Many, many years ago, I noticed American politics often boiled down to blaming things on God, Darwin, Or History. Later it came to me that, in some ways, worldbuilders did this as well.
These are three crutches we use rather poorly in our worldbuilding. Three excuses that let us hand-wave good worldbuilding and thinking, and shovel torpes in. We may not even realize we do it.
(Though if you think about it you’re probably being a bit lazy. It’s OK, everyone is now and then.)
Let’s look at how these excuses get us lazy – and make poor worldbuilding.
The Devil is in the Details, but it seems God (and any supernatural element really) is really great for rewriting the details for no good reasons . Supernatural and religious elements in our worlds often lead us to some pretty poor choices.
“Because I Believe”: Perhaps the worst form of abuse is when people shoehorn in their own religious beliefs without repercussion or worldbuilding. Yes, religious fiction is oft infamous for this, but it happens outside of that sphere – and in religious fiction that’s kind of the point. Your beliefs may be so close to you you don’t know you’re doing it – until you realize you’ve stopped building your world and started dropping the theology without thinking if it fits.
“It’s magic, what more do you want?”: “It’s magic” can be a descriptive term, or it can be an accurate description of how poorly a setting is made – you’re just yelling “it’s magic” as an anwser. The supernatural is not an excuse to not design your world – it’s something you have to design. Otherwise it’s just a reason to write what you want.
“Unload The Truckload Of Tropes”: It’s also easy to write God, demons, whatever by simply dumping in pop culture concepts and walking away. They’re expected, either due to the beliefs of the audience or due to tropes being so common. Of course that means that you’re not building – you’ve made your setting a landfill of the gods.
As a worldbuilder God, the supernatural, whatever, is not an excuse to avoid worldbuilding. It is a reason to work harder since you have more to do – and more to avoid.
Deus Ex Machina – the God out of the Machine – was a description of the method of using mechanical contrivance in plays to materialize a god (and possibly wrap up inconvenient elements). The somewhat derogatory use of the term obviously came about because some playwrights overdid it – don’t follow in their footsteps.
Suggestion: Review your religious and supernatural elements more closely to be aware of what you’re doing. Maybe you are writing religious fiction, so get it right. Maybe you need tho think out a magic system more.
If we’re not blaming things on God, it seems CHarles Darwin is the next up in the excuse parade. Now as much as evolution is scientific and studied and real, it’s still used as an excuse and might as well be magic.
These are the plays Darwin becomes an excuse for us to stop worldbuilding.
“That’s Just Evolution!”: “Well that’s how they evolved,” and throwing out one or two world elements is sadly common in worldbuilding. It’s using evolution as a device where you feed one or two scientific facts into and you hope it pops out an explanation that people believe. And they may – until they realize, say “this world had tall trees so everyone evolved elastic limbs” is really very lame and misses more realistic complexities.
“Cruel To Be Crueler”: Also common is the idea that you can say “survival of the fittest” and then explain away anything from moral to evolutionary issues. “Survival of the fittest” (never coined by Darwin) is a simplistic summary of evolution that misses the complexity of development. Really this is usually just an excuse for cruelty or violence.
I also found that the Darwin excuse of worldbuilding, just throwing out a few things and blaming evolution, leads to stereotyping of races. “Oh, this race is violent as their planet was harsh” turns the race into a stereotype, and I’ve already covered that quite enough thank you!
Suggestion: Study up on your science if evolution is an important part of your world. Not only does it make you a better and more accurate writer, it gives you IDEAS.
I love history. I love learning. I am all for reading history and watching documentaries to help with worldbuilding. You can research times and people and places and events to get ideas for your world. I recommend it.
(running documentaries and such while I do other things is a favorite way to get history by osmosis. Rick Steeb’s travelogues were an influence on my writing at one point).
Except . . . history can be misused and becomes an excuse. Here’s cases to avoid.
“Just like it really happened”: Look, yes, it may be tempted to duplicate a previous event totally, but it’s got problems. First, it may be obvious and people will notice. Secondly you’ll probably do it wrong unless you’re an expert and people will notice. Don’t copy and paste history, it’s easy to screw up and takes people out of your worldsetting if it’s not really well done.
(Note if you’re writing historical fiction, go for it.)
“This is just like X”: When you directly lift part of history and drop it into your world then it stands out like a sore thumb. History isn’t something you can transplant seamlessly, and if you’re just taking an idea here or there your world will seem patchwork.
“But this happened”: One fo the final “sins” of misusing history is to use a historical event as an excuse in your worldbuilding. “Because X happened in the real world, Y happened in mine.” This might be true, there might be parallels – but if all you have is a parallel with no underlying reason, that’s all you have. You should explain the similar occurrence in your world with more than a footnote – otherwise it’s just dropped in there.
History is a great tool for worldbuilding, but I recommend using it as a learning tool and a tool for ideas. Learn about cause and effect, find examples, find parallels. Just be careful about transplanting huge chunks – or excising your actions.
I also note that if you use history, remember you may get it WRONG. YOu may not understand as much as you think you do.
And your readers or players will see it.
Suggestion: When you read a history book or watch documentary, pick some things out of your usual comfort zones. It helsp shake up your imagination, broadens you, and keeps you from settling in too comfortably. You’ll also get ideas.
Learn But Watch
So go ahead, learn from theology, science, history. Just don’t drop whole chunks of poorly-understood ideas into your worlds. Don’t use them as excuses not to build more of a world.
Because people will realize it.
And I may need to write another column on it.