Avoiding the Planet of Hats

Worldbuilding is a time-consuming process. There’s all of those governments to decide on, flora and fauna to develop, architecture to design… and when you have to do it for planet after planet in your spacefaring adventure, well, who has the time? Certainly not the writers of Star Trek: TOS, who often sent their protagonists to the Planet of Hats with a few broad strokes of the worldbuilding brush.

The Planet of the Hats is a world that is uniform. If it’s the culture that stands out, every individual will have a weakness for cold, hard, cash; or spend all day delicately manipulating political systems; or, well, wear the same sort of funny hats. Weather systems will be worldwide – creating ice planets or desert planets, but never one with both ice and deserts. There will be one world government, one intelligent alien species, and no factions.

It’s an understandable tactic, especially since Star Trek: TOS usually only had an hour time slot (minus commercials) to tell a story and get their point across: a lot of the places the crew visit are heavy-handed allegories first, and scifi settings second.

That was okay for the 60’s, but audiences today preference more realism and nuance. If you’d like to avoid that old-time science fiction feel, here are some tips.

Keep It Local

poth_featureimg2Your protagonists might be multi-worldly, but they’re still (probably) human-sized. They can only take in so much sensory input at once. Focus on the country or city that they decided to land in. Get specific about that area, and no other. You don’t need to flesh out the entire planet, just the section your protagonist and supporting characters interact with. After all, the United States is only about 2% of the planet’s mass. All of Europe is 6.7%. There are a LOT of unique areas to explore on your average planet.

In A Piece of the Action, Kirk and his crew visit Sigma Iotia II, home of an impressionable and inventive people. A hundred years before, a previous vessel conveniently left a book on the Chicago Mob of the 1920s behind, so now it’s the Chicago Mob World, complete with Tommy guns and weird slang.

After being captured, Spock and McCoy are discussing the state of the planet:

McCoy: One book on the gangs of Chicago did all this. It’s amazing.
Spock: They evidently seized upon that one book as the blueprint for an entire society.
McCoy: It’s the Bible.

From the way they’re speaking, you’re meant to assume that the entire planet is like this. However, it would be easy enough to keep it local, with one small change:

McCoy: One book on the gangs of Chicago did all this. It’s amazing.
Spock: They evidently seized upon that one book as the blueprint for an entire society.
McCoy: It’s the Bible.
Spock: I imagine they must completely confound their neighbors.

Do keep in mind that just because you’re keeping yourself in one small area of a planet, it doesn’t mean that your readers or players have to feel fenced in. You can still…

Give Them Glimpses of Other Places


Let’s say the planet your protagonists are visiting is advanced enough to have a planet-wide communications network. That means you can easily give your readers a glimpse of another place without having to go into details. Think about how you hear about the world in your life. Marquees on buildings, tv screens in waiting rooms, news headlines on tablets, radios on buses, all of these are full of tidbits of information. Your readers are astute and will pick up allusions to other cultures easily. No need to spell things out, if it’s just for flavor. If your protagonists are based in space, they could pick up radio signals (or other, more advanced communications) from across the world, and patchwork them together into a partial pattern of information.

The TOS episode Friday’s Child is completely focused on the hair-trigger culture of the Capellans. There’s no indication that anyone other than the Capellans live on the planet.

Scott: How long were you stationed on the planet, Doctor?
McCoy: Only a few months. We found them totally uninterested in medical aid or hospitals. They believe only the strong should survive.

McCoy has dismissed the entire planet with one sentence. Apparently he spent his entire duty tour of this planet in one place, dealing with one group. The assumption we’re allowed to make throughout the episode is that this one group encompasses the entirety of the planet. Just make the explanation a little longer, and:

Scott: How long were you stationed on the planet, Doctor?
McCoy: Let’s see, a few weeks with the Aurigans, and then a couple of months with the Capellans. The Aurigans were grateful for the help, and pretty bright, too. The Capellans, on the other hand…
Scott: What about them?
McCoy: They were totally uninterested in medical aid or hospitals. They believe only the strong should survive. I didn’t have the time to convince them otherwise.

The focus is still on the Capellans, but there’s an acknowledgement of other cultures existing on the planet’s surface.

Glimpses, no matter how tantalizing they are, can’t show the whole story. And that’s good, because you also want to…

Leave Gaps


No one knows everything. Allow your protagonists and NPCs to admit their ignorance about places that are less accessible. Depending on how expensive or technologically advanced cross-country messaging is, it might be difficult or slow to communicate with faraway places. Figure out how fast news travels across your setting, and that will tell you how much the average citizen knows.

Speaking of news – also known as gossip – you might want to consider how true or not-true the information a given character has. After all, “everyone knows” is often a terrible source of accurate information. This is a good way to move out of the realm of worldbuilding and into the realm of plot: when your protagonists or players come across an error in their knowledge, curiosity will itch at them until they correct it.

Leaving gaps can mean that you don’t have to know all the answers and spend all of your time meticulously planning everything out. It also gives you room to create new plot hooks for sequels and interconnected stories.

