Bad worldbuilding is an ever-present problem in speculative fiction. Storytellers craft all kinds of setting elements that don’t make sense, cause plot holes, or reinforce bigoted ideas. But sometimes, authors go a step further. Rather than adding something that doesn’t work, they add something that simply doesn’t need to be there. Such mistakes not only make a world less immersive but also add to the audience’s cognitive load for little or no benefit.
1. Guns Making Laser Sounds: Firefly
As a space western, Firefly has a mix of high- and low-tech aesthetics to choose from. The heroes have a spaceship, but they also ride horses on remote worlds. They visit bars with holographic windows, but they use modern-style firearms when it’s time for a fight. Also, the guns make laser sounds. Specifically, they make the “pew pew” type noises that scifi has taught us to associate with advanced energy weapons. Alternatively, some of the guns make an electrical whirring sound when they’re loaded or when a round is chambered, like something is charging up.
From a technical perspective, this is pretty much impossible to explain. Way back in the day, the old Serenity RPG forums were flooded with posts that tried and failed to do so, some of them going on for dozens of pages. Every possible explanation was explored, from the guns actually being laser weapons to using some kind of electromagnetic rail system instead of an explosive charge, but nothing held water.
We know the guns in Firefly aren’t actually lasers, as we can see the bullets, both when the guns are loaded and when characters are hit. We know they’re using a chemical propellant because the cartridges have a clearly visible area to store powder and the guns still have hammers to set off said powder.* The show also has dialogue about how guns can’t fire in a vacuum, which indicates that combustion is required. Of course, modern guns actually can fire in a vacuum, but it was a pretty common myth that they couldn’t before Mythbusters came along.
The only remaining explanation is that Firefly guns work just like modern ones do, except there’s some extra machinery in there to make the laser sounds. That doesn’t seem very likely. Even more importantly, the inexplicable laser sounds undermine a major theme of the setting: the rich/poor technology divide. In Firefly, most really advanced tech is reserved for the wealthy, while everyone else gets by on whatever they can scrounge up. Our heroes might be stuck using guns, but their rich enemies often have advanced laser or sonic weaponry, not to mention hovercraft. Making the good guys’ weapons sound more futuristic undermines that contrast.
From a behind-the-scenes standpoint, it’s not clear why Firefly’s guns make laser noises.* There might have been some kind of production constraint that made normal gun sounds unworkable, but I suspect it was an effort to make the setting more futuristic. If so, the effort was unnecessary. Firefly is already as futuristic as it needs to be, thanks to all the spaceships.
2. A Second Werewolf Pack: Teen Wolf
Teen Wolf’s first three seasons focus on a small pack of werewolves – along with their assorted allies – in the town of Beacon Hills. This pack goes through several iterations, with characters joining and leaving based on which actors were available, but it’s always small. When a new supernatural character arrives in town, it’s a big deal, whether they’re friend or foe.
Then season four arrives, and the writers reveal there’s been a second werewolf pack in Beacon Hills this whole time. This pack is led by a woman named Satomi, and it’s huge. Every other pack we see in the show has around four to six members, but Satomi’s has dozens. This raises questions not only about why her pack is so big but also about how none of the protagonists noticed them before. It’s established that werewolves can sense each other if they’re close, and Beacon Hills isn’t that big.
Then we’re told that some of the existing characters knew about Satomi; they just hadn’t mentioned her before. This is even harder to believe. Satomi is established to be very powerful, but no one thought of asking her for help against the show’s many villains? For that matter, we also see a lot of flashbacks to Beacon Hills’ past, but Satomi isn’t in any of them.
It could not be more obvious that this second pack wasn’t planned in advance, and despite seeming like a big deal for a couple of episodes, they basically disappear after season four. They’re referenced in dialogue a few times, but Satomi herself never appears again, and we’re eventually told about her offscreen death in the final season.
