(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)
I love worldbuilding. You can kind of tell by how I wrote and now rewrite a huge series of columns on the subject. A lot of this is how-to, or advice, or exploration, but I’d like to talk ethics.
Not making ethics in your world. The ethics of good worldbuilding and what you should do as a world builder and author/creator.
This may sound a bit corny. There’s ethical issues to doing good worldbuilding? However, stick with me – there’s a reason. Let’s talk commitment and promises.
I’m a Project and Program Manager, which if you’re not familiar with, means roughly I’m a specialist in organizing and directing things and I’m certified to do it. That certification, the PMP, indicates I not only had training and took a test, it is also something I have to maintain and keep up. It represents a strong commitment to what I do.
What I do is of an ethical nature. People trust me, due to my titles and career and certification, to do certain things right.
Being a worldbuilder is much like this. When you take on making a world, when you are a writer/creator, that suggest there’s certain things you’r committed to, which I’ll explore below. You’re expected to deliver on them by your audience. To not do this means you don’t meet commitments you’ve made. In short, if you claim to be a worldbuilder and fail, it’s an ethical lapse.
If you’re going to accept the mantle of a worldbuilder and a writer, then you are making promises, and I take this very seriously. Probably I’m bitter over some bad worldbuilding promises, but still.
Let’s look at what you promise.
Worldbuilding Promises There’s Actually A World
Ever read a story where you could tell the author was making up the setting as they went along? You know that horrible, mushy feeling that there’s no “there” there? Yeah, I’m sure you have. It was awful.
Sometimes it even gets to that bizarre place when you realize a story that has shallow, objectionable, or stupid content has more of a world setting than something arguably high-class or good. It’s an unsettling disconnect (and one I’ve experienced more than once), but it’s a reminder that you expect there’s something to connect to, not a disconnected pile of stuff. Even if the tale told in it is awful
So when you write, when you create a world you are promising that yes, there is a setting there. Something people can rely on, understand, and enjoy. A good world promises there’s something people can count on to be there – which helps them understand and enjoy the tales told within.
Claim to be a worldbuilder? You’re promising a world. You made a commitment to deliver.
Worldbuilding Promises The World Has Rules
When you build a world, you’re claiming that it has identifiable components; rules that people can understand and make sense of. Magic requires mana, faster-than-light-travel produces intermittent time dilation, and this law firm makes a lot of money due to a contract. This helps make the world comprehendible – there is a world there and now there are components to “hold on to,” to grasp narrative and meaning.
A building has windows, doors, hallways, and so on. It has materials that have certain affects and traits. Your world has certain rules as well, rules that compose the larger setting.
Rules may not necessarily be communicated directly to the reader/player or however people experience your world, but they should be there. A reader/player who digs deep enough should at least have an idea that something is going on (or at least a good delusion that they got it when they missed the real rules).
A world without rules is really just you yanking things out of the air. Nothing can be counted on or relied on – and in turn you’re not world building but pondering,r anting, or rambling. You might be good at it, but still – in the end there’s no rules and no world.
You promise there’s a set of rules to the world.
Worldbuilding Promises The Rules Will Be Followed
Of course rules don’t mean anything if you don’t follow them. When you world build, you promise to follow the rules you’ve created. It may sound like you’re constraining yourself, but it’s really more you’re creating something and building upon it.
That rules will be followed means people can trust you, the author and creator. The world, the rules of the world, will make sense to them, and they can count on certain things. Or, when startled at a seeming disconnect, they begin that delicious quest to figure out “why.”
Ever have authors suddenly decide a rule didn’t matter? Ever watched a video game narrative where the generic Bring Back The Dead magic didn’t work in a cutscene? The world suddenly breaks and the trust is gone. The world makes less sense.
When you do that, you really do break an agreement with the reader/player. When the rules you made go out the window, you basically lied – and you also made your world less easy to understand and harder to rely on.
You promise you’ll follow your own rules.