Since the Enterprise’s mission is, among other things, to explore strange new worlds, they use this method fairly well. In Patterns of Force, the Enterprise is on a mission to the M43 Alpha system to fill in a gap in the Federation’s knowledge – the location of a historian, John Gill. They quickly realize that the gap is larger than they had realized when the Enterprise is attacked by a missile from Ekos:

Chekov: Spacecraft approaching from inner planet.
Kirk: From Ekos?
Spock: Yes, but it must be a Zeon ship. Zeons do have a crude interplanetary capability. Reaction powered. A small rocket. It is on an intercept course. That would mean it has sophisticated detection devices which neither Zeon nor Ekos should have.
Kirk: Have you raised anyone, Lieutenant?
Uhura: Nothing, sir.
Spock: Captain, it’s an unmanned probe which seems to be carrying a warhead.
[…] McCoy: That’s generations ahead of where these people should be technically. How’d they manage that?
Kirk: Maybe they had help. Maximum orbit. Take us out of range of their detection range.
Spock: Most interesting. We were attacked by a thermonuclear missile from a planet which should have no such weapon.
[…] Spock: According to our records, the Ekosians are a primitive, warlike people in a state of anarchy. The other planet, Zeon, has a relatively high technology, and its people are peaceful.
Kirk: We’ve run into a far more serious problem than the disappearance of John Gill. Spock, you and I will beam down.

These inconsistencies drive the plot for the rest of the episode.

It’s easy to get sidetracked by little nooks and crannies in your universe, then rush the rest to meet deadlines. But if you keep the scope down to what you need for now, not only will it be easier to stay on target, but it will make your world more intriguing and real to your readers.

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  1. Bubbles

    I have pretty much positive things to say about this article. It deals with a very relevant problem in fiction even today. Furthermore, it not only shows why the “Planet of Hats” is a problem (many don’t even think it is), it gives clear and practical information on how to avoid it, even under the constraints of time and space many creators face.

    I personally must, however, wonder how many people this will actually affect. I’ve seen several similar criticisms of the “Planet of Hats” online, but so many works of fiction still use it. In fact, I’m not sure whether I’ve seen any work with any mention of nonhuman cultures remotely as diverse as human ones. I hope that changes soon.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem with those planets is just as bad in Fantasy, where all non-human races seem completely made up of one type of people. All elves are alike (and if they’re not, it’s usually because there’s also those evil dark elves), all dwarves are alike, all orcs are alike, etc..

      I would really like to see a fantasy story which shows that non-human races living there are also diverse and have different cultures (and, perhaps, also more different looks which fit where a group has been living for a while). And I’d love to see a sci-fi story where alien races are diverse, too, and not just in a ‘we have twenty races in this book’ way. Rather concentrate on adding one non-human race and make it more diverse and grounded than make twenty and make all of them just humans with hats on.

  2. 3Comrades

    I dislike Dresden and the series very much, mostly as I’ve read few books with the sheer amount of sexist or racist comments that are laughed off or outright mocked in a popular modern series, but…

    The world building is very good, he has multiple werewolves with different afflictions and ways of life, but also Vampires, and complex nature of the Fae.

    It is doubly impressive because Urban Horror is very entrenched in stereotypical behavior and while there are certainly twists, having such a large variety is rarely called for.

    I’d love for fantasy and sci-fi to take that approach where one book in a series could be dealing with a wide variety of groups within a group. So when the protagonist goes to deal with elves, we can have the sad sea longing elves, wild and capricious wood elves, Magic society and erudite Wizard elves, and even the non evil but definitely underground elves (who are also called dwarves) and see them all mess with the protagonists and each other.

    I’d also like there to not be the Savage vs civilized races, that seems a bad grandfathering in of the genre

  3. Cay Reet

    Found a very good video on the topic from Overly Sarcastic Productions – complete with a personal explanation to how to avoid that when creating a culture.

  4. Tifa

    Oh, Overly Sarcastic Productions is one of my favourite Youtube channels!

    I’m working on a universe full of crystalline beings, and I’m being very careful to make them all different from each other.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, I love them, too, especially their Trope Talks. They’re very interesting and helpful, just like this site.

      • Tifa

        My favourite Trope Talk is the one about realism; I watch it every so often to remind myself that it’s okay to write lighter, comedic stories, and that there’s no rule saying that every story has to be grimdark. There’s a lot of anime, like Madoka and Code Geass, that I kind of want to watch, but [the Claymore manga, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle manga, and the RG Veda manga notwithstanding] I usually can’t stand super dark elements and depressing/tragic events. That’s one reason why I watched almost all of Wolf’s Rain but had to stop at the last four episodes, because it felt like the whole story was ultimately pointless and all of the characters’ actions were for nothing. I felt the exact same thing about Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is why I’ve never gone past episode 17, because after that is when things go rapidly downhill. The only other episode after that I would even consider watching is episode 24, the one with Kaworu, but that’s because I find him a truly fascinating character.
        Yet on the flip side, for some strange reason I am also drawn to dark/tragic stories, even though I inevitably start into a downward spiral while watching/reading. I had this problem for years when I first started writing–I would start out trying to make the story a comedy, but then darker things would creep in, and it would get worse and worse with characters suffering from emotional agony, until the story would almost always end with everyone dead. This, despite the fact that I have pretty much no villains at all in my stories, so in the end it felt like fate [that is, me] had it in for everyone and was making their lives miserable out of spite, making it all so terribly contrived. It may also have something to do with trying to work through the massive traumas I’ve been through, but…Anyway, lately I’m trying very hard not to fall into black holes like that.

        Wow, I totally went on a ramble. The planet of hats is lightyears away now. Sorry about that. But it feels good to get all of that out.

  5. Dvärghundspossen

    In Ann Leckie’s Ancillary book series, she sort of makes fun of this trope. Most people in the Radch empire tends to regard planets they conquer and colonize as planets of hats, because they mistake the most widespread cultue, language, religion etc for “the way things are on this PLANET”, even though there are always lots of others as well. It’s made clear, though, that this is just prejudice.

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