So what is this second pack even for? A few extra bodies. I mean that literally. You see, one of season four’s villains is a mysterious figure who’s trying to assassinate all the supernatural beings in Beacon Hills. Since the main characters mostly have plot shields, the writers had to introduce new characters who could actually die. And die they do. In fact, our first real introduction to Satomi’s pack is a screen full of dead bodies.*
This did not require adding a secret pack to the show. All season four needed was a handful of supernatural characters who lived in Beacon Hills but had stayed hidden until their names showed up on a villain’s hitlist. In fact, the writers actually did this a couple of times, but then decided to introduce a whole bunch of supernatural extras at once through Satomi’s pack. All they needed to do was stay their current course.
3. National Sailor Dialect: Wheel of Time
In Robert Jordan’s very first Wheel of Time novel, our heroes meet a riverboat captain named Bayle Domon. That’s very fortunate for them, as they just happen to require a riverboat’s services. Domon is an experienced captain who seems to know what he’s doing, and he’d be an unremarkable character except that he talks like this:
- “Did I no warn you the last time, Gelb? At Whitebridge, off you do go!”
- “Well, if it be no, it be no. But Bayle Domon no give free passage, not to his own mother.”
- “And if that no be bad enough, the people be all saying it meant the Dark One be stirring, that the Last Days be come.”
These are direct quotes from the book, and they mean our captain friend is one “arr” away from being a kids’-show pirate. That’s more than a little silly for a serious fantasy epic like WoT. What’s next, a chimney sweep who talks like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins?
Whatever, it’s just one character; I’m sure that… wait, he’s from a country called Illian, and they all talk like that? What the heck? Beyond the obvious silliness of an entire nation talking like cartoon sailors, this is the only time Jordan spells out anyone’s dialect or accent. Every other group has their manner of speech briefly described and then rarely mentioned again. They mostly fade into the background, except for the Seanchan, and that’s only because they’re described as samurai with Texas-style drawls.
Writing out the Illian dialect in textual form draws extra attention to it, and for what? At first, I thought Illian would be a nation of sailors, and the accent was a way of emphasizing that. That would be a heavy dip into the planet of hats and not very good worldbuilding, but it would at least be something. Except Illian isn’t any more nautical than most of the other nations. So… why this dialect?
As best I can tell, the process happened like this: Domon was a sailor, so Jordan unthinkingly gave him a cartoon sailor dialect, not considering how it might affect the rest of the setting. The early WoT books are full of odd choices like that, as Jordan didn’t originally know if his series would be long or short. Then, when the answer was clearly “long” and Jordan wanted to introduce more people from Illian, he looked back at Domon’s dialect and decided that everyone else from that country should speak the same way.
To be fair, one of WoT’s big problems is that its various cultures are so generic that it’s often difficult to remember which is which. The bizarre Illian dialect definitely makes them memorable, but not in a way authors usually want.
Editor’s note: This section has been revised to clear up the difference between dialect and accent.
4. Slugthrowers: Star Wars
Just about everyone in Star Wars uses blasters as their primary weapon. If you want to commit violence and aren’t an overpowered Jedi with a lightsaber, the blaster is your best option. And, other than the occasionally mentioned stun setting, blasters work pretty much like firearms, which is convenient for choreographing shootouts.
That’s the whole story as far as the movies are concerned, but then a number of secondary sources* introduced the slugthrower. Where blasters are extremely similar to guns, slugthrowers are literally guns, complete with a metal projectile propelled by a chemical explosive. In some cases, they’re presented as simple single-shot rifles, while in others we see more complex weapons like shotguns and machine guns.
The slugthrower’s role changes depending on where it appears, but it’s most commonly portrayed one of two ways. First, as a cheaper but less effective alternative to blasters. Second, as a specialized anti-Jedi weapon, since a lightsaber supposedly can’t deflect a metal bullet the way it can a blaster bolt. Neither of these roles fit well in Star Wars.
For one thing, blasters appear to be everywhere in the Star Wars movies. The characters are practically tripping over them. There’s exactly one time when getting a blaster is portrayed as difficult – when Finn and Rey first meet in The Force Awakens – and that’s mostly a function of their being constantly on the run. Even with limited funds, it’s difficult to imagine that blasters are too hard to come by. If the goal is to portray someone as low tech or poorly funded, just give them less capable blasters: weapons that are unreliable or have a low rate of fire.
