Worldbuilding is central to speculative fiction, but it’s also hard. Really hard. Experts in every field still debate how things in the real world work, so you can imagine how easy it is to make mistakes in a fictional world. I see such mistakes in a lot of the manuscripts I edit. Fortunately, that means the author can fix it before submitting or publishing their manuscripts. But it’s better if the mistakes never get made in the first place. To that end, I’ll describe some of the most common worldbuilding issues I see in new manuscripts.
1. Feudal Political Involvement
In modern times, we assume most people will have political opinions.* Widespread education means that most people have a general idea of how our government functions, so they have thoughts on how it could function better. There’s no guarantee anyone’s political opinion is a good one, but this is a basic cornerstone of any representative democracy. Politicians try to sway our political opinions so we’ll vote for them and their policies, even if said politicians are often light on details.
But this kind of political involvement doesn’t make sense in all settings, especially those feudal-Europe-inspired settings that are so common in high fantasy. In a standard feudal society, the vast majority of people have little investment in who rules them. For the average farmer or laborer, it doesn’t usually matter who wears the crown because everyday life will remain unchanged.
At the same time, feudal peasants have very little input on how they’re governed, short of rising in revolt, which requires extreme circumstances. Feudal lords don’t really have to care what their subjects think. Those subjects also lack formal education in most cases, making it hard for them to intellectualize the business of governing.
Despite this, I see a lot of manuscripts where medieval peasants get together and discuss the pros and cons of the various heirs vying for the crown. This sounds like a bunch of modern college students visiting a Renaissance fair. If you’ve read my articles in the past, you know I’m no stickler for historical accuracy, but in this case, storytellers are breaking their readers’ immersion for no appreciable gain.
Fortunately, this problem has a few easy fixes. For one thing, there are plenty of premodern societies in which political participation was widespread. If you base your setting off of the Roman Republic or Song Dynasty China, it won’t feel out of place at all for regular folks to have an opinion on politics.
Alternatively, you can create scenarios in which it’s more plausible for feudal subjects to have political opinions. Perhaps a local scribe finds a book on political theory in the church library, and when the duke raises taxes to pay for a third castle, the commoners wonder if there’s a better way to run things. Or you can focus on motivations that fit better into a default feudal setting. Peasants might not be educated on the finer points of tax law, but they know which claimant to the throne demands a greater tithe of wheat.
2. Absent Authority Figures
In order to control an area, rulers need some way to enforce their authority. Otherwise, they aren’t really rulers, and people can do whatever they want. At the same time, rulers don’t usually appreciate anyone causing mayhem and destruction in their territory. They’ve got taxes to collect, and that’s hard to do when someone’s causing a ruckus.
This can be an issue because violence and mayhem are the cornerstones of many speculative fiction plots. Sometimes it’s a dragon rampaging across a fantasy kingdom; sometimes it’s a squadron of space pirates marauding through the asteroid belt. This is usually a problem for the protagonist to solve – or occasionally a problem caused by the protagonist.
Either way, in any plausible scenario, the authorities would want to shut the mayhem down as quickly as possible, and yet they rarely do. Sometimes this is because they’re inexplicably sitting on their hands, which is a plot problem, but many of the manuscripts I work on simply have no authority figures at all. Kingdoms lack armies, modern nations lack police, and space federations have not a starfleet to be seen.
It’s understandable why storytellers often leave authority figures out of their worldbuilding. It’s a serious hangup for the plot if the villain is arrested in the second chapter. But most audiences have enough understanding of society to expect some kind of enforcement mechanism. If a setting doesn’t have one, the setting doesn’t feel real.
To solve this problem, focus on building a world that not only has the necessary authority figures but also has credible reasons why they can’t interfere with the plot. An easy place to start is to have a setting where centers of power are small and scattered. It’s hard for anyone to marshal the forces necessary to stop a dragon when the land is populated mostly by isolated villages. That won’t work for every setting, but if it’s an option, I highly recommend it.
You can also create authority figures that are clearly unable to interfere with the plot. If your setting is home to a sprawling space empire, you can show how the navy is so depleted by civil war and poor funding that it can’t stop raids on civilian shipping. Your setting’s authority figures could even be part of the problem. It would normally be the royal army’s job to stop an anti-elf militia, but if the army is riddled with elf-hating officers, they might ignore the militia’s activities.
3. Unaddressed Crises
If you opened a novel and the first page depicted how the world was slowly floating into the maw of a sun-sized chaos demon, you’d expect that to be addressed as part of the plot, yes? And if it wasn’t, you’d probably feel frustrated and confused. Sure, the protagonists may have defeated their nemesis, but the world is still going to be eaten by a chaos demon.
While I’ve never encountered that specific scenario, unresolved crises are fairly common in the manuscripts that cross my desk. They take the form of environmental catastrophe, collapsing infrastructure, and the like. These problems are big and urgent enough to make the audience think they’re part of the plot, but from the storyteller’s perspective, they’re just window dressing. When the story ends and the crisis is unaddressed, the audience isn’t satisfied because their expectations weren’t fulfilled. In most cases, such endings also feel very bleak because there’s a crisis about to doom the world.
This mistake usually comes from a good instinct: filling the world with problems. Dystopias are much easier to tell stories in than utopias because a dystopia is full of problems for the protagonist to solve. But authors can go overboard and create problems that feel more urgent than their actual plot.
You don’t have to fix every problem in the setting by the end of your story. For most stories, that would be impossible and likely unbelievable as well. It’s fine for a postapocalyptic story to end with the wasteland as hostile as it was at the beginning, or a fantasy story to end with monsters still prowling the dark woods. In most cases, the issue is that the problems are out of the ordinary or seem likely to spiral out of control.
