Some worldbuilding is good, some is bad, and some is just… unfocused. Okay, admittedly that also usually means it’s bad, but it’s a specific kind of bad! When authors aren’t deliberate about their setting choices, it leads to worlds that are contradictory, confusing, or just bland. Fortunately, we have a lot to say on the topic, and we might even be focused enough to have a point!
Generously transcribed by Raillery. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening theme]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: I don’t have a genius introduction for this one, ‘cause I wanted to jump straight into it! Today we’re talking about common issues with unfocused world-building! Yay!
Oren: Wow. Maybe that was an unfocused intro.
Wes: I think it was a sharp and very focused intro. Let’s get to the meat of things! I didn’t bother you with fluff and all kinds of anecdotal comments about how this rock over here is really important to the world, but it has nothing to do with the characters or their quest. That guy over there who lives in the forest and wears a funny hat and knows a lot of things and it’s very powerful, but he’s not going to do anything to help the story, but he’s there!
Oren: Yeah, you got to know that he’s there. And then when the movie inevitably cuts him out, maybe 50 years later, you will get a weird subset of fans who insist that cutting him out was bad!
Wes: That’s right!
Chris: Oren, the Crow Eaters absolutely had to stay in Fury Road. You could not have cut the Crow Eaters. They are too cool.
Oren: They should have been removed! They were bad. They were distracting. And now it’s, “Oh, read the comic to find out about them.” And it’s like, “Now I know what they were. Why didn’t we ask them for help? They might’ve been willing to help us. Great. Strong work, everyone.”
Wes: Probably don’t put Tom Bombadil in your story. There are people like that also. Just a little bit unfocused.
Chris: That’s very similar, though, because Tom Bombadil also could have helped more than he did.
Wes: He definitely could have. I think this gets to the point. When we say unfocused world-building, we acknowledge that world-building is really hard and there certainly are some pitfalls that you can fall into. We’re not saying that if you made a world that you didn’t go about creating very purposefully and you threw a bunch of stuff in there, then that is bad. That’s okay. But maybe focus on revision.
We’ve talked about themeing your world quite a lot. That can really be a helpful consideration. Apparently, Tolkien’s theme was to put as much of his own mythology in as possible and it would therefore be good. …And then also have a story.
Oren: There are certainly some weird theming bits in Tolkien. Lord of the Rings is reasonably themed.
Chris: Honestly, at this point it is hard to tell because it’s such a classic. People have become used to anything associated with the Lord of the Rings themes that they would not otherwise be used to. The Lord of the Rings is such a trend setter. The way we see it now is not the same way it would have been seen when it was first released.
Oren: One of the things that’s always funny is when you get people who watch, for example, an urban fantasy show and so they’ve already seen werewolves, but why would they not think that vampires are real? Obviously, those things go together. But they only go together because we’re used to seeing them together. There’s not really any logical reason to think that because werewolves exist, vampires must exist. They’re not similar creatures in any capacity
Werewolves existing and then were-foxes existing is a much more natural connection, but werewolves and vampires appear together in a lot of media. So our reader brains assume that if there are werewolves, there are probably also vampires.
Chris: I would think that you would have to work around that. I certainly wouldn’t think it unreasonable for the reader to feel this way, even if they’re using their meta knowledge.
If you wanted to have a situation where the characters are supposed to be surprised that vampires exist in a world where werewolves already exist, you would need to spend a significant amount of time doing something like Teen Wolf, where you have a whole bunch of stories under the premise that there’s mostly just werewolves and other creature-like fantasy species. If then suddenly you have vampires show up, the audience could also experience that surprise.
Oren: Okay. But have you considered that, instead, I could just go to every single audience member’s house and argue with them and tell them that they’re wrong for feeling the way they feel?
Wes: That’s what the Internet’s for, Oren!
Oren: I’ll go write an article about why you’re wrong to feel the way you feel!
Chris: Or you just put it right in the book. In between chapters. “Interlude: You Are Wrong”.
Oren: “Interlude: Actually, Werewolves and Vampires Aren’t Connected, So It Makes Total Sense That They Wouldn’t Expect to See Them and If You Think Otherwise, Then You’re a Bad Person: Please Return My Book”.
