These stories could take place on a volcanic iceberg and still be popular. But having devoted fans doesn’t mean their worlds couldn’t be better. Even when the premise relies on an unrealistic setting, unbelievable aspects can be cured with forethought. Just look at these popular worlds with preventable flaws.
1. The Buffyverse
The Buffyverse offers a lesson in why you shouldn’t have world-ending struggles confined to a small town, much less for seven seasons.
The original concept, a high school girl who fights evil in an isolated area, was a fine idea. Buffy fights alone because she’s the chosen Slayer, and naturally no one else believes in all that magic stuff. She has to use a simple, wooden stake because guns don’t work on vampires. Sure, the townsfolk could probably use better protection than a teenager who has to sneak out of her bedroom at night. However, people facing a small problem in a backwards area might not know or care about that.
But this setup didn’t last long. The show writers weren’t satisfied with the low-stakes problems of a small town and even smaller high school. This was a series with action and heroism and horror. They pursued novelty and thrills in episode after episode, until the vampires, demons, witches, and other magical shenanigans piled up to the ceiling. Even as Buffy grew out of small-town threats and began saving the world, the writers clung to their original premise.
This town of Sunnydale has so many vampires that it’s amazing anyone is left alive, much less unaware of supernatural creatures. Powerful demons who aren’t immune to bullets show up again and again, but Buffy still fights them hand to hand.* An entire council of Watchers acts like some back-seat-driving committee for the single, active Slayer. Sunnydale grows every feature a large city could have, including a dozen large abandoned structures, a museum, a university, and a military base. We even find out the US Government has a military arm that fights supernatural threats, but it never helps Buffy save the world.
Buffy’s spin-off show, Angel, finally moves the shenanigans to a large city. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make up for the bad habits it inherited from the parent show. Instead of illustrating how a demon society could hide in a place like Los Angeles, the show depicts a large city inhabited by people who don’t notice when demons openly roam the streets.
How It Could Have Been Fixed
The Buffyverse became a mess because the show runners didn’t think ahead to the type of show they wanted to run. They could have created a teen drama where deaths were relatively uncommon, leaving the show to highlight the growing pains of high school. Or they could have created a crime drama with a teenage hero, one where every episode dealt with a few deaths in a large city. Or they could have created a show where Buffy protected the entire Earth, teaming up with the most talented good guys and traveling around the world to face the greatest threats to mankind. With seven seasons, they even could have done all three, moving from a small-scale setting with low stakes to a large-scale setting with high stakes. They just couldn’t do all three at once.
2. The Matrix Universe
Like so many other dystopian scifi stories, the premise of the Matrix is based on a wide-scale conflict between humans and artificial intelligence. The mentor of the movie, Morpheus, explains that because humans got so desperate, they decided to cut off power to the robots by… blocking out the sun?
Even if the machines were relying on solar power, humans still need it as much as they would. Blocking out sunlight would turn the Earth into an ice cube. If humans were that desperate, why not build bigger EMPs instead? An EMP is used in the movies, and it works just fine. Surely going without electrical devices is better than killing almost all life on Earth.
Once the sun was blocked, machines apparently just switched to a different power source. Any rational person would expect this; the story is set in the future, and even today we have many methods of harvesting energy: hydro, wind, nuclear, fossil fuel, and geothermal. But with all those options available, the machines invent a method that preserves enemies who might destroy them, using a complex and no doubt resource-intensive apparatus. Okay sure, humans do produce energy, energy that we mostly consume to live. In fact, we’ve harvested this energy before. Have you ever seen someone hook a bike up to an electrical grid? It’s an amusing novelty, but it’s not our main power source because it produces almost nothing.
Towards the end of explaining all this nonsense, Morpheus says off-handedly, “Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.” WHAT. The machines have fusion. They have fusion, and they are building huge, elaborate structures with near infinite virtual realities, just to squeeze tiny amounts of energy from enemies that occasionally escape and form renegade cities. Right.
How It Could Have Been Fixed
This silliness justifies why machines are keeping humans in the Matrix. Obviously that premise is important; the movie wouldn’t work without it. However, all the writers needed to make this believable was to abandon their big cliché. Instead of having the same-old bloody fight between artificial and organic life, what if the robots’ reason for enslaving humans was more rich and complex? Maybe they wanted what was best for us and thought the Matrix could give us optimum life experiences. What if they thought we were dangerous to ourselves and other lifeforms on Earth and decided we needed to be locked up?
The second and third movies make a point of showing computer programs that we can relate to, even depicting a refugee family of software. The Animatrix shorts compare the early oppression of AI to America’s dark history of slavery. The lesson is clear: computers are people too. A partially benign reason for the Matrix would have fit that theme perfectly. Neo could have learned from Morpheus that robots were harvesting humans then discovered this was a lie. Instead, the movies undermined their own theme with a flimsy explanation for ruthless behavior.
