I like playing God. Specifically, the parts where God says, “Let there be a planet stuffed with people and plants and animals and giant stompy mechs piloted by Japanese schoolchildren.” I’ve designed a ton of imaginary worlds. And in doing so, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes. Today I’m sharing the worst of those mistakes, in hopes that you can, as the kids say, learn from my fail.
Mistake #1: Too much world
This is one of my classic mistakes. It’s fun to create worlds, but it’s easy to create more world than I actually need.
If a story requires a hunter from the Zysson tribe, I’m tempted to write pages of background for the tribe — their history, their spiritual beliefs, their ritual love of spoons — but if the hunter exists for the sole purpose of telling the main characters, “The bad guy went that way,” I’m totally wasting it. What’s more, I’ve now tied my hands. What if I later need the Zyssons to hate spoons? Then I’m either rewriting what’s come before or ignoring what I jotted in my notebook (which makes the effort double-wasted).
How much world do you actually need? How much does your audience need? Do that much, and no more. Sure, you can have pages of notes labeled, “And maybe this too because it’s cool,” but don’t lock any of that down until it’s actually necessary.
You never know when you’ll come up with something even more awesome. Leave room for it.
Mistake #2: A world too weird
It kills me a little bit to list this one, because I love bizarre settings. Give me an alien universe with its own arcane social systems and funky laws of physics and I’ll eat it up. So I’m certainly not saying it’s a mistake to go weird.
It’s a mistake to go too weird for your audience.
The problem is one of accessibility. The stranger your world, the harder you have to work to make that world accessible to your audience. If every name has an apostrophe in it, every sentence includes at least one word without vowels, and every chapter requires its own glossary, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.
Part of knowing your audience is knowing the medium. It’s one thing to deliver the world in a 256-page roleplaying game sourcebook. It’s another to do so in a series of 256-character pop-up windows in a Facebook game. Take it from me; you can’t do much heavy lifting in 256 characters.
Mistake #3: A world we’ve seen before
It’s okay if your world is at least a little generic. It helps with that whole “make it accessible” thing I keep harping on. If you can say, “It’s like Middle Earth, except…” the audience has an idea what to expect.
That said, if whatever comes after “except” isn’t an exciting twist that sets your mind ablaze with new, unique story possibilities, the world may be a bit redundant. “Like Middle Earth except Elves hunt Hobbits for meat and sport,” sounds intriguing. “Like Middle Earth except the Dwarves cast spells,” sounds like a pitch for someone’s (*cough* my *cough*) middle-school D&D game.
Mistake #4: A world without conflict
World peace is great if you want to actually live in that world. It helps keep the kids safe and the property values high. But it’s terrible for a world to play in.
The whole point of world-building is to create a setting for interesting stories. Stories — at least the ones you actually want to read or hear– are driven by conflict. And it’s a lot easier to find conflict in a world full of the stuff than in some peaceful utopia.
I’m not saying every storyworld needs to be a war-torn dystopia. But even the most mundane settings should have some conflict brewing in the background: suburban neighbors bicker over property lines, farmers fret over the lack of rain, college freshmen suck down a heady brew of confusion and self-loathing as they paint their nails black and question every life choice that’s led them to this point.
I could write a whole post on this topic (and I have), but it’s time to move on.
Mistake #5: A world that doesn’t make sense
Finally, the primary job of any storyworld is to allow the audience to suspend its disbelief. If the audience isn’t buying it, it doesn’t matter how much conflict, accessibility, or elvish cannibalism the world has going on. You’ll never get the audience through the door if they’re tripping over the logical inconsistency on the front step.
Rivers flowing away from the larger bodies of water? Villages on frozen mountain peaks where they couldn’t possibly support themselves? A theocratic kingdom that should have self-destructed in the first generation? If your world makes the audience pause and ask, “Really?” you’ve got a problem.
Yes, your world can break the laws of physics, sociology, and plate tectonics. But when you do, make sure you’ve got an in-world explanation for the apparent break. You can get a lot of mileage out of “It’s magic!” but if you don’t invoke those words, it looks a lot like “It’s a mistake!”
Speaking of mistakes, if you have any mistakes of your own to share (or mistakes of mine that I haven’t listed), please pass them along in the comments. We’ll all point and laugh, er, thank you for contributing to the conversation.