopped people in a train station. [laughs] There were cowboys too.
OREN: I loved ghost cowboys!
WES: I loved it too! But it was so out there. [laughs]
CHRIS: It was definitely out of theme, those cowboys.
OREN: We’ll circle back to urban fantasy, cause I have thoughts on urban fantasy.
CHRIS: Oh yeah. We’ve thoughts on urban fantasy. Okay, Wes, what’s your strongly themed one?
WES: My strongly themed one, and I want so much more of it and I’m impatiently waiting, is Hilda.
CHRIS: Ah, yes, Hilda!
WES: Hilda is a phenomenal show in terms of just mood and aesthetic and…
CHRIS: So good!
WES: I’m inclined to want to compare it, and I think rightfully so, to like Adventure Time or Steven Universe or something like that. But from the second it opens with the color palette, Hilda is not in bold primary colors. And Hilda is a very confident main character, kind of like Stephen, but you get the sense that Hilda’s more muted environment and wistfulness is more about– I get this feeling of nostalgia, like good happy nostalgia, watching Hilda. From like, almost as if the theme of the show is older Hilda telling you about her younger life. Because she grows, she kind of learns to not be quite as obstinate and open up and see things differently. And so it’s really reflective in its kind of mood and stuff like that. And it’s just gorgeous. I love Hilda.
OREN: Hilda’s a fascinating example because Hilda is not really trying to build a cohesive world. It’s what I would call a childlike wonder setting where the idea is that literally anything could be over the next hill. And that would fall apart very quickly in a lot of stories, but the mood in Hilda is just right for it to work. There’s lots of weird, very disparate stuff in Hilda and it’s not really clear how it all fits together, but again, it works because it’s all the same mood. Whereas in a more serious story that’d be like, wait, there are giants, but also wood people and invisible elves, except when you sign a contract, what’s going on?[laughter]
WES: Yes, the contracts, so fun!
CHRIS: For my examples, on the good side, I would say Firefly. With the possible exception of the Reavers. But other than that, Firefly is really interesting because it is a scifi western. So it is taking two aesthetics that are disparate, but it’s a fantastic example of how you can do this because it does it in a very consistent and intentional way. It’s not taking a western and randomly sticking technology in it. And it’s not taking a science fiction world and randomly sticking cowboys in it.
Instead, we have this consistent setup where we have a solar system with our core worlds and our outer worlds, and the outer worlds simulate the wild west because they don’t have as much resources and therefore they don’t have as much technology because that takes resources. And then we’ve got these rich inner worlds that have lots of high tech. And one of the most interesting scenes, in my opinion, is this one where we have this really rich guy with lots of tech who is chasing the heroes and got this really fancy laser gun. And the heroes are like on horses. And it runs out of battery.[gleeful laughter]
CHRIS: When it runs out of battery on him, it’s like, “Aw shoot!” So it shows the limits of technology, that those technology requires resources and there’s places that you can’t use them. And so the mix of those two disparate elements, again, it’s there for the contrast and it works really well.
Whereas my bad example, going back to urban fantasy, of course it’s urban fantasy:[Wes giggles]
CHRIS: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
CHRIS: Has vampires, has demons. And there’s things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I like as far as consistent theming, I like the idea of vampires being kind of half demons. And then we have more elaborate, stronger demons. And then we have the true demons, which can only exist in another realm and the demons you see on earth actually aren’t that demonic, right? So we have this whole hierarchy of demons and we have kind of parallel realms that it hints at. And especially when we have a god in one season that needs to go back to her own realm. So we have some things in there where it builds off of it, with the vampires that start with, that feel nicely consistent, but then we randomly decide that we need robots in the show for some reason.
OREN: Yeah. Why not?
CHRIS: It’s a fantasy shows that’s about, you know, magic. Then we add random robots, add a government agency and conspiracy, we have the Initiative and we have a professor creating a technological Frankenstein’s monster.
OREN: Excuse me, a store bought Frankenstein’s monster. Ehh.[laughter]
CHRIS: And all these things just don’t fit with what Buffy’s actual theming so far has been established and they’re just kind of there.
OREN: Yeah. I’d actually say that urban fantasy–and I mentioned, I was going to talk about urban fantasy–is probably the most consistently worst themed of any genre. And I have some theories on why that is. I think at least a lot of it has to do with the fact that urban fantasy is constructed from a weird combination of pop culture ideas and actual mythology, some of which is appropriative. And those things just don’t really go together. Cause actual mythology is super weird and not really designed for storytelling.
