I’ve seen my share of nature documentaries. (“Look, kids! Lemurs!”) I’ve yet to see one that’s just a recitation of facts and figure, presented in conjunction with supporting images on the screen. (“The lemur is found on three continents. It can kill with its eyes. It eats the following insects: ants, beetles, cockroaches…”)
Instead, it’s always a story. It’s always the same story (baby animal survives predators and other hardships to grow into an adult and have its own adorable animal babies), but it’s a story all the same.
Most importantly, it’s a story with conflict:
- Lemur versus cannibal siblings!
- Lemur versus hard winter!
- Lemur versus potential mates who just need some time to find themselves, thanks anyway for trying!
- Lemur versus lemur-eating pterodactyls!
My point is this: Facts without conflict can engage you on an abstract, intellectual level. But inject some drama into those facts, and now they engage you on the visceral, emotional level as well.
Without conflict, you know. With conflict, you care.
This matters a lot when it comes to world-building.
Whether for fiction or games, if you’re building a new world, that world should engage the audience on an emotional level. You’re not just describing the setting, you’re selling it. If you want the audience to buy into your world for an extended period of time, you need them to care about it. There needs to be conflict.
I’m preaching to myself here, folks.
I love world-building. I enjoy putting twists on familiar tropes, piecing together the elements in a way that makes logical sense yet is something we haven’t seen before. (“The elves live in a vast network of underground caves that they carved out with their own acidic saliva! Now I’ll write up a dozen elven rituals based around acid spit!”)
But too often, when I’m done, what I have is fascinating, but boring. Guided by my words, the reader could fit in very well with the acid elves (for example)… but he wouldn’t want to. Because there’s no conflict. Because the world is boring.
And that, brothers and sisters, is why we have second drafts.
Now the elves are split into factions, and squabble over acid-spit religious differences. They compete for space and food in the caverns with the acid-dwarves, who claim the underground as their ancestral right. A sub-group of elves is born without acid glands and prefer to live on the surface. They’re rejected as traitors by most but secretly worshiped by others.
Now it might be exciting to hang out with these guys. Now I want to roll up an acid-elf character, or read about the adventures of an acid-elf zealot. Now there’s drama.
Now it’s not boring any more.
Have tips to make world-building more exciting? Share them in the comments, and we’ll all be a bit wiser.