The second role is a bit trickier. Lightsabers are effectively magic, so it’s difficult to debate whether or not they can stop a metal projectile. It doesn’t really matter, though, as Jedi superswords are already powered entirely by suspension of disbelief. Even though blaster bolts are fully deflectable, blocking more than a few of them from different directions would be impossible, as the lightsaber simply can’t occupy that much space at the same time. You’ll notice this almost never happens in Star Wars. Introducing a new weapon to get around Jedi deflection just undermines a conceit that the setting depends on.
At the same time, introducing regular guns into Star Wars raises a further question: Why doesn’t everyone use slugthrowers instead of blasters? We can see onscreen that blaster bolts only travel about the speed of a fast baseball, making them much easier to avoid than supersonic bullets. Blasters also seem to be light on features like automatic fire, which puts them at an even greater disadvantage. It’s possible to argue that Star Wars armor is more effective against solid projectiles, even though blaster wounds don’t seem any worse than gunshot wounds, but it’s a moot point because almost no one in Star Wars wears armor.
It’s really not worth raising those questions just to introduce an anti-Jedi weapon, especially when there are plenty of other options. All a character needs to fight Jedi are explosives or a flamethrower, two things that are already prevalent in a galaxy far, far away.
5. One-Scene Aliens: Chaos Walking
It’s still surreal that 2021 saw Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland star in a big-budget scifi movie and somehow almost no one heard of it. But we must soldier on, for beyond the strangeness of this movie’s origins lies an important revelation: it is very bad. Nearly everything about it is bad, but today we only care about the aliens, who are called “Spackle” for some reason.
The story starts in a low-tech space colony that’s all men, and we’re soon told that the women were all killed in Spackle raids on the colony. That’s a pretty obvious lie for two reasons. First, it doesn’t make any sense. Unless the Spackle have gender-calibrated radar, it’s really unlikely they would have gotten every single one of the colony’s women. Second, the men telling us this are obviously evil.
It doesn’t take a film degree to guess that the Spackle story will turn out to be a cover, and the evil human leaders are actually responsible for the women’s deaths. The natural choice would then be for our heroes to team up with the Spackle against the evil humans, or maybe the Spackle would turn out to be entirely fabricated. There isn’t really any sign of them at the beginning, so they could just be another lie.
Nope. The Spackle are indeed real, and they didn’t kill the colony’s women, but they also don’t play any significant role in the plot. Instead, we encounter a single Spackle in one scene. Tom Holland briefly tries to knife fight it, Daisy Ridley convinces him not to, and then the Spackle leaves. That’s all we see of them for the entire movie, as all the other conflicts are between groups of humans.
This gives the entire movie the feeling of something missing. Surely they wouldn’t create an entire alien species just for a single minor scene? You keep waiting for the Spackle to show back up, and when they don’t, it’s like the movie didn’t end properly. Plus, the movie ends with more humans arriving to continue colonizing the Spackle’s planet, which is a really awkward plot thread to leave hanging. Also, no one ever explains why they’re called the Spackle!
All this awkwardness could easily have been avoided by simply cutting the Spackle out of the story. The lie could instead be that a plague wiped out all the women, and the rest of the movie could proceed virtually unchanged. I’m 99% sure they would have done something like that, except that Chaos Walking is based on a book where the Spackle are more present, and the book’s author is also the film’s screenwriter. Hollywood, I’m begging you, please stop hiring novelists to write your movies and TV shows. That isn’t what they’re good at!
The most difficult part of an editor’s job is figuring out how to revise one part of a story without messing up some other part, so it’s a bit surreal to find published stories with worldbuilding that just doesn’t need to be there. “Why didn’t they take it out?” my editor brain asks. “It would have been so easy!” On the bright side, the more often we see this problem in the wild, the easier it is to identify such problems in our own work. Then we can greatly improve things with a few quick edits.
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