Worldbuilding Promises The World Is Coherent
Worldbuilding is worldbuilding. You are constructing something, like, well, a building. When you make a world you’re committing to make sure the whole thing actually works.
You promised rules. You promises you’ll follow rules. You also promised the world will make sense (well if people knew everything behind the scenes) – in short, this means your rules actually come together and form a meaningful structure.
Like making a building, certain materials are promised, certain structures, certain functions. Together they make a building that will fulfill a given purpose and stand up, which can be navigated successfully. To not have these things means you’ve credited a shoddy, asbestos-filled maze (well, if someone didn’t want that).
This is, I think, where Worldbuilding too often falls down. You have rules, you follow them, but you haven’t constructed them in a way that works together or contemplated how they relate.
Incoherent world building is the stuff of many a late-night discussion or in-game argument, and frustration. If your elves are immortal why hasn’t their culture advanced based on retained knowledge? How can this movie star be so famous and yet pass so easily in public? If faster-than-light drive requires this rare element found only in space how the heck did people get out into space to find it*
You got the pieces – you also promise you’ll build the building and make it work right.
How Seriously Do We Take This?
OK, so how seriously do I take this? Especially in areas of creativity and just plain fun button-mashing or sword-swinging entertainment?
I mean let’s face it, some of this isn’t exactly a case of you need a lot of rules or structure. We’re not all trying to be Tolkein or JMS or whoever.
I’d say you take it seriously enough to get the job done – when people know what the job is.
If you’re working on a game that’s a general Fantasy auctioneer filled with enjoyable tropes, you’re not exactly going to be expected to contemplate Dwarven religion in detail. If you do thats’s great, that’s bonus, that’s admirable. But it’s not exactly in the package you’re promising of “101 ways to decapitate orcs.”**
On the other hand if you’re trying to create a detailed world you’ve made a commitment to follow up on your rules and structure in far more detail. You promised a deep experience, and you deliver by building a coherent, explorable, understandable, complex structure of a world. Though I can complain about many things in Dragon Age, or Babylon 5’s followups (but not so much the original series), but there’s a heck of a lot of work there that’s satisfying.
It comes down to “how much did you promise?” If you go above and beyond, awesome, but when you promise a basic hamburger of a world, I don’t think there’s anything unethical in delivering something basic – and if you deliver more, great.
How Do We Communicate This?
Finally, there’s an issue of communication of world building and ethical commitments.
As noted, I take world building pretty seriously. I’m always pleasantly amazed when I see good world building in areas I don’t expect – and a few times i’ve seen it be the saving grace or a story or my attention span. But there’s a problem with this – how do people know they can trust your world.
Socially we have all sorts of ways to send signals that we’re following ethical guidelines. Traditions, rituals, sayings, check-ins, apologizes, and so on. It’s unconscious to us – and why we probably get so enraged when we don’t see those social signals, say, when we’re on line.
For Worldbuilding . . . that’s a big tougher as people will experience your work differently. You also face the challenge is you have to tell-not-show, because outright saying “here’s all the worldbuiliding I did” kind of ruins the joy of discovery.
At best I can offer some suggestions that came from contemplating this answer:
- Communicate intent. If your story/game/whatever involves intense world building, communicate you’re working on it. Don’t brag, but show up front “here’s my promise” – and then make sure you deliver.
- Make sure you communicate enough in your story that people can figure out the world building if they think about it. It may take careful mapping of plot points, but an intelligent person should get the sense of your rules and structure.
- Discuss where you can. When people ask questions online, at a gaming session,etc. feel free to communicate enough of the world to assure doubts.
- Build trust. your works should build trust, so over time people who follow them will learn to trust your world building – and the above become less of issues. Just don’t screw it up.
Worldbuilding is serious business, indeed it’s a business that involves ethics. Being aware of those will make you be a better worldbuilder – and maybe appreciate the work you do.
– Steven Savage
* Props to Outlaw star for doing some fun things with this.
** Way 101, The Larch