Image: Matthew Loffhagen
World building is a chore and a joy – all those intricate pieces to address, to fit into place and set going, and yet so much satisfaction when they all work together, giving your character somewhere amazing to explore.
We’ve talked before about effective world building techniques, but there’s one area of this essential task that often goes overlooked.
That essential technique is checking that your world has flaws. I’m not talking about dragons in the hinterlands or that asteroid hurtling towards us from a distant exoplanet. Those are plot elements, and while they may look like downsides, they’re part of a perfect system constructed by the author. No – I’m talking about the small stuff.
You can make it work (but don’t)
In Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story, I talked about how fictional time works however you tell it to. One character can experience two days while another experiences three, but if you tell the reader that those experiences took the same amount of time, then that’s what happened. There’s no real time, just events, and you have total control over how they’re perceived.
The same is true of the systems in your world. If, in the course of your world building, you say that a royal family have ruled an island nation for ninety generations, that’s what happened. If you say there’s a demonic force that awakens every six centuries to eat the townsfolk, or that humankind have developed perfect voice-recognition technology, or both, that’s instantly the case.
The only issue is that the reader gets to choose whether they agree with you or not. Stretch their sense of incredulity too far, and you’ll lose their suspension of disbelief. You might think this provides a natural buffer for writers – that it’s proof you can’t make anything work – but that misunderstands the publishing process.
As an author, it’s totally possible to force a system into being and present it to the reader, only for the reader to find it so unlikely that they put your book down, never to be read again. In short, there’s no automatic pushback for unbelievable systems until you’re already committed, so you have to make sure systems feel believable.
So, here’s the bad news: if you’ve created a type of system in your world building, it almost certainly has a fatal flaw. Whether it’s a political system, a geographical system, an ecosystem, a magical rulebook, or even a commercial landscape, there’s one thing that most writers forget: no system is perfect.
All systems are flawed systems
It’s never been hard to convince people that any given system is flawed. By ‘flawed’, of course, I mean that no system operates entirely as intended, with no bumps in the road or undesired consequences.
Trains are late, traffic jams are common, there are economic disasters, housing crashes, wars, political revolutions, poverty, economic decline, and moths flying into lightbulbs (more on that later).
Even the linguistic system I’m using to say this is flawed. Why, for example, can we still not agree on a possessive form of which/that? Why, given that we don’t have such a word, do most people still feel uncomfortable using ‘whose’?
The river whose bed is covered with bones.
The car whose horn sounds like a tortured sheep.
The typewriter whose keys are worn and rusted.
Nope, sorry, just doesn’t sound right.
That’s not to say that every system is useless. We can still communicate, we still vote effectively (comparatively speaking), we carry out massive ecological and charitable actions, but there are always small flaws that stop our systems achieving their ideal form.Perfect systems are unrealistic – add some flaws and waste.Click To Tweet
Why is this? Well, part of it is that we’re just not smart enough to think of all the variables. This is something Steven D. Levitt, economist and author of Freakonomics, discusses in relation to the fallibility of incentive-based systems.
We were trying to potty train my daughter Amanda… And I got down on Amanda’s level, on my knees, and I knew what she liked more than anything else (she’s about three years old) were M&Ms, and I said, “If you go pee-pee in the potty, I’ll give you a bag of M&Ms.”
She said, “Right now?”
I said, “Yeah.”
She said, “Okay.”
And she walked over to the potty, she went to the bathroom, I turned to my wife, and I said, “Let the economist handle this.”
And, indeed, for the next couple of days, it worked to perfection. Every time she had to go to the bathroom, she announced it, she went to the bathroom with a lot of fanfare, I gave her the M&Ms.
But three days later, she said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
I followed her, she went, trickled out a few drops, I gave her the M&Ms, she got off, she said, “I have to go again.” She sat down on the potty, she trickled out a few more drops, I gave her the M&Ms, “I gotta go again!”
Basically, in three days she’d gone from someone with absolutely no bladder control to being so professional at it that she could control the flow completely at whim. A three-year-old had basically come up with a way to beat the incentive scheme within three days that I never could have imagined. And if an economist can’t trick a three-year-old for more than three days, what hope does an economist have of tricking a whole country of people for even three hours?
– Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics
So if a professional economist can’t design an effective system to direct the behavior of a child, how do we have working systems at all? The answer is iterations – we try something, and we keep adapting our approach until we find something that ‘works’.