CHRIS: It’s very random. So if you try to include it, you end up with random things. [laughs]
OREN: I had someone who was, a client who was asking me about how to make a rational magic system using the Greek gods or the Greek pantheon. It’s like, I don’t think you can.[Wes laughs]
OREN: There are just way too many random things in Greek mythology to try to make that rational. It’s just not going to work.
WES: Those gods are great because they’re random and petty. [laughs]
OREN: Yeah, there is that. Although that doesn’t quite cover it all. I mean that doesn’t explain why Buffy has robots.
CHRIS: I think another reason might be that when you start with earth, as opposed to starting with your own world, you tend to not think of it as having a theme because earth isn’t themed. Reality isn’t themed. [laughs] And so that encourages people to not think of their world that way, and to just add whatever they feel like. Whereas if they start fresh with a new world, they are more likely to have a core idea for what that world is about. It’s more likely to be simpler.
OREN: And Supernatural has this problem too, where in Supernatural, it’s very important to the show that anything magic is evil. That’s just how the show works, because the show is about regular people, two guys, two brothers fighting the supernatural and they’ve got shotguns and crappy EMF meters that they put together. They don’t have anything magical. And on the rare instance where they run into something that’s magic and not evil, that’s supposed to be weird and different. Like, hey, a vampire who doesn’t kill people, that’s bizarre. But then we also find out that apparently magic exists in this setting and people use it and it’s super powerful and it isn’t inherently evil. And it’s like, why don’t the boys learn some of this magic?[Wes chuckles]
OREN: Guys. Why aren’t the boys learning the magic? Teach the boys magic. [laughs] And it creates problems, right? And you just have to pretend, you just have to ignore that part.
CHRIS: Another example of something that’s not technically urban fantasy but has a contemporary setting, that starts to break theme is the Matrix series. And I’m sorry, we do have to acknowledge the second two movies exist.
OREN: Ah, it burns![laughter]
CHRIS: In order to talk about this. But the first Matrix movie, again, pretty consistent with how it portrays the matrix and what reality is and the opponents, the agents. But then in the second movie we introduce werewolves [laughs] and ghost-like things. And it’s like, “Why are there werewolves in that setting?”, and we come up with an explanation for them, as to how they’re supposed to fit in, that they’re supposed to be some sort of weird glitches in the system, but it still feels super random. And anything that feels random in the story is a sign that the theme has been broken.
OREN: Now’s a good time to explain why I wanted to talk about this and why it’s so important, which is that of all of the problems I deal with in my clients’ manuscripts, a poorly themed world is probably the most common as far as worldbuilding goes and this has an effect because we have a concept at Mythcreants called attention scarcity or comprehension scarcity, which is that the reader can only remember so much. And everyone has a different level, but it’s always limited.
And the more stuff you throw at a reader to remember the harder time they’re going to have remembering anything else, and theming your world is a really good way to reduce the demand on your reader’s attention, because when things are themed, you basically are removing friction. It’s like, okay, yeah, that seems like a thing that would be in this setting. And it’s easier to remember. It takes less time to understand. It’s less likely to be confusing. And so that’s why theming is important. And I get people all the time who are like, “But real life’s not themed!” And they think this is very clever because surely no one else has noticed that.[Wes laughs]
OREN: And it’s like, right, but if you tried to hit me with the information density of real life in a novel, I would set the novel on fire. You can’t do that. Novels aren’t real life.
CHRIS: Look, if people wanted to just consume real life instead of stories, then everybody would just watch slow TV. And we would not have stories.[laughter]
OREN: Everyone can just go watch slow TV.
CHRIS: Slow TV, which is these recordings they have where they’ll just for instance, have a video of people in a train, in real time. And people will watch that. That’s what slow TV is, for those who aren’t familiar.
WES: I’m gonna have to check this out. [laughs]
OREN: It’s very interesting.
CHRIS: But just building off of that a little bit, Oren, I think theming really helps with believability. And I had a post years ago, over six years ago, so back at the time we talked about world theming before, but that was before I wrote my post on world theming.
OREN: In the before times.
CHRIS: In the before times. I have this post Maintaining Belief During Fantastical Stories, which is super old. It’s interesting, in this post I actually took John Scalzi to task.
OREN: Oh, what did he do?