Wes: Those creatures are a good example of unfocused world-building if you’re talking about the fantastical or futuristic elements in your stories.
I read The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro a few years ago. It’s based on an Arthurian setting that takes place after the Arthur legends. It’s this couple who decided to go find their son, but there’s been a fog in the land that’s giving everybody memory loss. Throughout the entire story, as new plot points developed, there were suddenly new things like a baby dragon that could bite people and infect them with the memories of their mother dragon. But there are also people that are randomly immune to this fog. I think that the convenience of something new in your world just to suit your new plot point is a symptom of unfocused world-building
Chris: Shiny objects! Must add!
The storyteller often just gets excited about new and novel ideas. The primary sign is that the person who was building the world just started adding random things they got excited about. “Oh, that’s a cool idea. I gotta put it in!” They just put in all of the shiny. The world, again, has no theme and feels really random. It feels unbelievable because it’s random and it’s not setting and meeting expectations. “Okay. We got vampires. And then suddenly there’s aliens.” What?
Oren: I love to play a little game where I try to guess whether a weird, out-of-place bit of world-building is in there because the author thought it was cool and decided to include it or if the author wrote themselves into a corner and needed to invent a new world-building thing to get themselves out of the corner. Functionally it’s more or less the same within the story, but I have fun imagining how it got there.
For example, I’m pretty sure that the eagles are there just because Tolkien thought eagles were very cool and thought, “It’s eagles time, baby!” And that’s why there are eagles in Lord of the Rings, despite all the plot problems that they caused.
Whereas, in Buffy all of those super-powerful spells that they only have for one episode and then never use again are there because the writers needed a way out of a problem that they’d written themselves into. “So we have a guy who’s just way too strong. We’ve established that there’s no way to beat him.” “Okay. Well, what if they all could combine their powers together into Buffy?” “Yeah, that’ll do it. Don’t ask about that later.”
Chris: Arbitrary and powerful magic or technology is just one of the hallmarks of somebody doing world-building without really planning or thinking it through. “I wanted magic, so I just added magic. But that spell is cool. And this spell is cool.” They are thinking about it one moment at a time and not thinking about the fact that those are things that characters can generally replicate.
You’ve added abilities that your characters can pull out at any time thereafter. It becomes very, very cumulative. The amount of technology and magic they can use just keeps building the longer the story goes along with the plot holes this creates. And then of course they want people to travel across the country, so now there’s teleportation or something like that.
Oren: Focused or not, one of the big functions of world-building and of your setting in general is to provide novelty, if you’re writing spec-fic. If it’s not doing that, you might have a problem. But novelty fades, so how do you maintain novelty over a long story? And the answer is not actually to keep throwing in new, shiny things the moment you think of them. That has other problems, but it’s a tempting one, right? That’s a thing that a lot of authors reach for because it seems easy at the moment.
Wes: But then you’re neglecting the other ANTS that should be sustaining interest in your story.
Oren: The more random stuff you throw in there, the more it will degrade tension and satisfaction, primarily. I suppose it could also degrade attachment if you’re doing something that messes with your characters.
Chris: If you add a lot of random things, their novelty is reduced. Things are the most novel when they are unexpected and fresh, yet they also fit. Just like a good joke. You want to surprise people, but it also has to click into place. Otherwise, it just feels bizarre. Random and out-of-the-blue novelties are just distracting. Adding ramifications of what you’ve already done in your world is one of the best ways to create novelty.
An example I’ve used previously is in Andy Weir’s Artemis. We’ve got a moon colony and he mentions that the stairs are each about a meter – or three feet – tall, because when gravity is lower, people jump higher. So naturally the steps on the stairs can be a lot bigger. That was such an interesting detail, but part of what makes it so novel is that it perfectly fits what you already know, but you still weren’t expecting it.
If you add a bunch of shiny and it’s interesting to you, but it feels random in the setting, you risk making those things feel less novel. If you actually have a theme, even a lighter and less rigorous one that is more in the background but still sets some context for what kinds of things appear in the world, they feel more natural. If you adhere to that and don’t make things feel random and bizarre, you’ll have an easier time introducing new elements and have them feel novel.
