Thinking Deeply About Fictional Worlds

So, despite the fact that I call myself a writer. I don’t often dole out writing advice. I’ll correct those around me on grammar and language choice if they want but I’m not in the habit of shaping myself up as an expert. Mostly because I’m not. I’m a practitioner of the craft but I have some way to go before I can call myself an expert. With all that out of the way, let’s talk about worldbuilding. When I say worldbuilding I refer to the practice of creating fictional worlds usually employed in works of science fiction and fantasy.

When it comes to worldbuilding, if you’ve been around the sci-fi/fantasy block for a while you’ve encountered bad worldbuilding. There are two problems that often crop up in world building. First, is too much worldbuilding where every sentence seems to have an unnecessary bit of worldbuilding explanation thrown in. This results in strange translations that grind the sentence and action to a halt. The second is what’s known as the moss-troll problem. The moss-troll problem probably is most notable in the film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings wherein one orc states ‘looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys’. This, of course, implies that orcs have a concept of menus and places like restaurants.

So, if we’re writing these worlds how do we make things feel real? I have a couple pieces of advice. Worldbuilding is kind of like spice. Use it occasionally to widen the palette of the story. Take the original Star Wars films as a guide. Worldbuilding comes from occasional mentions of a piece of information. Passing references to ‘clone wars’ and ‘womp rats’ fill in the blanks for us. Second, relate everything to character. Luke Skywalker asked if Obi-Wan fought with his father in the Clone Wars. This shapes our understanding of Luke and Obi-Wan. Luke believes his father to be a noble Jedi Knight who died fighting in the Clone Wars. Obi-Wan remains tight-lipped on the subject, only mentioning details related to Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader. The wistful way that Obi-Wan describes events indicates that he lost something in the war. His tone tells that Obi-Wan feels responsible for Vader’s turn to the Dark Side.

Now, a line that could have easily turned into a boring history lesson is Obi-Wan’s ‘For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and light in the Old Republic’. We can easily relate this to character again but it does something else interesting. Obi-Wan and Luke have mainly been discussing the Jedi Knights at this point when Obi-Wan mentions the Old Republic. He doesn’t mention it any further because he doesn’t need to. However, in the next scene, Tarkin informs his generals that ‘the last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away’. He mentions this soon after an argument about the Imperial Senate and the Rebel Alliance. Now, this might be some heavy exposition but there’s an interesting moss-trolling going on here. There is talk of the Old Republic. Lucas was inspired by World War II serials for Star Wars which you can see in the uniforms of the Empire (and the Stormtroopers who share their name with a Nazi paramilitary force). Thus, these connected ideas form our ideas about the Empire and give us a historical analogue to the Empire. The Old Republic can be compared to the Weimar Republic and the Empire to the rising Third Reich. We don’t need to know every detail about the politics (despite what the Prequel films will eventually do). We have enough analogues to get the ideas across for this story.

Relatedly, there are two other concepts that we can unpack from related ideas. Notably, the idea of an Imperial Senate connects to one of the most notable Imperial Senates in our own history. That of the Roman Republic. Indeed, Rome had its own transition from Republic to Empire. Interestingly, this connects us to the associations with Nazi Germany again and their use of the term ‘Third Reich’, as their use of this term was an attempt to legitimize them and connect them to the earlier forms of government and to their heritage as the seat of power in the Holy Roman Empire. Now I will refer to one of my favourite videos on the Internet about the game series Sid Meier’s Civilization and how we conceptualise nations and their histories with a notable example being Germany. Finally, the Rebel Alliance. Well, seeing as we’ve made all these connections to World War II the connection between the Rebel Alliance and the Allied forces isn’t that much of a stretch.

What can we learn from this? Perhaps we can learn that good artists borrow, great artists steal. Rather my take away would be this: make your world work for you, don’t work for your world. If your characters need to go on a wild goose chase, take them on a wild goose chase. If it needs to be a wild bantha chase, make it a wild bantha chase. We, as writers, are always looking for the right term and the right sentence and often come down on the side of feeling. Do the same for worldbuilding. What feels right? What makes an idea interesting without convoluting it? Can I steal from history? Of course, you can steal from history, though when it comes to stealing from history, do your research and then only use it like spice.

Characters often relate to their world in terms of grand narratives. They aren’t thinking of the myriad causes and twists of history like a historian would. They’re a person who’s living their life. Maybe they forgive national atrocities because their taxes are lower? Maybe they’re the sort of person who doesn’t need to care about politics because their identity is safe under the current regime? When we’re in history, we’re just people. Your characters should be too.


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