Some mainstream storytellers think speculative fiction is easy; instead of doing research, we just make things up. But anyone who practices the genre knows that we can’t “just make things up” if we want our audience to have a positive experience. We must create a new framework for reality that doesn’t feel jarring or unbelievable.
For a world to foster immersion, it must feel cohesive, more cohesive than the real world. Anything out of place in the real world can be proved with evidence; fictional worlds don’t have that luxury. To make everything feel like it fits, worldbuilders use themes to hold their worlds together.
The Difference a Theme Makes
I’ll present two example worlds. One of them has a strong theme; the other doesn’t. You’ll know which is which.
The world of Mystoterica features four gods. Each god represents its own element and dreams its own realm of reality into existence, a realm that embodies that element. The denizens of each realm remain ignorant of the other realms or any of the deities. But slowly they stumble onto the language of the gods. By speaking this language and embracing their element, they might crudely gain a god’s attention and alter their reality. Little do they know that by casting their magic, they could cause the realms to shift: a cataclysm that might destroy all they hold dear.
The galaxy of Orion is ruled by the Janthian Empire. They ruthlessly maintain order through a supercomputer that predicts enemy actions. However, this empire has been thrown into chaos as the dryads have grown more powerful. The gods Growth and Decay protect dryads wherever they go, but their divine aura also causes non-dryad ships to fail. As the struggle between the empire and the dryads consumes the galaxy, Rainbow Sparkle, the unicorn of prophecy, appears. Rainbow Sparkle has the ability to make everyone understand how their enemies feel. This leads to the Great Reconciling immediately before the Age of Human Sacrifice.
The Benefits of a Theme
The themed world feels more believable, whereas the world that isn’t themed feels contrived. A themed world will also make a more lasting impression.* That’s because all the elements of a themed world can be boiled down to an iconic aspect. Whether it’s the magical wonder of Middle Earth or the uncanniness of Lovecraftian horror, this unifying impression is what keeps fans coming back for more.
The Components of a World Theme
Whether the world is designed as a gritty dystopia or a wondrous land of the gods, the core concept must be followed faithfully to create a strong theme. This means maintaining consistency in multiple areas:
- Mood and Atmosphere: The world could be a bright future or grim past. Its elements could be romanticized, subversive, or carrying disturbing implications.
- Aesthetic Environment: You could include cities of gears and steam, old stone that is being slowly overtaken by plant life, or a galaxy full of ships and space stations.
- Context and Explanation: Supernatural elements could rigorously follow the rules of known science, originate from technology that has yet to be invented, or occur according to the will of the Old Gods.
- Moral Framework: Your world may include a struggle between ultimate good and ultimate evil, numerous factions that are selfish but balance each other out, or just people with good intentions that misunderstand each other.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the things a world theme might include, but jarring differences in any of these areas can fragment a setting. Luckily, that doesn’t mean worlds can’t contain diversity.
How Themes Bring Diverse Elements Together
When asked, most people say that the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that scifi uses advanced but possible technology, whereas fantasy is driven by impossible forms of magic. But from a fiction standpoint, these are nearly identical. They both advance civilizations and empower characters. They both must be carefully introduced to an audience before they become important to a story. They both must have rules so they feel cohesive themselves. What divides them and their associated genres is theme.
Elements from any speculative fiction genre can be re-themed to fit a different setting. Take a standard time machine and turn it into a hour-glass necklace, and behold, you have the time turner from Harry Potter. You can also combine two genres into a cohesive whole or blur the line between them. The movie Underworld uses urban fantasy creatures but explains them with pseudo-science instead of magic. The world of Firefly is a science fiction western; the rich take their advanced tech for granted while the poor make due with horses and wagons.
You can make diverse elements work together as one theme. But you’ll need to explain how that situation arises, and then that contrast will become a defining feature of your world.
Let’s say you want spacefaring gnomes. Maybe this is the result of a fantasy civilization that became more and more advanced over time, finally reaching space. If that’s the case, their spaceships might be powered by magic. Instead of an engine room, they could have a ritual chamber. Alternatively, your gnomes might come from a human colony that became isolated for thousands of years. This created a new subspecies of homo sapiens that’s smaller than average, and so the other races started calling them gnomes. That suggests a world with more rigorous science and a lot of cultural tension between different colonies. Whatever your choice, it should reverberate through the rest of your world. That will keep your theme strong.
Paring Down to a World That Works
Sometimes creating a strong theme means scaling back our ambitions. Re-theming out-of-place world elements is adequate for many situations but not all of them. The ageless temple built in homage to the Old Gods may not be as inspiring if it’s created in homage to a supercomputer instead. If you want to subvert genre expectations, transforming a story element could remove your punchline. A knight’s dramatic choice to spare a dragon won’t mean as much if the knight is a space marine and the dragon is an alien species. Plus, while two contrasting genres can be made to fit each other, three will test even the best worldbuilding skills.
If you try to make your world everything to everybody, you’re both diluting the setting and not doing the parts you love justice. The temple of the Old Gods deserves a world where the inhabitants live by the whims of ageless deities, not one where humanity has power over the stars and then comes by to sacrifice an animal on the weekends.
So choose what’s important and theme your world around that. If your world contains something that you love but just won’t fit, clip it out and save it as the seed of a new setting.
When in doubt, think about the settings and stories you love the most. Were they magical, humorous, rebellious? Make it your goal to depict one of those themes, not the specific races, characters, or nations that brought it to you.
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