Oren: We’ve been talking about unfocused world building in terms of having too much stuff or contradictory stuff. But another sign of unfocused world building can also just be low novelty in general, because you’re not really coming at the world with a purpose. You’re just kind of putting things in there because you feel like they’re supposed to be there. Maybe you’re just not paying that much attention.
And this is how you get To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, which is the most generic space opera. If I ask a computer, “One generic space opera, please,” then To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is what I would get. It’s like Mass Effect, but not as consistent in tone and with some weird stuff from Star Trek and Star Wars thrown in there. It just feels extremely bland.
Or you can also end up with The Wheel of Time that has a bazillion-million nations that are all the same, except for the one that has a pirate accent. With Wheel of Time, when we want different cultures, we have to bring in invaders from across the ocean to be bondage death samurai. In the actual place where everyone starts, which has a bunch of different countries, they’re basically all the same because there’s no distinctiveness in them at all. “Yeah, I guess we’re in Tear now? I guess they’ve got a fortress somewhere, maybe? That’s their cultural trait. They have a big fortress.”
Wes: Big fortress, big culture.
Oren: That’s not technically true. There’s also the Shienarans, whose trait is that they’re better than everyone else. They’re Jordan’s favorite group until the Aiel show up in force.
Chris: Candied species are actually surprisingly common problems in world-building. Just like you have a candied character, you have a candy group of elves or the Raksura.
Martha Wells has a Raksura series. There are some really interesting things about this world. In the second book, there’s a whole city that’s on the back of a leviathan. I thought that was a really cool setting. There are neat things about this world, but one of the issues is that the Raksura obviously just have so many more abilities compared to all of the other species that it just feels a little unfair and unrealistic. “Did you know the Raksura could do this too?” Okay, well, I guess they might as well at this point.
Oren: Yeah. I guess they also have that ability. And that one. And more. More abilities. Always mooooore.
Chris: It’s also an example of a setting that is exactly what Oren was talking about. Martha Wells is clearly world-building to fit her plot. Instead of having plot holes and having characters acting out of character to fill those plot holes, – which is also a bad pattern – she just makes up more world-building about how the different species work in order to fill all her plot holes.
Oren: My favorite was the extremely specific, tortured way that the future site works because we needed to justify why the bad guys would be after Moon, the protagonist, for a long period of in-universe time, but never be able to find him. But we need them to have some idea where he was. It was so weird. “How does your future site work? Okay, I guess it works that way.”
Chris: People point at a problem of unfocused world-building which is that you end up just being too derivative. Everybody’s like, “You titled your story The Duke of the Bracelets, but we all know it’s The Lord of the Rings.” It’s okay to do that if you do focus on some meaningful novelty in there. We can accept that some things go hand-in-hand with certain types of settings. That’s the benefit of a well-themed world.
Some people will take tall, sexy elves as a given. “Okay, there are the elves. Oh, they’re the tall and sexy ones? Got it.” If you made them Christmas elves instead, that would be a completely different situation. It’s not necessarily a pitfall to make a world that is derivative of a known work, but all the more reason to point out what is novel and why it’s meaningful in order to correct for that.
Chris: Having a derivative world is okay. But there’s a couple things. Primarily, you want to know if it’s derivative. This can be surprisingly tricky. We don’t always know where ideas came from, but the more that you analyze why you made this choice, why you put this in, why you called this by this name, the better you can get to the bottom of that.
You want influences to be intentional. If you’ve watched a lot of Marvel and you want to do another superhero story because that’s what you’re excited about, go for it. But you should know that Marvel is your inspiration and be intentional about that. Writers run into more problems when they are not thinking about it, not doing it intentionally, and then they have arbitrary, nonsensical things in their world just because they were copying the source material without thinking about it.
For instance, Marvel is a compilation of tons of comic books put together, so it’s just naturally really random because of the way it’s evolved. But if you were to do a superhero story, you don’t have to do it that way. Understanding that, you can create stronger theming. Do you really want to copy Marvel in this particular aspect? Be intentional about what you’re trying to create.