The problem with the world of the Hunger Games is… the games. The dystopian dictatorship of Panem is designed to make the games as central as possible, even when doing so makes no sense.
Here’s a multiple choice question: You’re an oppressive leader managing a compound of people you really don’t want to rise up against you. To prevent them from grabbing their pitchforks, you…
- Give them addictive, mood-altering drugs to reduce their motivation to fight and make them dependent on you as their supplier.
- Convince them that the people living outside the compound are the source of their problems, and you just want to protect them.
- Steal their children, make those children kill each other, and put the killing on big television screens that everyone is required to watch, all while you joke about it in clothing they can’t afford.
Then when someone uses their forced performance on television to rile up the people you don’t want to rebel, you…
- Leave her in peace, so she quietly vanishes from the public eye and eventually people forget about her.
- Secretly assassinate her, making it look like an accident.
- Put her in the spotlight again and hope she dies this time, because no one’s ever been inspired by a martyr.
You might do option A or B in these scenarios, but you wouldn’t do option C because people would get angry and pretty soon you wouldn’t be their oppressive leader anymore. You would control others with fear, but you’d use the type of fear that gets them on your side: I’m taking away your rations because if I don’t everyone will starve. You don’t want other people to starve, do you? No one is gorging on the rations we take. If you think so, it’s because you’re an agent of the enemy that wants to destroy what little we have. You’ve forced me to punish you. I am brutal because I love everyone, and it’s the only way we’ll see another year.
Finally, when the parents of those murdered children inevitably go after you, would you try to wipe them out as efficiently as possible, or would you spend extra time and energy setting up elaborate traps, thereby reminding them of the television programming that made them angry in the first place?
How It Could Have Been Fixed
The Hunger Games were the center of Susan Collin’s novels, but they didn’t have to be the center of Panem. Instead of being broadcast to the whole population, they could have been conducted in secret. The Capital elite could have used them as a sadistic form of gambling, placing bets on which kid would die when. That could have slowly lead into the larger rebellion plot. What if Katniss sparked the rebellion by exposing these secret games to the populace?
4. Star Wars Universe
In its early days, this universe featured an adventuring party lead by a rogue and some monkish spellcasters. They go on an epic journey to rescue a princess and battle evil sorcerers. This sounds like every fantasy ever – but surprise – it’s in space! If only the minds behind these movies knew anything about space.
Apparently no one told them you can’t just walk out onto a large asteroid without freezing or getting the bends, even if you’re wearing a breathing apparatus and somehow things are living there. And despite the creators’ inevitable familiarity with the only known life-bearing planet (ours), they didn’t realize that such planets have more than one ecosystem. Then in The Force Awakens, they somehow missed that even if you blow up a whole planet, people outside that solar system absolutely would not see the explosion without a telescope, much less as it happens.
Let’s not forget the technical innovation required to get huge numbers of people safely into space, much less moving those people faster than light speed. This society has also created countless AI that miraculously haven’t rebelled against their oppressive overlords. Yet stormtrooper weapons and armor can’t withstand a legion of teddy bears wielding miniature spears. The Empire also hasn’t realized that blowing up an entire planet is a waste of energy; if they want to kill everyone, all they have to do is contaminate the surface.
Sure, the Death Star is an icon that could make everyone too afraid to rebel. That is, the first time it’s built. After it’s been destroyed once, it loses some of that intimidation factor. After it’s been destroyed twice, you’ve gotta ask yourself: What are you compensating for by building another planet destroyer, and why is that thing worth the galaxy to you?
How It Could Have Been Fixed
Unlike most of the examples here, the premise of Star Wars doesn’t rely on these mistakes. Lucas and the other creators just had to do a little research and deviate from a fantasy sea adventure once in a while.
This isn’t hard. They needed a brief shot of Dagobah’s many ecosystems before showing Yoda in a jungled area. They just had to give the Millennium Falcon an actual hatch and let Han go out onto the asteroid in a space suit. They could have ditched the scene where people viewed an event from across the galaxy; The Force Awakens didn’t need it.
While scientific accuracy may seem constraining at first, it’s more believable and often provides another source of nuance and conflict.
5. The Dreamworld of Inception
The movie Inception uses an alternate reality for zero-g fights, Escher stairs, impossible landscapes, and deaths that send people back to the beginning of the game level. In this alternate reality, the heroes confront love and loss, live out entire lifetimes, and pull off one smashing awesome heist. The alternate reality they’re in? Normal dreams.
If only dreams worked how the movie says they do.
