Have you ever read a story and things just seemed to work . . . wrong?
- The hero defeats one guy and then the world is safe, the Evil Army is destroyed, he gets the girl, and his chin is still awesome?
- The superpowered alien who somehow manages to release massive, colorful, well-animated attacks that just well . . . have no side effects, no source, and no real explanation? I mean how do you release a “gravity buster” without messing up everything but the guy you aimed it at?
- The villain who’s massive, connected, complex plot works perfectly while in the real world you aren’t even sure the game you’re working on will ship without a day one patch and an apology?
You know that feeling. Things happen easily in stories and games – too easily. Cause and effect apparently are having a trial separation and you worry they’re going to get a divorce before the book ends.. Simple actions have massive and unwarranted repercussions. We snicker, we laugh, we roll our eyes – and we’re out of the world because things just work wrong.
A lot of world building is about Power, in the non-Machiavellian sense. It is about how something gets a result, and when you don’t make it work right in your world, then your world is no longer “real.”
Power, from super attacks to a clever cutting comment, done wrong makes a world unbelievable. If you’re building a setting, writing in a setting, you want to make sure that you don’t trip people up so they stumble out of your world. In building your world, you have to get the power of things, of people and weapons and comments and plans, right or the world is back to being words on paper or pixels in a game.
Fortunately I have a rule for getting it right. I call it the Pyramid Of Power. Which is a useful rule, and not the place Kephr-Ra, The Never-Dying, hid the Staff of Omens to keep it from Man-Cat and the Silvermasters.
Power, Process, and Pyramids
Nothing happens without a reason.
Now that seems obvious in worldbuilding, in writing, and in life. The problem is making sure that things happen for the right reason, for the believable reasons – and in turn that actions have believable and appropriate effects. When you lack this appropriateness your world is suddenly not “real” for the duration, but a flawed artistic construct that makes your reader or player go “huh?”
Simply, something should have an effect appropriate to its power – be that the power of an army, the power of a wel-ltimed single word, a planet-destroying bomb, or an assassin’s bullet. Each of these things has an effect that, properly created in your world and portrayed in the relevant media, is appropriate, believable, and understandable.
In general, the more powerful something is, the better you need to understand it, explain it (if only to yourself), and write it. The punch of a standard human doesn’t need to be explained, the coolness of ice is understandable. The psychic blast of a mutant requires some thought and explanation, as does a weapon that drops temperatures to zero Kelvin while running on house current.
The more it does, the more you need to think of it and explain it in your worldbuilding. Again, this may be only for yourself, but as I’ve stressed, you need to know how your world runs, even if readers or players don’t see all the turning gears. It’s when the gaps in your concepts show you have problems, when you accidentally give people a peek behind the curtain – and there’s something shoddy there.
Power can be visualized like a pyramid; the higher you go, the more solid your concepts have to be (even if they’re general), the more it affects (and is affected by) the foundations of your setting, and the wider he repercussions of that power. If your hero wields a god-like extradimensional force, then you have to ask the repercussions of that force existing (like other people using it). A massive evil secret conspiracy is going to require an awful lot of resources and communications and, well secrecy – how does Anaconda Admiral feed all of his troops in the secret organization of S.N.A.K.E. anyway? The explanations may be general – and indeed you may only have to go so far – but they will affect and define your world, because some of these pyramids get pretty big.
In addition to explaining power there is the issue of controlling it – what holds the pyramid together? How does a giant army actually stay ordered, not have mutinies, and remain a credible threat? What safeguards are on the doomsday device? Yes that alien race is benevolent, but why i their visit not causing massive civil unrest? How does power exist, in short, without the Pyramid crushing everything else – though Power Out Of Control can be a really interesting element of a setting.
All of this requires explanation, exploration, and wordbuilding.
Now to be brutally blunt you can probably get away with less worldbuilding around familiar concepts like superheroes, psychics, and serpent-themed conspiracies led by a guy with obvious rage issues. People accept certain tropes easily. However, if you do this too much then your world will only be tropes – you risk it not coming to life or becoming stereotypical. It will be accepted but not alive.
