Thursday, April 05, 2007

World Building

Sometimes stories are praised because they create a world of their
own. As the story fleshes out the characters, sometimes the world they
live in becomes detailed and fascinating on its own. Some authors,
like Michael Chichton, focus so much on the workings of the world that
the personalities of the characters involved are kind of irrelevant to
the story and what's good about it (The Andromeda Strain is a
good example).

I'm a big fan of world building, and I've been developing some ideas
about what it takes to have a well-built world for a story. I'll start
with an example of a story that does not build a world: Nick Hornby's
About A Boy. I love this book, and the movie too, because the
plot and characters are touching and funny. The world, however, is
indistinguishable from our own. The book is realistic fiction. We have
no trouble believing that this story could happen in our world. This
is intentional. It's still a great book, but does not benefit from
building a new world.

An example of good world building are the Star Wars
films. Lucas was, for the most part, very careful about consistency in
this world. A few examples:

  • None of the aliens were all that alien in
    personality. They were all just people, with flaws and
    personalities. Even most of the droids were like this. Compare this to
    Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, for example, where the alien life form
    was so weird compared to human beings that neither the characters nor
    the readers could figure it out.

  • No paper. There's no paper in the world of Star Wars. But
    going further than that, nobody is ever seen even typing anything.

  • The Force is a limited magical power. As we watch the movies we
    get to understand the kinds of things someone who uses the force can
    and cannot do. Typical Force abilities include limited mind control,
    rough telekinesis, jumping and falling safely, absorbing energy,
    predicting attacks, etc. No Jedi or Sith would ever transform into a
    wolf, or read thoughts, or create a fog, or heal someone's wounds.

Okay, you get the idea. One of the great things about consistent
world-building is that you get a feeling that you understand the
world. This is a good feeling, a feeling of accomplishment. The world
works by its own rules and you understand them. When there are
anomolies, we trust that the world makes sense, so we think it's worth
trying to figure out. For example, why do some Jedi vanish when they
die and others not? This topic has been debated on the Internet by
fans for years, but note that they would not spend the time to try to
figure it out if they didn't trust that the world was relatively
well-constructed and rule-driven. More on this later.

The other good reason is that changes to the world can now have
a greater impact. For example, in episode six, Return of the
the Emperor uses "force lightning." What appears to be blue
electricity comes out of his hands, hurting Luke. Part of what makes
this exciting is that we've had two and a half movies telling us that
this was basically impossible! So we're terribly interested when it

Sometimes the interestingness of the world results in taking fantasy
away, as in Troy, which took a legend filled with gods and magic
and was told in a way that actually could have happened. The reason it
worked was because they were consistent with this idea.

Okay, on to some bad examples of world building: the Harry Potter

I know there are a great number of Harry Potter fans out there, and
the coolness of his world is probably something that attracts these
fans. However, all I see are missed opportunities.

Though Harry Potter's world has a lot of good ideas, they are
disconnected and have no consistency. For example, compare the magic
in Harry Potter to the Force in Star Wars or the power in the
Wheel of Time book series. It seems to me that anything
goes. That is, the magic is so random and arbitrary we never feel we
know anything consistent about it. Which spells require magic words
and which do not? Which require a magic wand? Why? I have all the same
criticisms for the magic in the book Jonathan Strange and Mr

It's very important for certain things to be impossible in a world,
but in Harry Potter, nothing seems impossible. The downside of this is
that no matter what happens, magically, we're never really surprised,
because nothing that can happen can violate any rules we have in mind
about how magic works. This is because there are no rules.

The author loses some major opportunities for impact by not being
consistent. For example, we don't hear about the prison called Azkaban
until the beginning of the third book. We hear that nobody can escape
it. Then, soon we find out that someone has escaped it. This is so
lame. If she'd planned it better, she'd have been talking about
Azkaban in the first two books, and constantly talking about how
impenetrable it is, then by the time someone escaped from it, the
event would have some impact on the reader. But as it is, it appears
that she brings up an absolute rule just so she can break it a few
pages later.

Another example: Hermione has a time travelling magic. But she only
uses it in one of the books before it's discovered. Think of how much
better it would have been if the reader's discovery of this magic
explained lots of mysterious stuff that has been happening throughout
the series!

This is why you don't get huge Internet forums trying to figure out
the whys of magic in this world. Nobody thinks it's figure-out-able,
and that is the essence of faulty world-building.

Now, I've only read the first two books and seen the third movie. But
I was talking about this to a woman in England and she told me "even
though you haven't read the other books, I think if you did you'd
think this even more." Not that I want to hang the Potter books
completely out to dry-- I'm sure they have lots of great things about
them. I'm just pointing out that world building isn't really one of

Sometimes I see tantalizing bits of world-building that just don't go
far enough. For example, in Kill Bill: Volume 1, we see a world
kind of like our own, but a bit more violent. There's a great shot of
the Bride on the airplane, flying to Japan, with her swords in a
holder by her seat. There's no way this could happen in our
world. Also, on the motorcycles, there are places to hold the
swords. Why didn't Tarantino take this idea further? He could have
made all kinds of cool changes to make this more of a world where
swords were commonplace, and the environment accommodated it.

A work of art doesn't need to be long to build an interesting
world. There's a video for a Futureshock song that I've seen over and
over. For one thing, it features pop and lock and liquid dancing,
which I think is totally beautiful. Relevant to this essay, it shows a
world like contemporary Japan in which everyone does this kind of
dancing whenever they have a spare moment. It's a joy.

I get irritated when stories have an opportunity to show me a new
world but don't. For example, in the book Blindness, everyone
on Earth goes blind. The author, Saramago, does some decent
exploration of the idea: people in small bands, walking around,
looking for food. They can't find their houses again because street
signs cannot be read, so they stay where they can. They live off the
food that's around, but can't grow any more food because they don't
know how, as blind people. Just as they are running out of food they
get their sight back. Come on! Seeing how society would further
collapse is part of why I wanted to read the book!

28 Days Later is a zombie holocaust movie spun as a disease
movie. The "28 days" refer to the zombies killing everyone. The story
happens with the few survivors. I kept thinking the first 28 days
would have been a much more interesting movie. The film happens after
the collapse but before any re-stabilization. One of the reasons I
like Day of the Dead is that it deals with a world taken over
by zombies, but there are spots of stable safety.

While I loved the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer series, I was always
hoping the vampires would take over and I'd see a new world, but it
never happened. They seemed to want to make that world look, from the
outside, just like ours, which works all right, but to me it seems a
touch cowardly.


Anonymous said...

Good point about Uma Thurman's swords on the airplane; I'd love to see the look on airport security's faces post 9/11! :P

Dustin said...


Dustin said...

Upon further thought, I think you're missing something. I think determining the "rules" of the world (and breaking them for drama) are important to make a believable world, but if you want to make the world interesting you have to include SUBTEXT. Good subtext makes you feel that there is a real world out there with a real population, and you're just looking at the tip of the iceberg.

I'm playing through Thief: Deadly Shadows, the final in a trilogy of incredibly well written games. During each loading period, it will display a quote from a text sourced from people in the game's world. It gives me this epic, expansive sense that I'm really in a huge, huge world.

Good subtext shows you tiny parts of the larger iceberg, without giving too much away. They stimulate the reader/user's imagination to automatically fill in the blanks themselves.