What can you do that’s different to add some novelty to it? Adding a theme to superhero settings is really helpful. What if all of your heroes had powers based on cosmic bodies? What if they’re each derived from a different star and had star powers? You could add a theme to create novelty when you have a setting like that.
The issue with all of the worlds that are just like Middle Earth is that the writers think, “No, I have a totally different world. So now I have to add in tons of new names. I have all of these races and they all need brand new names, which the reader will have to learn. And then all of these different kingdoms have brand new names.” It’s not a big deal if your world is a lot like Middle Earth, but it’s another thing to have a huge learning curve just to figure out what all of these terms are and what all of the races are, only to find out you’re in Middle Earth.
Oren: Ideally you would want a world that is cool and fresh and different from other fantasy settings, but it is better to just embrace the fact that you’re doing a fairly generic fantasy world than it is to do a fairly generic fantasy world and then change all of the names. It’s an elf. I know it’s an elf. I don’t care that you call it an elzudra. It’s an elf!
Wes: All hail elzudra!
Oren: I know an elf when I see one, guys!
Chris: Using a common name doesn’t actually erase its novelty. If you have a species that are like elves and you decide to call them elves, they’re not actually going to become less unique and less novel because you’re calling them elves. Somebody’s just going to think, “Oh, those are interesting elves. Those are novel elves.” Choosing to give them intuitive names that people understand will not make your world less unique. It’s the substance that matters, not the labels.
Wes: I too like how you’re getting at the associations that people bring to the story. If you call them elves, then on some level they’re primed for what that means, which goes in the writer’s favor for making them more novel because you’re automatically getting to play against like a stereotype. Actually, it is a little bit of a shortcut if you’re using conventional names because you know what the expectations are and you can subvert them in a big way or in a small way. That gives you a little bit more novelty for less effort. You’re not just creating a race from scratch and making them the most candied of all races.
Chris: Elves are very candied by nature.
Wes: So how about worlds where everything just seems disconnected? Such as this city is this way and they have that technology. This city is nothing like that other city, even though the party can travel between places.
Chris: Or the party can travel between places, but the people in those places have never heard of each other.
Wes: Ideas and trade, for whatever reason, aren’t happening! Remember when we covered City in the Middle of the Night?
Wes: The author really tried to make it clear that they are very separated because the road between is full of buffalo that eat your face off.
Chris: That actually had better justification than most because that world is super dangerous. One of the cities also had an oppressive government that regulated ideas. They were actively controlling the flow of ideas.
Oren: I think at least they knew about each other. There are definitely serious problems with The City in the Middle of the Night’s world-building compared to something like Lord of the Rings, where people in Middle Earth have never heard of hobbits because apparently hobbits just don’t travel. I always found that extremely weird. That just seems wrong.
Chris: It is easier to get away with that in a setting where communication is difficult. If we can only send letters by having a person travel over land for several months, that does at least lend some credibility. It gets harder the more magic you have because magic often enables fast communication of some kind. People are scrying or doing other things to talk to each other.
These days, in so many stories, it at first seemed like it was going to be a problem for characters to always have cell phones. There are still excuses like the cell phone battery is dead, because it would break the plot if the characters could talk to each other. But more and more storytellers are used to the convenience of letting their characters talk to each other, wherever they are, at any time. Even if it’s a fantasy world, they have a tendency to say, “I’m going to just create a fantasy equivalent of cell phone technology so that I don’t have to deal with having my characters in the same place to have a conversation.” It’s interesting to see that trend change.
Oren: In one story that I read but don’t remember the name of, the protagonist is researching ancient magic that’s all lost and mysterious. So we’re going with the idea that magic in the setting is either non-existent in the present or super rare. The protagonist has to raid forbidden libraries to find even the slightest amount of information about magic.
That’s cool. That’s the aesthetic it’s going with. And then she just meets a little kid who has lots of magic and is, of course, the super-candied über-kid of the story and who can do anything. This is breaking the theme. Well, this is really annoying, but it’s just one character. And then the little kid explains that she’s from the magic country where they have magic everywhere.
