Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Worldbuilding #4

In which I hastily backtrack to cover ground that I forgot existed in the two whole days between Parts 2 & 3. Onwards, to moderate fame! Or, er, total insignificance. I have a rule about being honest with myself, y’see.

Those of you with excellent memory retention and tolerance for lengthy tangents will remember several things: 1. Part two was about possible rules of the world. 2. Part 3 was intended to address further, more specific uses of those rules and their influence, and 3. Part 3 did not do that thing it was supposed to do. This is actually an absolutely perfect starting point, because it allows me to go immediately to the stereotype of people on fantasy adventures being unable to plan for certain things. Like many others, this is one that goes all the way back to Tolkien, particularly Gandalf’s infamous decision to just go and gloss over the tiny detail of there being a f***king Balrog in Moria.

At first glance this seems ludicrous, but after a moment’s reflection it becomes acceptable. After all, Gandalf never planned to enter Moria, so why bother bringing up one more ancient horror that the group would never have to deal with? And even once the Fellowship was forced into Moria, there was still a reasonable chance of passing through it without ever meeting yon towering entity of eldritch fire and fell magic. No need to mention it, as long as no one wakes the goblins… oh, damn. Forgot about the Hobbits. And here’s where we start encountering problems, you see. Gandalf knew that passing over the mountains meant passing over Caradhras, and in the books Caradhras is a mountain with some very crappy history, implied to be an evil force in its own right. Alternatively, Sauron himself may be affecting weather on the peak. Regardless, there was ample reason for Gandalf to think that crossing the mountains via the high route might not work.

You see, there are a number of things that normally happen in worlds where a journey can take weeks, months or even years. The most obvious of these is simply that people are going to plan their journeys in advance. A natural extension of this is that everyone needs to be kept up to speed on changes to the plan. Even the journey through Moria takes weeks, for goodness’ sake, and yet Gandalf just couldn’t see the utility in maybe, possible bringing up the ancient servant of the first Dark Lord that he and the Fellowship might very well run into? It would’ve been handy to clarify his reasoning just so that Gimli would be slightly less pissed off in retrospect. Obviously Gandalf couldn’t tell everyone in advance (Gimli, after all, being part of ‘everyone’) that he suspected Moria had been overrun by orcs/goblins/*insert alternate word for ‘horribly mutated descendants of elves’ here.* If he’d done that, Gimli would’ve immediately rushed off to go gather a Dwarven army and reclaim the place again. Which, in turn, might very well have drained the military of the Iron Hills at the exact moment that Sauron was mobilizing his forces to strike there as well. What I’m trying to say here is that courtesy of the rules of the world, there’s only one minor plot hole here instead of several gaping ones.

With all this in mind, we return  at last to the topic du jour: the rules of your world, and their influence on the stories you put in it. First and foremost, if your world is an orderly one, you cannot have bandits running amok in areas which have been claimed by large, regional powers. The reason is simple: no King worth a damn is going to just ignore huge groups of bandits within his territory, disrupting raid and shredding merchant caravans. Not only is it bad for the economy, but it demonstrates military weakness. Imagine that you’re a monarch entertaining an ambassador from the aggressive Northern kingdom of Temana, and you’re trying to explain away the fact that his escort lost twenty men-at-arms, three knights and most of their conscripts to overpopulated basilisks.

You can say that your kingdom is known for its great adventurers, but adventurers who can’t handle a basilisk are, at best, passable, and the ambassador will be sure to point it out. Congratulations, your Highness, now you’re looking at a heightened chance of war because you couldn’t incentivize a bunch of loot-hungry spree killers to go out and stab some big, evil lizards. Next you’ll be letting the dragons steal from museums, I suppose? Oh, but of course that’s already happening, isn’t it? Because this world is a consistent one, and terrible rulers are consistently so. I’m just going to assume you stopped imagining yourself as the gender non-specific monarch before I began insulting you in earnest, I think you’ll agree it’s for the best.

Now, there are legitimate reasons for leaving the basilisks where they are. Perhaps that road is little used and the monarch doesn’t want to waste people opening it. The ambassador was specifically instructed to avoid it for his safety, and it’s a shame he wasn’t among those turned to stone. A little rockiness might lend dignity to his blubber, after all! But that’s just an excuse. Because the real reason to leave all those basilisks where they are is that basilisks are very fond of horseflesh, and the blasted Temans do love their hussars. Seems as though the gods intended them for each other, doesn’t it? Meanwhile all the troops not wasted on clearing out the basilisk overpopulation can secure the border with Schwarzhaven, which is effectively Fantasy Prussia and thus probably the worst country to have an unguarded border with.

The important thing to remember about fantasy worlds is that you’re still dealing with suspension of disbelief. Your readers will give you a lot to work with, but not forever if you keep arranging things in ways that make no sense. It’s important to ground the world with sets of rules that mirror the ones your readers already know, so they’ll be more ready to forgive lip-ups or inconsistencies that find their way in. Going back to the common trope of adventurers, it’s fine to say that your world has a lot of successful ones (not an infinite amount, but a lot), and that even so there are plenty of adventures left to be had.

What’s not necessarily fine is to throw out scenarios that past adventurers are supposed to have dealt with, and then have your present group fail to grasp what’s going on at first, especially if it’s something banal. Oh, there are traps in this ancient, strangely intact crypt? Gee, who’d have thought it, what with that rather flat thief plastered against the walls by a boulder and all these skeletons on the floor? You can do this, but I highly recommend you be following this oddly unprepared group for comedic effect, or at least that you have a very good reason for their being so very green. If they were any greener, they’d be Druids, that’s how green these kids are.

On which note, if one of the rules you picked for your world is that it’s markedly different from other Fantasy worlds, with a vastly different set of creatures and peoples, you have to stick with that or excise it entirely. You can redraft or you can give up, but as long as that rule’s there you have to obey. This isn’t the sort of rule you can fiddle with, or vary by region. You are stuck with it, because it’s fundamental and probably supposed to serve as a selling point. Of course, if you have a world where different regions embody different sets of Fantasy tropes, then maybe you can change this rule for your own convenience.

Just promise me, in a non-binding Internet sort of way, that you’re not going to portray Elves as sharp-eared snobs and then ask us to believe they’re the best thing ever. That’s extremely tiresome. I was once physically distinguished from most people by my fat and strabismus, that didn’t mean anyone had to listen to my life advice.

(Part Three Here) (Part Five Here)

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