Looking at how power works on the other hand brings your world further to life,makes it living, make it believable, and makes it involving.
Two Forms Of Power
A convenient way to look at power is to think of there being two basic kinds: force and subtlety. These are two “pyramids” you may build in your worlds. Yes, it’s generalized, but that’s the point of rules-of-thumb.
Power Of Force
Force is easy to write, almost tempingly so. The army crushes a kingdom, the hero kicks the bad guy’s backside six ways to sunday, a mass mdia campaig sways an election. Big onslaughts and powerful face-punches work, and are also pretty believable.
The Power of Force is of use massive power to achieve results – sometimes the power is even more massive than the result achieved. Think of it as when the Pyramid of Power is dropped on your head, all that power brought to bear to crush something.
When writing the Pyramid of Force, there’s two important questions to ask:
- How is the force that is used powered/achieved? Massive force requires massive resources of some kind. Something feeds the army, something powers the Planet Cannon, something provided the money for the campaign. When you work with sheer force you have to explain where it comes from – and because the power is massive, it has to be believable to those participating in your world. A poorly created Pyramid of Force really stands out because the sheer result doesn’t line up with how it’s part of the world.
- What are the side effects. Brute power is not subtle, and there is almost always side effects and repercussions – force brought to bear means reactions occur. Force changes the world, and massive overwhelming force produces a lot of changes.
But maybe you’re not writing massive armies, fleets of planet-destroying starships, or tales of massive monied efforts. Maybe you’re more subtle . . .
Power of Subtlety
Subtlety can be forgotten in worldbuilding, since now and then a good punch-up or military campaign is more interesting. But the subtle achievement of goals, the knife-in-the-dark, the clever deducation are powerful indeed, and are the core of many a genre – intrigue, detective tales, and so on. Some genres are all about the Pyramid of Subtlety.
Subtlety is the force of precision, of asymmetric power. It is not overwhelming, it is not a bombardment from orbit or a plasma beam in the face. It is a great achievement where the specific action seems small compared to the result, but the result is equally massive.
Of course writing the origin and use of subtle power is a bit different than overwhelming power. Subtle power is often diffuse and mysterious, yet also has the element of focus to achieve just the right result.. Writing the Pyramid of Subtlety is when you have this big pyramid and stick someone with the pointy part.
When writing Subtle power, here are two rules to help you:
- Subtle power is usually about bringing all the right elements to bear in a manner that gets an exact result. It is the revolution caused by assassinating the king or a charming word that lures someone into the bedroom. In many ways the power that makes it possible is far greater than the action taken – the novelist who starts a revolution studies great writers for decades and distills centuries of knowledge, or huge amounts of money creates a tiny virus that kills only the Evil Alien Commander so his people are free.
- Subtlety is usually about someone working a critical point -the the right clue, the exposed enemy in the sniper’s scope, the clever deduction. It is about vulnerability and opportunity in the world.
Subtle power is a strange beast to communicate. Force’s sheer lack of subtlety also invites broad explanations – “we feed the army this way.” Subtlety’s very nature makes it harder to understand when creating and when experiencing in media, so it takes deft planning – and deft writing or game design.
However I find that for many a reader, well-built subtle power is also very satisfying. It has a puzzle-like quality that speaks to our need to figure things out. So when you define subtle power in your world, you’ll not only build a good setting, but your readers and players can enjoy that subtle rush when they see it all come together.
Power is vital to good wolrdbuilding because explaining how things are achieved and done, what repercussions things have, is important to making the world believable. If you don’ do this your setting is at best just tropes, and at worst one people can’t relate to.
Thinking over power, and remembering the grater the power the greater the explanation and repercussions, helps you understand things better and build a better world.
In time I find this becomes an instinctive part of worldbuilding. Soon you’re able to see the flows of power and results – and your worlds create themselves and tales can write themselves more easily. It takes practice, but it’s well worth it.
– Steven Savage