Chris: I’m pretty sure people would remark on that one.
Oren: The magic country has an embassy in the protagonist’s city! The protagonist is the leader of the city. It’s not like some lost country that no one’s ever heard of!
Chris: The protagonist is the leader and there’s an embassy?
Oren: Technically she’s the heir, but yes, she’s the next in line to be queen.
Chris: She still hasn’t heard of the magic country?
Oren: Everyone there just agrees to keep a lid on this. No one talks!
Chris: At least the hobbits were, other than their size, fairly unremarkable in the setting.
Oren: That was super weird. I was like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” And then it just kinda did. The embassy was like a Tardis embassy where it was way bigger on the inside and had a jungle in it. “Does no one ever come in here?”
Chris: There would be a line people like willing to pay to go in there.
Oren: Are they just betting that no one wants to come to the embassy? Admittedly, that’s not a place you go if you can avoid it. Maybe they were just counting on the DMV effect to keep everyone away. I don’t know. I never got an answer to that.
Chris: Having a setting with different technology levels takes some justification, even if, as in this case, it’s magic and anybody can use it. In the world, you can have uneven levels of technology, but usually that’s because places that are more isolated are just a little bit slower to adopt the technology. But they will. If there’s important infrastructure needed to utilize it, it might be more expensive to bring that to rural areas, but it is only a matter of time. So the difference in technology between one area and the other is limited. Sooner or later, if the technology is really cool, some traders are going to come and sell it or some people are going to start replicating it.
Oren: When you’re looking at settings that feel kinda blah and low on novelty, often the reason is that the author is throwing in established tropes and not considering details, because often the novelty is in the details. Along with the devil. The devil is pretty novel in certain contexts.
There is no greater example of that than I could imagine than the Crescent City books by Sarah J. Moss. Those have some interesting things that I like, but the world itself just feels extremely generic urban fantasy, even though it has a founding conceit that’s different from most urban fantasy stories.
There’s some vampires over there, and there are some werewolves over there, and some fairies over there, and there’s just no detail to make me be like, “Ooh, that’s neat and interesting.” The details that we do have are extremely confusing. We have to learn how this lady was a witch, but then she became an enchantress.
Chris: What does that meeean?
Oren: Is that different? Is that just a different title? What is that?
Chris: Crescent City has some of the worst information management I’ve seen. It does feel like the author wrote whatever she felt like and so she has lots of random exposition dumps that don’t feel particularly relevant. She also doesn’t explain tons of things. She’s just not giving out the right information, almost like we’re putting in more magical stuff rather than focusing on actually developing the magical stuff we have.
It’s better to have fewer types of magic casters or fewer species, and then give some information on them and develop them and make them interesting as opposed to just overloading the story.
Wes: Provide context for your world-building elements, please!
Oren: At the end of the story, you find out that the protagonist has secretly had a god-level magic power the whole time that she just didn’t use until now. So yeah, I think it’s pretty obvious to say that the author was definitely just making stuff up as she went alone.
Chris: We absolutely know the fairies are small fairies, right?
Oren: No, we absolutely do not know that.
Chris: That’s one of the things about fairies. Fairies come in a lot of different sizes. You can have the Tinkerbell-size fairies, and then you can just have full-sized people, average human-sized people.
Oren: There are different types of fairies and I think they each have a different term. I think fairy is not the collective term, but most of the time we recognize them as fairies and some of them we know are small and some of them we know are human-sized. There are others where I’m like, “I have no idea. I couldn’t tell you if that was a small fairy or not.”
Chris: Fairy can also refer to the fey in general, so they may not even have wings. They may be elves.
Oren: My favorite part was trying to figure out if the witches were human, because there are regular humans in that setting and then there are witches who, as far as I can tell, are a separate species. I don’t think that you can let a witch and a human can have a kid in that setting, but it took forever to figure that out. I just could not tell.
Alright, so now that we’ve ranted about Crescent City for who knows how long and I think we’re going to have to call this episode to a close before we go on to talking about the weird politics of that book, because I don’t think we have time for that. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s 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 Denita Rambo. She lives up therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Closing theme]
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