CHRIS: Well, he was basically mad at somebody from Wired who was criticizing the fact that the lava at the end of Return of the King was unrealistic. The lava that Gollum falls into, and it’s like, “Why are you criticizing the lava when there’s giant spiders?” And as an example of this, he brought up something he calls ‘flying snowmen’ where apparently his wife was reading to their daughter and she’s reading this children’s book about a boy who has a snowman friend and they do things together that are of course unrealistic for snowmen [laughs], like even drinking hot soup. And she’s like, totally cool with that. But then the snowman flies and she’s like, “Why is this snowman flying?”
And he was saying like, “Well, if you don’t believe that the snowman flies, you should have to explain why you didn’t believe that and you believed all these other things.” I mean, first that’s just, there’s a fallacy there…[Wes laughs]
CHRIS: …Because it doesn’t matter why. Readers have the reactions they have, you don’t control that. Don’t argue with them. They don’t have to understand the reaction for their reaction to be valid. But more than that, you can clearly see there’s a theme breakage there, right? Like the snowman is clearly like a Pinocchio that’s becoming a real boy and doing things with a boy, but you just don’t expect snowmen to fly. Unless you’ve seen that one video with a really good song. [laughs] It was like Walking in the Air, I think it’s called. [laughs]
OREN: I’ll take your word for it. I think I must’ve missed that.
CHRIS: There’s a classic animated cartoon about a boy and a snowman where they go flying together. And it has a song that’s really well known. Okay, there, I just explained my reference.[laughter]
CHRIS: Was probably TMI. But the point is that there’s a theme breakage there where you just don’t expect that to happen. And it’s similar in stories where, when you’re sticking to the expectations of a genre or the expectations set by your aesthetic, you just don’t question elements as much. You tend to accept them. And when you start adding robots to Buffy or do other things like that, it calls into question their presence. And it encourages a lot more scrutiny and it makes everything feel more contrived because it reveals that there’s a storyteller that seems to be just arbitrarily picking things to go in the story instead of kind of what feels like a natural unveiling of more parts of the world.
OREN: Right. It started like how, technically speaking, in a story with dragons, the dragons are completely unbelievable, they can’t exist. But it would still feel kind of weird if someone got impaled on a spike and then walked away and was fine.
CHRIS: There’s no conventions around that. Like if you had the kind of story where it was a martial arts magic story, where a lot of the heroes just take what should be fatal injuries, but no, they just walk it off. [laughs] And you could have a story where that’s not as weird, but certainly in a dragon story, we’re not setting that as part of the world. It’s not part of the conventions that are happening there.
WES: Yeah, I like that. It gets back to your example of throwing a party earlier. If the three of us threw separate Superbowl parties and mine had hockey jerseys or something, then I’ve broken theme and it’s not recognizable for what it is, but you guys maybe still are doing most of the conventions, but you’re serving different types of appropriately themed Superbowl food with your own takes on it, but it still counts and it’s still believable, but I maybe never watched football before and don’t have any idea what it is. So I say, “Yeah, Superbowl, it’s fine. They wear helmets. And they drink beer and… other things. Come over to my party, it’s going to be great.” [laughs]
OREN: Or we can have an ironic Superbowl party where we set different expectations by competing to say how much we don’t know about football. Cause we’re kind of obnoxious like that.[laughter]
CHRIS: We all call it sports ball. As is the geek way.
OREN: And that would be a different set of expectations we’ve just set. So I want to talk a little bit about how you theme your world. And one of the things that I always recommend is, when you’re looking at worldbuilding, you really only want to add the things you need. Because authors always overbuild, right? That’s like the continual problem, that authors overbuild their world. And that leads to confusion. It’s like, “What? is that how this works?” I thought we were just dealing with demons, now there are aliens, what’s going on?
And you can reduce that feeling if you are working in theme. If there are demons that doesn’t suggest the existence of aliens, but it does kind of suggest the existence of angels. Because angels are like the opposite of demons, regardless of whether you’re doing this in a Christian framework or not. And that’s just easier to remember than there randomly being aliens running around.
CHRIS: I also think that there’s definitely advantage to novelty and memorability if you theme your world. It just creates a stronger impression if you hammer one thing home a lot, than if you have all these irons in the fire in different places. Think of how cosmic horror would feel if we weren’t actually emphasizing the cosmic horror, if we had all these other different random things going on, it wouldn’t have the impression that it does and the attraction that it does.
OREN: Right. It would be really weird if in a cosmic horror story, someone was just running around casting fireballs.[Wes laughs]
OREN: Not only would that be out of theme, but that would also just really damage the atmosphere.
