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A Rant About "Building A World"

I need to blather a bit about one of my pet peeves.  This first came up years ago when somebody was kissing Tolkien's dead ass and hyping up the Lord of the Rings books to me.  One of their go-to bits of praise was, "It's incredible.  He built his own world for the story."


I think that statement irritated me a bit back then, but it has snowballed since.  It's partly a semantics argument.  A lot of people use the phrase "building a world" when what they really mean is mythology.  In this case, I'm peeved because people are using words incorrectly.  For everybody else, I'm peeved because they're admiring the wrong thing.

It's important to make the distinction between world-building and mythology.  The two overlap, so it's easy to mix them up.  The difference is that the first is the sum of all parts, subtle or otherwise, that exist to immerse you in the story's setting, whereas the second is background information that informs the events of the story without actually being present.

Mythology is a fun thing on the side for people who really loved the story and want something else to talk about.  Franchises aren't built on mythology - it's the other way around.

World Building, on the other hand, is just a basic concept of storytelling.  Or rather, it basically is story-telling.  It's as integral to a story as actions and emotions.

Every story-teller "builds a world" for their story.  You have to.  It's literally impossible to tell a story without building a world.  Just try it.  Go on - I'll wait.  Tell me a story without inventing a world for that story to take place in.

Even if you're giving me an ultra-realistic depiction of the time you ate Cheerios, you still need to have a place where you ate your Cheerios.  Your story will still implicitly acknowledge that the technology exists to not only produce Cheerios but also to manufacture a bowl and a spoon with which to eat the Cheerios.  You will also implicitly establish that this is a planet with human beings who eat food rather than absorbing their nutrients from the sun.  Whether you noticed it or not, you've just built a world.  Just because it's the same exact world as our own doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.


I recognize that some worlds involve a bit more effort to build than others.  "The Place Where I Eat Cheerios" is not quite on the same level of Lord of the Rings in that respect.  It is genuinely impressive when somebody can fully realize their fictional setting in such detail that it comes out organically on the page / screen.  Being able to do that well is a very useful talent that does not come easily.

I guess I liken it to being impressed that a car has four wheels.  Maybe you can be impressed by the quality of the wheels, the fact that they are perfectly balanced, the precision of the air pressure or whatever else you want to geek out over.  That's fine.  But you can't just say, "Oh, wow, it has four wheels!"

The truth is, I just don't think that most franchises actually do a good job of world-building.  They do a good job of adding details, but that's not world-building in and of itself.  Throwing a bunch of crap into your story because it looks or sounds neat is fun, but it doesn't "build your world," especially if those details contradict each other.

Good world-building involves immersion and believability.  Every fictional conceit is naturally connected to every other.  It's not just a bunch of random crap in the background that might be fun to talk about with other fans.  Many franchises are very poorly thought out because they're developed piecemeal - the first story is a hit, so you write a sequel, then a spin-off, then a prequel, then a video game adaptation, and so on.

You can't have contradictions or errors in the reality of the story.  You can make huge leaps and bounds in logic and science if you want, but you need to establish those limits early on.  It's very methodical and analytic and actually not all that beautiful.  It's an IRS audit, not a painting.

Suppose you want to write a story about a kid who discovers Ye Olde Book of Magick in an antique shop.  He screws around with it and casts a couple of spells with hilarious side effects.  In one scene he turns his older brother into a frog.  Later, the kid meets an old man who turns out to be a Wizard, and he tells him that there used to be thousands of Wizards all over the planet until an Evil King had them all killed.  The ghost of the Evil King is now chasing the kid, and he has to become a new Wizard to defeat the King and save the day.

If you really want to build this world in a believable way, then you need to establish some ground rules.  How powerful are Wizards, and how much effort does it take to become one?  This kid is just screwing around with the book manages to turn his brother into a frog.  But you're also saying that the Wizards were all killed a long time ago.  If any random dumbass can turn people into frogs with little to no effort, then how did they get subdued by the King?  Wouldn't one of the Wizards have transformed him right after he first commanded the Wizard Apocalypse?

This world is only half-built.  Let's introduce some rules. Maybe each spell you cast actually makes you age by six months.  So, if you turn twenty people into frogs, then you've already grown older by a decade.  The kid doesn't notice this right away.  Maybe there's a brief scene where he tries on a shirt and it doesn't quite fit, but he thinks it just shrank in the dryer.  Later he finds out, no, the shirt's the same size - but you've gotten bigger because you're older now.  And it's too late to go back.

How was the Evil King such a threat to Wizardry?  Give him an enchanted ring or something that makes him immune to magic spells.  Now the Wizards can try to put up a fight against his army, but because of the side effects of magic, they all wind up dying of old age before they can ever be victorious.  The more patient Wizards go into hiding, and real magic becomes a forgotten art.


Now you've got yourself a neat little world that has some internal logic, and you can see the relationship between the fictional elements.  They work together as parts of a smooth machine.

Compare this to a turd of a world, like say, the Avengers movie universe.  What a crock.

Even just Thor's presence alone ruins everything.  This is now a world there there is literally a portal to the realm of Gods.  The existence of any god is something that would shake the foundations of humanity to its core - but here it's just kind of another background detail.  Doesn't that completely contradict the scientific principles that are at the root of The Hulk's and Iron Man's backstories?  And don't give me that crap about "science = magic" that they tried to say - you can't just write in a stupid little one-liner like that without giving some kind of glimpse into the logic of the story.  So, what, is Thor actually like some kind of alien psychic guy with telekinetic powers, and it just seems like he's a God that also happens to bear the name and general descriptions of an ancient Earth mythology?

This is also a world where a genetically-engineered super soldier from the '40s graced magazine covers and American pop culture everywhere, but somehow nobody felt the need to research the super soldier program any further following the close of World War II, not even when a drunk billionaire is flying around in his Death Suit and refusing to disclose his technology to the US government or military.  Nobody thought it might be a good idea to invest in another super-soldier just in case?

This is also a world where the government had the technology and resources to silently build a massive, flying aircraft carrier that is hidden in the goddamned sky and yet they still are not capable of producing one single robot-suit.  You can't just keep throwing stuff on the screen without tying it all together.

I can't speak too much to Lord of the Rings as a franchise, since I haven't read the books and I don't care to re-watch the movies.  So I can't say for sure whether it's valid praise to admire how Tolkien built his world.  All I can say is that if it's another franchise where there's just a bunch of random crap that happens, then you consider me unimpressed.  Anybody can make up neat little details.  Making sense of it all takes hard work and talent.