Beyond the plot-critical elements of worldbuilding, there lies aesthetics. Aesthetic options don’t have as big an impact on the narrative, but they are still important for establishing atmosphere. Middle-earth wouldn’t be the same without primal forests and endless grasslands, and Star Wars is well known as the galaxy where everyone wears robes. Often, aesthetics help define a genre or subgenre, like cyberpunk’s neon and chrome, or high fantasy’s chainmail and horses.
That’s all well and good, but not all aesthetic choices are created equal. In fact, some of them will actively hurt a story, as audiences stop to ask why on Earth* characters would wear something so impractical or use such an illogical weapon. Unless you’re writing a humorous parody, such questions will make it more difficult for audiences to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story. That’s why you should avoid these illogical aesthetics whenever possible.
1. Helmetless Heroes
Quick, can you tell who the heroes are in the image above? I bet it didn’t take you long, and your first clue was probably that they aren’t wearing any helmets. This aesthetic is especially common in visual mediums, and it’s used for two purposes. The first is simply to help distinguish the main characters. When you have hundreds or thousands of armored combatants slugging it out, seeing the important people’s faces makes it easier to know where they are.
The second reason is to single out the main heroes and villains as people for the audience to care about, while their comrades remain faceless cannon fodder. That way, the audience can enjoy the epic battle without any pesky remorse about the vast loss of life on both sides. As long as the people with faces are okay, everything is fine.
It is this aesthetic’s very utility that makes it stand out as a problem. The audience’s attention is deliberately drawn to the main characters’ lack of helmets. This makes one wonder: why aren’t the characters protecting their heads? Everyone else in the battle seems to be doing it. Have the characters struck some kind of gentleman’s agreement not to take headshots? This problem only gets worse if a story is at all dark or realistic. Audiences can’t be expected to care about the horrors of war if the characters don’t even care enough to cover their fragile skulls.
Using helmets to decide who counts as human can also backfire spectacularly. It’s a superficial distinction, and the audience may resent the arbitrary elevation of some lives over others. This is especially likely in stories where the heroes agonize over killing the helmet-less villain after cutting through scores of the villain’s soldiers without a thought.
2. Cyberpunk Katanas
Cyberpunk stories are home to highly advanced technology, so fight scenes can get pretty intense. Characters wield seeker missiles, rail rifles, plasma arcs, and… katanas? Wait what?
That’s right. Alongside futuristic firearms and advanced automatons, cyberpunk stories are full to the gills with katanas. Sometimes, these curved swords are accompanied by shurikens and other ninja-themed weapons. I can’t say for sure why this is, but my theory is that the cyberpunk katana obsession can be traced back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. That novel was foundational to the cyberpunk genre, and it featured a badass ninja named Hideo. Hideo didn’t actually use a katana,* but he did set precedent for old-timey Japanese weaponry in cyberpunk settings, and from there America’s general obsession with katanas probably did the rest.
Regardless of where this aesthetic came from, it’s complete nonsense. There’s a reason people stopped using swords to kill each other; guns are simply more effective weapons. Guns can penetrate armor a sword would bounce off, and they cause brutal damage on impact. Plus there’s the minor advantage of being able to kill someone who’s not standing within arms reach.
Characters who bring swords to gun fights inevitably look ridiculous. No matter how fast or agile they are, there’s always some moment when a gun-wielding enemy could have shot them but doesn’t, because the story must go on!
Most storytellers would recognize this as ridiculous if the sword in question were a gladius or a jian, but for some reason katanas are granted a pass. There’s no logical reason for this. Katanas aren’t magic; they have the same limitations as other swords, and they have no place in a high-tech gun fight.
3. Exposed Command Centers
Science fiction, especially space opera, is full of spaceships where the bridge is situated right on the outer hull or sometimes elevated on a tower overlooking the rest of the ship. This design has its roots in oceangoing warships: for centuries, a ship’s bridge or command deck was placed as high as possible to give officers the best view of their ship and surroundings. Sounds logical enough, right?
Surprising no one, space isn’t the same as the sea. In most settings, space battles will take place at such long distances that the officers’ field of vision won’t matter. Plus, spaceships move in three dimensions. No matter where the bridge is placed, it’ll only be able to see half the ship at most. Anything approaching from the ship’s underside* would be completely hidden.
A ship’s command center should be as deep within the vessel as possible to protect it from enemy fire. Otherwise, even a tiny fighter can easily destroy a massive capital ship by crashing into the bridge. Visibility isn’t an issue, since most space combat will be conducted over long-range sensors. Even in settings where battles take place within spitting distance, the officers can use cameras to see what’s going on outside.