CHRIS: And it would be distracting and it wouldn’t leave you with that lasting impression of cosmic horror.
OREN: Another really important benefit that you get from theming your world is that it’s much easier to create clever deductions based on how the setting works. Because when the setting is themed, it feels consistent and readers can kind of imagine how other things might work even if you haven’t directly explained them. And this is particularly useful around magic, but it’s not just for magic. If you show that a supernatural element in your setting works a certain way and then you stay in that theme, you can much more easily have your character solve problems with that in a way that is satisfying, because there’s an aha moment when you put it all together. Whereas if you’re just throwing out random stuff, then it’s hard to do that cause who knows how any of this works, it could technically work any way. And then that’s just not very satisfying.
CHRIS: Yeah. I do think that if you condense things down, you encourage reuse of things and more extrapolation. Going back to Buffy, if we stick with these vampires and demons and these super real demons, whatever, that are so large they can only exist in other realms, we’ve kind of created something consistent where we can extrapolate. Like if we had somebody then who was not really full vampire, but wasn’t really quite human, you could guess that maybe they’re a quarter demon or something like that. We can use that to extrapolate other things in the world because we’re using a lot of elements and building off of what we already have. If we introduce something completely new, that’s not building off of what came before, then it’s a lot harder to– Now this kind of weird looking person could be anything.
OREN: It’s also just very useful for keeping your reader immersed and making everything seem cool rather than funny. Because unless you’re intentionally trying to create a funny story, you generally don’t want your reader to laugh when you introduce a new speculative element.[Wes laughs]
OREN: A lot of these things can seem funny in the wrong context. And so if you keep them themed, it’s like, yeah, that fits together, that’s cool. As opposed to, if they show up in a completely inappropriate situation. For example, a lot of the demons from Buffy would feel very silly in a Star Trek episode if they just showed up. Even though, if you don’t change anything about them, if you had vampires from Buffy show up in a Star Trek episode, they would just seem ridiculous and people would laugh at you. And unless that’s what you wanted, that’s a bad result. So that’s why theming can be important there too. In general, you don’t want people to laugh at your drama, right? You want them to laugh at your comedy.
CHRIS: Yeah. That is a thing when we talk about stuff like this and I give examples of extreme bad theming, there’s always that one person who is like, “Oh, but that’s so funny, I like that!”
WES: Was that the point? [laughs]
CHRIS: Usually, that’s not what people are trying to do with their story. That’s novelty. It won’t last very long. As soon as the humor of this weird thrown together world goes away, you’re going to be left with nothing. And that’s not the impression that most of our clients want to create. [laughs]
OREN: Yeah. I mean, it’s like in a role playing game, you can always be that one guy who’s like, “I’m going to make you all laugh by doing a ridiculous thing.” And it’s like, okay. But if that’s all you have, then if you just keep doing ridiculous things, then pretty soon there’s no point to it. It’s like, oh well, it was only funny when you were doing ridiculous things because we were expecting something serious. Now that we know all you have is ridiculous things, it’s like, “Eh. Now I’m done.”
I guess since we are almost out of time, but I do feel like we’ve been a little hard on urban fantasy. So it might be interesting to talk about some urban fantasy stories that actually are well themed and are not just everything but the kitchen sink.
WES: [laughs] And we were kinda thinking about Underworld as an example of that, vampires, werewolves, there’s technically a veil. But I think the believability comes with that because you’re not really looking at it from the perspective of a “Harry Potter learning that he’s a wizard” kind of character, you’re with the main character, who’s a vampire. And you spend almost all of your time with the other magical creatures. And so there’s little opportunity for you to kind of get pulled out of the immersion and question what you’re seeing, because you’re not wondering whether or not this element actually works or not. I think it’s the sequel where the guy eats some French fries and throws them up all over the place. But I’m not really talking about that.[laughter]
CHRIS: I do think that it definitely benefits from just not introducing as many things. It’s easy to maintain a themed world as long as it doesn’t have that many things added to it. And the more supernatural things you add, the more opportunity there is for you to break theme. And so it really focuses on vampires and werewolves and the conflict between them specifically. It’s almost like Firefly where we have the western theme and the scifi theme and how they clash is kind of part of the point and that doesn’t really complicate it. And that definitely helps.
OREN: All right. Well, with that last example, we will go ahead and call this podcast for today. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week. [Outro Music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?