Picking at the bloated carcass of geek culture...occasionally!!!

The Perils of World Creation

In Books, Comics, Roleplaying Games, Science Fiction, Video Games on April 14, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Little know fact. The world is a large, complicated place with a lot going on in it. I contains many different cultures interacting in countless ways over vast amounts of time. Beyond the historical, sociological, or anthropological repercussions, there are tons of scientific and technological matters to think about. To even marginally understand our actual Earth, the one we actually live in, requires an ass-ton of research and years of disciplined learning. Right? So, imagine the problems that one runs into when he (or she…or it, I guess) tries to make up their own world. Whether it’s for a roleplaying game, a video game, a sci-fi story, a comic book, or a fantasy people, people are constantly trying to cobble whole worlds from nothing.

The problem with many creators is they do not understand how crazy hard this is. This is the one extreme. They know they like sword fights or dragons or robots or whatever so they make a simple little setting where these things can take place. The problem, however, is that these worlds feel artificial, so they people living in them also feel phonier than they should. They’re created as cheap backdrops and that is what they feel like.

On the other side, there is what I consider my problem. I become kind of obsessed with the details. Maybe it’s because of my love of history. I love history but I’m hardly an expert…at all. Because history is vast and complicated. But even worse is science. If you don’t understand geography, you can’t make a realistic map. If you don’t know weapons are used or battles are fought, you can’t portray war with any semblance of believability. How can you speculate on future technology if you don’t understand technology today? This is what ties me up. I could be making a simple superhero roleplaying campaign or a lighthearted comic, but I need to understand how the world fits together. So I get lost in tying up the infinite loose ends instead of creating the world I need.

So…is there a happy medium. I know some very creative types read this blog so I’m curious on how you people deal with this. How do you avoid the pitfalls of creating worlds.

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  1. aaahhh…..world creation….so much fun, and so potentially soul crushing….Yeah, totally tricky. sometimes when you go to fill in the blanks it’s like ; ” How about that?…does that make sense?? No? ok, fuck it…back to base”

    I think a handy way to avoid bits of this problem is to make the setting secondary to the characters….One could have a protagonist with as little understanding of their world as we have in ours. Maybe you don’t need to know everything…maybe you just need to know a little more than your characters?

    I am not saying this to encourage laziness on the part of a creator….my favorite science fiction is the stuff that explores realistically created worlds and settings…but even in some of the examples I’m thinking of…not all the loose ends of the setting get tied up.

    Actually as I’m thinking about telling stories I’ve been thinking just how boring it could be as a creator to have EVERYTHING figured out ahead of time…I feel like unanswered bits are great, because it can give you the opportunity to explore and get to that shit in time…

    I keep thinking about le guin’s earthsea stories….i love that setting, it feels real and lived in, with a variety of interesting cultures…..but I do not think ursula knew what was happening on every single one of those islands when the map of her world was just drawn ( and ok, pure speculation, i could be wrong)

    anyways, just a few initial thoughts…i gotta go to work. blargh

  2. I think the best way to approach that is: Wait until it matters.

    The farm products, the history of a certain stylized combat, the reason for a city’s odd geography, it may be the super coolest shit of all super cool shit, but if it doesn’t add to the story at that very moment, it’s just going to come off as a boring info dump.

    Also, I really try to think about shit in terms of a person that actually lives there. If I were to actually describe my city to someone, I wouldn’t go off into a tangent about how Internal Combustion engines work, despite the fact that cars are everywhere, because it’s common knowledge. Somethings the readers just don’t need to know.

    I think world building is fun and interesting and I love it, but it also a swamp, in fact, I think it’s the biggest swamp outside of the “continued revision of the first 100 pages” loop.

    Story and characters first.

    Always.

    The world stuff is very important, but it is totally, totally, totally secondary to characters and story. Good characters and story help you mold a realistic world… but without them? Poop. Joe Abercrombie does this well. James Cameron, very recently, did not.

    • See, we agree and we disagree. There’s a difference between a considered world and info dump. The author need not tell his or her reader about the world, but I think the author should have an idea of how the world works before they write a word. It’s a good way to avoid the Battlestar Galactica/Lost “Were making this up as we go along so we have to shoehorn old ideas into our new ones.”

      But I agree that if a story is from a character’s point of view, it makes no sense to dwell on the details that would be mundane in that character’s world. The densest and deepest version of this that I have found is Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. The narrator offers barely any description to accompany the thousands of nouns introduced.

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