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7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding

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7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding


Charlie Jane Anders
Filed to: SUPERLIST 8/02/13 3:00pm

Worldbuilding is an essential part of any work of fiction. But especially for


science fiction or fantasy, it's the lifeblood of storytelling. But when
worldbuilding fails, it can wreck your whole story, and leave your characters
feeling pointless. Here are seven deadly sins of worldbuilding.

The Rules of Quick and Dirty Worldbuilding


Worldbuilding is the art of creating an alternate universe
where the rules of present-day Earth

Top image: Under Tomorrow's Sky by Daniel Dociu.

1. Not thinking about basic infrastructure.


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How do they eat? What do they eat? Who takes away the garbage? Who deals
with their bodily wastes? How do they get around? What do the majority of
people do to survive? You're not just constructing a society, you're creating
an economy. People don't oppress each other for fun usually, systems of
hierarchy and oppression have an economic component to them. Maybe you

need a lot of peasants to grow labor-intensive crops, or maybe you need lots
of cannon fodder in your space war. Maybe your only source of protein is a
weird fungus that needs to be tended by specially trained people. Maybe
everybody's eating algae. In any case, there's nothing worse than a fictional
world where there are elaborate social structures, which seem completely
separated from the realities of food, shelter and clothing.

2. Not explaining why events are happening now.


Chances are your story revolves around all heck breaking loose in your
fictional world. (Or your fictionalized version of the "real" world.) One major
worldbuilding flaw is not explaining why heck is breaking loose now, as
opposed to 20 years ago or 20 years from now. Why is the dark elf army
showing up now? Was there something preventing them from showing up,
which has been removed? Will it be too late if they wait another year or two?
Often, if your plot is swinging into motion for reasons that feel purely
arbitrary, that's actually a failure of worldbuilding. You haven't fully
accounted for the things that kept your villain in check, and probably also for
the factors that keep other political actors in your society in check as well.
And that's a larger issue every society has checks and balances. Even an
absolute monarchy has invisible lines the monarch can't cross. Sometimes
you can't figure out how these checks and balances worked in a particular
era, without reaching beyond the official history as sanctioned by the people
in charge.

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On a related note, if you're drawing on real-life history, for


your fantasy world or your future history, don't just read
works by historians from the dominant culture, or works
focusing on the ruling class. Historians have done amazing
work on discovering what ordinary people and marginalized
groups were doing during a lot of eras, and there's plenty of
resources on what was going on in, say, the Middle Ages
outside of Western Europe. To the extent that you rely on
actual history in your world-building, you should reach
beyond the Kings and nobles of a few Western countries.
Image by Frederic St-Arnaud/CG Society.

Gay marriage in the year 100 AD


Gay marriage sounds like an ultra-contemporary
idea. But almost twenty years ago, a Catholic

3) Creating fictional versions of real-life human ethnic


groups, that never go beyond one dimension
This is a huge problem that tons of creators seem to struggle
with. But as a rule of thumb, if you want to have Belgians in
your novel, you're going to have to try and create an accurate
view of Belgian society. If you decide that instead of Belgians,
you're going to have an alien species called the Bzlgizns
who are basically Belgians except they've got antlers you
still have to try and make them well-rounded and as nuanced
as possible. Ditto if you're creating a secondary world where
there happens to be a land of magical creatures called The
Belge, who are still basically Belgians. Really, you should
make sure that any cultural or ethnic group you create has
multiple dimensions and a sense that its members have their
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own subjectivity, and a believable culture. Whether it's the

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culture that your main characters come

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from, or a culture that they see as the


"other." But it's also a really good rule of
thumb that the more your fictional group
resembles real-life Belgians, the more you
ought to worry about being true to life.
Changing "Belgians" to "Bzlgizns" doesnt
actually let you off the hook for presenting a
true-to-life portrait of people from Belgium.

4) Creating monolithic social, political,


cultural and religious groups.
Everybody in a particular ethnic group
agrees about everything. Every member of
the ruling class, or the working class, agrees
about everything. Every citizen of a
particular nation holds exactly the same set
of opinions. There is one version of history
that absolutely everybody agrees on. Every
member of a religion interprets the tenets of
that religion in exactly the same way. That
sounds plausible, right? Maybe if you've
never been around actual humans. In real
life, if you get three members of a particular
in-group together, you'll probably hear four
different opinions on most of the group's
major concerns. Asserting that all Christians
agree on all matters of doctrine is probably a
good way to get laughed out of the room. So
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when you imagine the ruling class of your

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world, it's safe to assume

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that no two members of it


will agree on much and
when you retell your
fictional history, remember
that nobody's likely to agree
on what actually happened.
Image by MacRebisz/Deviant
Art.

20 Great Infodumps
From Science Fiction Novels
A truly great infodump is a
work of art. The best science
fiction authors can brief you
on

5) Inventing a history that is


totally logical
In an imaginary world, the
strongest side always wins
and the people who are in
charge are always the
descendants of the people
who were in charge 100
years ago. But real life isn't
like that history is full of
odd quirks and
happenstances, and
powerful people often make
huge miscalculations that
wind up costing them dearly.
Just think about weird
happenstances like Ireland
being divided in half. Or
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Korea. Or

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Germany,
for nearly
five decades.
Why is
WashingtonDC
the capital
of the
United
States
instead of
Philadelphia?
Why did the
Portuguese
have their
own colony
in India
until 1961?
History is
weird. And
things that
seem
inevitable in
retrospect
usually
seemed
anything but
at the time.
So a totally
logical
history will
never pass
the "smell"
test. And
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