It’s turned out that this is a series of rather long post rather than one or two medium posts, for wish I apologize. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a discovery writer. I had a very compact premise for these posts, but I found out as I went along that that premise entailed a large amount of background and set-up that couldn’t fit into a couple thousand words. This post is going to be about the challenges of writing truly unique and original worlds.
- There’s nothing new under the sun. Well, sort of. The first thing to understand is that our only reference, our only source of inspiration for how the world and human cultures within it work is our world. There’s only one. That one contains thousands of years of recorded history among thousands of cultures. But it’s still only one world, and all of those cultures follow one set of physical laws. So even though in fantasy the possibilities are theoretically infinite, in practice, we suffer from a paucity of stimuli. And even though we have an infinite number of possible combinations of physical laws, only a small subset of them result in coherent worlds and only a small subset of those are intelligible to us as humans. So this challenge is a bit misleading.There are many things new under the sun, but our ability to understand them thoroughly or even conceive of their existence at all is actually quite limited. And your challenge in creating a unique fantasy world is diverging far enough from real-world examples to feel new and exciting without diverging so far as to become incoherent to other humans–your readers.
- You have to convince the reader that your ideas fit together reasonably. If you have a desert world where all the characters walk around in several layers of thick animal fur and you have a really cool social structure based around what caste of people wears what fur, that might be cool and original. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you have a society set in the same basic geography as Scandinavia, it’s gonna be awful weird if they’re all eating rice and wearing Japanese-style clothing. And this is because the environment affects how your society develops. Tons of people in Illinois, USA eat salmon. But there are no salmon here. In a world without complex transportation networks stretching thousands of miles and supported by cheap refrigeration technology, that would be really odd.
If you have quality steel armor and also katanas, then your world doesn’t make much sense, because katanas developed the way they did due to various factors including the lack of decent iron deposits, so that forging a decent blade required techniques that resulted in the shape of the katana, the sharp edge of which is forged from a different allow than the body of the sword, and so when it reacts to being heated, those two sections expand different, creating the trademark curve of the blade. And beyond that, katanas only functioned because that same lack of quality metal meant the style of armor in use was vulnerable to the slashing attacks that are the main use of the katana, whereas steel plate is not generally vulnerable to slashes, but rather to chops, thrusts, and bludgeoning.
- In order to create a logical and coherent culture (or world), you need to know why things work. But you don’t. Most people will have no idea why Japanese culture developed katanas, or why the daimyos(lords) had so much power compared to the Emperor. But they have the dual illusion of an incorrect idea of why those things existed and that they understand the why rather than maybe merely seeing the surface pattern of the what. You don’t know the underlying reasons for gravity; you only know the surface effects. Things fall rather than rising, falling causes damage. But how does gravity create and affect the atmosphere? How does gravity interact with other forces to create rain? How does gravity create the tides? You don’t necessarily need to know how the tides work to sail a ship. You just need to know how they affect the ship. The rules, not the reasons. Because the world takes care of the reasons and how they create interactions between systems.
The same goes for the systems that underlie human cultures.But when you are creating a a world or a culture for a story, there is no world to run the system for you. You can’t input some facts about how you want the culture to work into a computer that knows how things work and let it hash out the results of your combination. You have to be able to design and understand the way the systems interact yourself. When you steal a culture from the real world, the reasons are irrelevant, because we all know the rules and we can extrapolate from our years of experience with those rules to create a logical model of how things work that we can use to both predict outcomes and judge how likely the outcomes the author presents are to really happen. If their model doesn’t fit our model, we decide they screwed up or are outright cheating.
But when you have an “original” culture, the surface patterns you expect the system to generate are much more likely to differ from the surface patterns your reader expects, and so they will judge your world-building or plotting skills negatively. They will look at real world cultures that have similar rules and see the general consistency in the resulting surface patterns and extrapolate from that to the patterns your systems should theoretically create. If your surface patterns don’t match that theoretical model, you’re going to have trouble with reader engagement.
So the two surface challenges for creating a new culture or world (or magic system or whatever) are making your world feel original and still feel coherent and reasonable. And underlying those surface challenges are the mechanical challenges of not actually knowing how things in the real world work and so how they should work in your world based off your deviations, and how to derive new ideas from our shared experiences. And in the next post, I’m going to start suggesting possible solutions to some of these challenges.