In our quest to build fantasy worlds, there’s a lot of trial and error. Mostly error if I’m being honest. We all get things wrong before we can get them right. Sometimes we never get them right, but today I’m going to talk about how it doesn’t always matter. Perfection is overrated in your fantasy world.
First of all, I’m not saying your world should be a product of lazy world building or half-finished ideas. I’m talking about the systems and people in your world. They don’t have to be perfect and neither should they be.
Perfect isn’t real. We can strive for it all day, but we wouldn’t know it if it hit us in the face. There are no perfect people, places, ideas, buildings, books or fantasy worlds.
Society barely functions, why should yours?
Okay that’s a bit of a pessimistic heading but…I mean it’s not wrong.
Fantasy worlds are in some way or another based on the world we currently live in. Now don’t get me wrong, fantasy is a great escape from this world for me and many others. There’s always a certain amount of wish fulfilment in any genre of writing and fantasy is great for it.
However, if you want to build a world that feels real you’ve got to make it a bit less shiny and pure.
Things go wrong, people get things wrong and problems rise out of them. While that may be annoying in the world we live in, in the world of writing, problems are opportunities to create conflict and tension – the very threads that hold any story together.
So, when world building, don’t agonise over making everything in your world perfect. You’ll drive yourself crazy. It doesn’t have to function 100% efficiently because no society does.
Let’s face it, if you can create a perfect fantasy society, please go into politics or something and sort the mess out here.
Pyramids were (probably) a bad idea
History is made up of trial and error. It is a series of mistakes that (sometimes) teach us to do things better.
A good example of this is to take a look at ancient Egypt. Although Hollywood films like to make out that there were thousands of pyramids all over the place, the truth is there aren’t that many really.
In fact, they only built them for a few hundred years and stopped pretty early on.
Why? No one knows for sure. However, I think the fact that they started building tombs hidden underground instead has something to do with it. I think that pyramids, as amazing as they are, were a massive signpost to all grave robbers in the area saying:
RICH DEAD PERSON BURIED HERE. BRING A BAG.
Even the stone on the outside of the pyramids was robbed. Who doesn’t want a bit of polished limestone, am I right?
I could be wrong of course, I’m not a historian but I’ve got a feeling someone at the time must have come to the same realisation.
So if it took the Egyptians (who were great) hundreds of years to work this out and realise that a huge part of their culture was a bit problematic, the little flaws in your world are probably fine. In fact, they make it all the more interesting. We have cool pyramids now.
Write about the mess
Perfection is also a little boring. Readers like to read about the mess, the conflict, the tension, the rise and the fall of people and societies.
I want to hear about the problems in government – the protests, assassinations, the injustice and power struggles.
I want to hear about how one storm can fuck up trade routes and leave people starving (in fiction of course).
I want to hear that your religion doesn’t have all the answers or it does but no one believes.
I want to hear that your city has a sewage problem that leads to sickness outbreaks and city-wide panic.
These things all give your world colour because they make it feel real.
The same goes for characters. As much as I love Marvel, some of the characters are just good…and nothing else. This is why we all love Loki, because he’s an arsehole. He’s insecure, he’s fed up and he’s cheeky.
Captain America is…good, which is great but what else? Turning his back on Iron Man and co in Civil War to help his friend was a great move because it put him in a moral grey area for a change. But even then, the guy seems pretty flawless all the time. That’s heroes for you I guess.
They did something interesting with Black Panther though. While there is a clear hero, the villain is a bit more complicated because you can’t help but think the guy has a point. The trying to sell weapons around the world – not so great. But being angry that Wakanda never stepped up when Africans were sold into slavery – yeah that is a very good point. Where the fuck was Wakanda? It gave us an interesting spin on the traditional ‘good guys’.
Powers and skills
There are two common character types in fiction, the all-powerful evil villain (e.g. Voldermort) and the Mary Sue I-can-do-everything character (e.g. Hermione). While there’s nothing inherently wrong with either type, I personally like a bit more from characters. I think the best ones are both good and bad, powerful but flawed, clever but naïve…and so on.
Characters need flaws. If none of your characters have anything wrong with them or their abilities, then none of your battles or tense scenes are going to have real risks. The stakes won’t feel high if we know what’s going to happen.
One of the reasons Game of Thrones is popular is because, for a change, the main characters are genuinely at risk. Anyone can die and that’s what makes it tense to watch.
When I realised that not everything or everyone has to be perfect, I relaxed a little with my world building because I have a tendency to drive myself crazy with stuff like this.
However, that doesn’t mean I can get away with being lazy. I think the world needs to be fully formed before you start including some cracks. That was my approach anyway but I’d love to hear about someone else’s process.
What do you think about perfection in fiction? What areas do you like to leave a bit ‘messy’? Please share your thoughts below.