If you’re writing a cyberpunk dystopia, then corporate abuse and organic chop shops are the norm. It’s fine to leave those around when the story ends. But if a virus is destroying every computer on the planet, that’s out of the ordinary, and it needs to be addressed. The problem doesn’t necessarily have to be resolved if you make it clear that it’s being saved for a sequel, but it needs to be central to the plot. If that’s not something you’re interested in, then don’t include a super computer virus in the setting.
It’s also possible to make a story that’s specifically about not resolving the crisis. If your plot revolves around what the characters will do in the face of an unstoppable apocalypse, then you would address the crisis without stopping it.
4. Oppressed Privilege
I’ve talked about this topic before, but it comes up so often in my editing work that it deserves a spot on this list. In this mistake, storytellers craft a world where a group of people are oppressed because of a trait that would actually grant them privilege in any plausible scenario. Magic and superpowers are by far the most common example, but I’ve also seen manuscripts where characters were discriminated against for being good at sports or just smart.
I understand why storytellers do this. Many of us learned growing up that anything differentiating someone from the group will be punished, and magical powers are certainly a strong difference. This mistake is also common in popular media, from classics like X-Men to newer entries like Fantastic Beasts, where wizards fear muggles even though wizards have magical powers.
However, simply because lots of other people are making a mistake doesn’t mean you want to. And oppressed privilege is a mistake because while it’s true that differences are often punished, that dynamic changes the moment those differences are exploitable. Instead, exploitable differences are rewarded. Though some people might fear a weather witch’s power or resent the witch for having abilities they don’t, that won’t bother the witch much when governments and corporations are willing to pay top dollar for better rainfall.
And for every person who personally dislikes someone for their exceptional abilities, there will be far more people who respond with idolization. You can already see this in real life. Some people are jealous of Michael Jordan’s success, but far more idolize him because he’s just so good at basketball. This is all just at the individual level. We haven’t even gotten into what happens when people with exceptional abilities start acting in groups. Even the X-Men can’t get around this one; the writers routinely craft plot contrivances to explain how the mutants don’t immediately defeat the evil government.
This mistake not only makes a setting harder to take seriously but also reinforces dangerous misconceptions about the way privilege works. The idea of being punished for privileged traits is at the heart of movements that proclaim it’s really white men being mistreated in our society. This ideology is then weaponized against people who are actually oppressed. That’s how we get people demanding an end to affirmative action and voting-rights laws with claims that these are discriminating against privileged people when in fact they are working to correct an existing imbalance.
None of this means it’s wrong to have a character with a special ability be oppressed. In most cases, it works fine for a character to be oppressed for reasons unrelated to their ability. While Michael Jordan isn’t discriminated against for being good at basketball, he still experiences racism as a black man. Alternatively, it’s plausible for privileged people to be specifically targeted by an outside enemy. When the Spanish invaded the Americas, they went after the native nobility first, not because the Spanish hated nobles but because those natives had the most power and the greatest ability to resist.
5. Unnoticed Supernatural Elements
Storytellers love putting secret supernatural elements into their worlds. Often, the secrecy is there as an explanation for how this fictional version of Earth can still resemble our own. This is the default for urban fantasy stories like The Dresden Files, but you also see it in historical fantasy when the author wants readers to imagine the story could be taking place in their past. In other cases, the secrecy isn’t in service of believability but is there so the storyteller can have a cool reveal.
Like oppressed privilege, this is a mistake that many popular franchises make. The Hellboy films portray a world where people have simply forgotten about magic, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has people blissfully unaware of the mass-murdering vampires in their midst. Neither story offers an explanation; they just hope audiences will be too enamored by cool fight scenes and witty dialogue to start asking questions.
The problem here is that supernatural elements are hard to miss. If your world includes wizards conjuring flames atop their towers, people will take notice. Beyond simple curiosity, humans have a strong incentive to notice and document the supernatural. If the supernatural is dangerous, people remember to avoid it. More importantly, many supernatural elements are exploitable, and humans never let go of something they can use. This is before we even get into the modern era, where widespread smartphones make it nearly impossible to keep anything secret.
When humans ignore the supernatural for no reason, it’s an obvious contrivance. It damages the world’s believability, making it more difficult for audiences to take the story seriously. What’s more, the consequences of this mistake are only going to get more severe as speculative fiction continues to dominate the mainstream. In the before times, audiences were more willing to get swept up in spectacle because worlds of secret magic were new and cool. Now that everyone has read Harry Potter a dozen times, the novelty has worn off and audiences expect more.
The best solution is to have a credible, simple explanation for why people don’t notice or remember the supernatural. Perhaps the magic in your world is so slippery and alien that it doesn’t stick in people’s memories unless they are full-time magicians. If you’re in a historical genre, then setting your magic in the distant past is a great solution. It’s totally plausible for the records of Bronze Age sorcerers to have been lost over the millennia or lumped in with all the other nonsense reported by ancient historians.*
If a complete explanation doesn’t work for your setting, then the best option is to present some plausible hand waving and move on. This is why The Dresden Files spends so much of the early books with the main character working alongside the Chicago police. It gives the author plenty of time to establish that regardless of the reason, normal people ignore the existence of magic until something magical is about to eat them. The protagonist even comments on how strange this is before concluding that no one will ever know the reason why. That reasoning isn’t totally satisfying, but it’s enough to get most readers over the believability hump.
While worldbuilding is only one of the challenges facing a speculative fiction storyteller, it’s one of the most important. A lot of readers are drawn to spec fic specifically because of the strange new worlds it creates. A poorly built world will send that portion of the audience running for the hills, even if everything else about the story is excellent. So when you sit down to write a new draft, keep these mistakes in mind. Avoiding them will save you time and money down the road.
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