Some settings understand that looking out the window isn’t very important in space, and yet the bridge is still completely exposed at the top of the ship. Star Trek is particularly guilty of this. The Enterprise’s viewscreen is a large monitor that displays information from a vast array of sensors, and yet the bridge is still only one bulkhead away from the cold vacuum of space.
4. Unwieldy Laser Guns
We’ve had a lot of time to refine the ergonomic design of firearms. The earliest guns were just metal tubes, but we figured out pretty quickly that weapons work a lot better when they’re easy to hold onto. Unfortunately, science fiction doesn’t always make the same realization.
One common problem is futuristic weapons that are simply too small to hold. This is sometimes played as a joke, like Men in Black did with the Noisy Cricket, but all too often it’s completely serious. Babylon Five’s PPGs are so small, the actors struggle to get a solid grip. That’s a real problem for any weapon with recoil. Star Trek’s type one phasers have no recoil, but they’re even smaller. They have to be gripped between thumb and forefinger, making them almost impossible to hold onto.
Size is only one way scifi weapons can look ridiculous. Not to pick on Star Trek, but the fire button on most phasers is completely exposed on the top of the weapon. If a phaser is ever dropped or banged against something, it could easily go off. Modern firearms almost always have a trigger guard to prevent that from happening, but it seems that simple safety precaution is lost technology in the Federation.
Scifi weapons often end up impractical or unwieldy out of attempts to make them look more futuristic. Authors and prop designers don’t want their weapons to look like they came off a modern battlefield, so they add flourishes. The problem is that there are only so many practical ways for human hands to hold a weapon, and we’ve already figured out most of them.
5. Sexy Costumes
From an open poet shirt to a chainmail bikini, sexy costumes are a mainstay of fantasy. We see them in campy stories like Xena and Hercules, as well as darker, more serious entries like 300 and A Crown for Cold Silver. These costumes have one goal: to make characters more attractive to the audience, either as wish fulfillment fantasy or objects of desire.
There’s an important conversation to be had about the different gender dynamics at play with sexy male costumes vs sexy female costumes, but for today we’ll stick with the practical implications. That is, these costumes aren’t practical. At all. They’re so impractical that they’ll drive audiences right out of the story.
First, there’s the obvious issue of protection. Most fantasy characters will get into a sword fight at some point, and they won’t want armor that has big holes in it over all their sexy parts. While it’s true that historical armor isn’t always head to toe, gaps were usually due to cost rather than a need to look good. Armor was expensive, and armies could save money only by protecting the most vital areas like the head and chest. This rules out old favorites like cleavage armor, midriff armor, and Conan’s bare chest. When historical soldiers did give up limb protection, they almost always carried a shield to compensate, so any bare-legged Amazons had better have an aspis to catch arrows.
Beyond combat, fantasy settings are just a bad place to be showing a lot of skin. Try walking across a wooded area with just a bathing suit on and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be scratched and scraped up in no time. From there, fantasy characters also need to consider sunburn, cold, biting insects, poisonous plants, the list goes on. It’s not likely such characters would dress like they were on the cover of a fashion magazine.
6. Apocalypse Chic
How can you tell a setting is post apocalyptic? Easy, it has ruined remnants of the old world scattered all over the place. Scavengers pick over decaying buildings for scrap, while raiders cobble their war wagons together from any parts they can find. A certain amount of this aesthetic is fine; it’s reasonable that new societies would make use of what came before. But after a point, it starts to get absurd.
Many post-apocalyptic stories take place long after the the world-ending event, and yet everything looks like the apocalypse only happened yesterday. The Fallout video games are by far the worst offenders in this regard. People live in houses that are still full of debris from when the bombs fell. Everything is covered in dust and dirt. Entire rooms are taken up by broken, non-functioning toilets and bathtubs.
Does no one ever clean up in the Fallout universe? Remember, most of these towns have been established for years, if not decades. At the very least, the townsfolk would have taken out useless plumbing fixtures, if only so they could have more usable space.
Storytellers use this aesthetic because they want to have their post-apocalyptic cake and eat it too. They want to show all the ruins and devastation that come when the world ends, but they also want to set their stories far enough after the apocalypse that new societies and social structures can evolve. This can work, but storytellers have to think about what elements from the old world would really be preserved and what would be discarded. It’s reasonable that people would preserve vital technology, patching and repairing it over the years. But they’d throw out non-functioning toilets.
Aesthetics help set a story’s atmosphere and mood; they ground the audience in the setting and build immersion. But if the aesthetics don’t make sense, they’ll have the opposite effect: throwing audiences out of the story and destroying their suspension of disbelief.
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