First, the movie outright states that dream time happens faster than real time, hence why people can live out entire lifetimes in their sleep. This is based on a common impression people have about their dreams,* but science has demonstrated that it isn’t true. Scientists figured this out by running studies with people that are super good at lucid dreaming – knowing they are in a dream and taking control of it. While those people are sleeping, they can send signals to observers. They do it by looking around in distinctive patterns, because generally, our eyes are the only voluntary muscles that aren’t paralyzed during sleep. When your use your eyes during a dream, they move in real life.
Does the heist team in Inception use this nifty communication tactic to coordinate between those who are asleep and those who are awake? Of course not, they communicate by playing music that sleeping people wouldn’t hear to give a warning that no one will heed anyway.
Then Inception suggests you can go into a deeper level of dream by dreaming in your dream. Then again, and again. Each time your brain gets faster! Not only that, but the host of the dream must hold a planned landscape in their mind for everyone to explore. Designed to ensnare hundreds of NPCs, these dream levels include all sorts of sensory details, and they can be as big as a city. No one fails to hold this layout steady or ever forgets they are dreaming. Their mental processing power exceeds human limits.
How It Could Have Been Fixed
Inception was a great movie on many levels. Even though the worldbuilding was unrealistic, it was well established and consistent. All they had to do was make their altered state of consciousness different from normal REM sleep. If this state was a recently invented “hyper sleep” of some kind, they could have created new rules for it without contradicting what we already know. Just by establishing that most people can’t distinguish this special sleep state from normal dreams, they could have preserved all the dream conventions they wanted.
6. The Potterverse
The Potterverse is so absurd it almost isn’t worth mocking. Almost. First, why do mages insist on hiding their existence? They have a huge advantage over muggles; any poor mage would become rich by doing magic for hire. With such a large incentive to break the big secret, even extreme efforts from magical governments couldn’t stop it from happening. Plus, why don’t mages use technology? Beside the convenience of daily life, imagine what a magical computer could do. Let’s not even start on how plot-convenient the spells are.
But even the spells pale in comparison to the glorious unrealism that is Hogwarts. Every year parents willingly send their beloved children to live where they could be eaten by giant spiders, beaten into pieces by bludgers, or thwacked by a violent tree. Yes, I’m talking about the Whomping Willow. The decision to plant it on the schools grounds apparently went something like this:
Dumbledore: Now that I’m headmaster, I will ensure this werewolf child has a chance to attend school.
Teacher: But his illness would endanger the other kids.
Dumbledore: Worry not. Whenever there’s a full moon, we’ll put him in this abandoned house near the school grounds.
Teacher: That’s… very innovative, but another student could go into the house and get bitten.
Dumbledore: Ah, but I’ve thought of that! The entrance will be protected.
Teacher: With a shield?
Dumbledore: What? No. I’ll plant a giant murderous tree that will kill anyone who comes close to protect them from the werewolf.
This isn’t the only time faculty bring murderous things into the school. In the first book, Dumbledore warns students away from a corridor with a giant three-headed dog that could kill them. To prevent anyone underage from getting too close, all he had to do was create an age line just like the one he used in the fourth book. Imagine the letters the Hogwarts headmasters must send to bereaved parents.[letter]Dear Mrs. and Mr. Windsor,
We regret to inform you that your eleven-year-old daughter, Maggie, passed away as the result of a fatal assassin-flower bite. This was an event we never could have foreseen. After all, we put the plant right outside her dormitory door to keep students from going out while the floors were being polished. We never imagined she’d be so foolish as to fall within reach of its poisonous fangs.
Headmaster Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore and the faculty of Hogwarts.[/letter]
How It Could Have Been Fixed
Rowling had a compelling reason to make the faculty irresponsible: she wanted more conflict at Hogwarts. If she made the castle safe like a normal school, she’d lose much of the tension in her books. What the story needed was a danger the faculty couldn’t avoid. For instance, what if having a bunch of incompetent mages in close proximity was a danger? Every time a student failed to cast a spell, uncontrolled magic could leak into the surroundings, eventually building up enough to create random hazards.
A real-world example is sanitation in hospitals. Hospitals can hold a lot of infectious pathogens simply because that’s where sick people go. Hospital staff are trained to sanitize everything, but occasionally outbreaks still happen. Similarly, the faculty of Hogwarts could be specially trained to deal with ambient magic, even if they couldn’t remove the threat entirely. Because of the faculty’s advanced training, attending Hogwarts could even be less dangerous than practicing at home.
To avoid big worldbuilding problems, think critically about your setting. Read up on the science behind its most important aspects, and compare them to similar things in the real world. Share your world with inquisitive friends; just by answering questions about it, you’re likely to find its weak points. If you discover something unrealistic and you can’t figure out how to solve it, ask others to brainstorm with you. Most of all, do this while your story is in its early stages, because the more you flesh out your plot, the harder it will be to make a change.
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