Note that it’s something that works, not something that’s perfect. Usually, this depends on the cost/reward ratio, and what balance we consider acceptable. There are other variables – some things we need/want more than others, which might explain the pesky lack of that inanimate possessive – but that’s the concept to keep in mind when world building. Why? Because iterations are believable.
The magic of flaws when world building
The problem, then, is that authors can create systems that are perfect from their inception: technology that never falters, great lineages that are never interrupted by a peasants’ revolt or a sickly male heir, and groundbreaking inventions that aren’t canned for ridiculous, tangential reasons.
Unfortunately, and whether it’s conscious or not, the reader understands on a fundamental level that there’s no such thing as a perfect system. They recognize that the sheen of a flawless idea can only exist in fiction, and so they struggle to maintain their suspension of disbelief in the face of a system that does exactly what’s intended.
The issue here is that it’s the author’s natural impulse to create a flawless system when world building. Why would you create a great way of doing things and then break it? The answer to that rhetorical question is because it makes it realer, and adds texture to your world that you can’t find in any other way. For a great example, look no further than the work of J.K. Rowling.
Flaws in the Potterverse
The Harry Potter books don’t depict the most consistent world in fiction – their conception of the afterlife is spotty at best – but they make up for that fact by describing the minor flaws in otherwise impressive system.
Take, for example, the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. This entity judges a student’s character and places them in one of four houses dedicated to key attributes. These attributes, however, are more about potential than destiny, and so graduates of the ‘brave’ house can grow up to be selfish, sniveling villains, while graduates of the ‘sneaky’ house can go on to protect the school and others. They’re in the minority, but they’re still in the mix, suggesting a genuinely blurred boundary between potential and actuality.
Rowling could have created a more definite system – and, indeed, Gryffindor and Slytherin are often wrongly described as the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ houses – but by focusing on potential, she leaves room for the system to ‘fail’ in defining who someone will become, making it seem far more realistic.
Likewise, Rowling includes the existence of ‘squibs’ and ‘mudbloods’ in her stories. Generally, wizards give birth to wizards, and muggles (non-powered individuals) give birth to muggles. Sometimes, however, this isn’t the case, and a magical family produces a non-magical child, or vice versa. In Rowling’s stories, ‘mudblood’ is a pejorative term, and magical children are sometimes abused or ostracized because of their non-magical heritage. Squibs are likewise looked down upon, but they’re also bereft of any real purpose in the wizarding world.
Again, an absolute or ‘perfect’ system wouldn’t include these groups, but by adding them, Rowling uses her world building to create a believable genetic lottery and uses it to power a resonant form of fictional prejudice. (Incidentally, she also uses attitudes towards squibs to establish character personalities – a great example of folding).
Not all of Rowling’s systems have these flaws, but there are enough of them to make her world feel like it has a genuine history.
How to create effective flaws when world building
So that’s why your systems need flaws, but how can you start adding them? Remember, we’re making these changes in the name of realism, so they need to be realistic changes. A random fault makes a system seem less artificial, but one that’s considered – that feels like the natural outcome of a system created over time – is the real goldmine.Want to write about a corrupt official? Think about the system that spawned them.Click To Tweet
To that end, below are some ways you can warp your fictional systems in believable, realistic ways for effective world building. These aren’t all the ways that exist, and they’re not mutually exclusive, but they should be enough to get you thinking about how to make your world feel a little more lived-in.
Corruption / Bias
The most obvious flaw to visit on a system is the presence of corruption or bias. Most systems, given enough time, are open to corruption and bias (including, unfortunately, the governing bodies intended to ward off this problem).
Corruption is easy enough to write – someone has found a way to profit from perverting a system, and so they do so. Bias is more subtle, and depends on someone trying to do a good job but allowing their inherent biases and beliefs to warp what that means.
Politicians are often criticized for undervaluing public amenities such as public transport and healthcare options because they don’t personally depend on them. Whether this is true or not, it demonstrates how someone’s personal priorities and experiences can influence their control of what’s supposed to be an objective system. The more power they have over that system, the more influence their biases and corrupt decisions can have.
This concept was the backbone of the long-running sitcom Yes, Minister (originally a radio show of the same name, and progenitor of follow-up sitcom Yes, Prime Minister). This show, along with its novelization, was based on the premise of a hapless British politician trying to navigate the political landscape with the ‘help’ of savvy civil servants who had a lot more experience of the inner workings of government (along with their own agendas).
In the extract below, the minister engages in idle conversation with an experienced civil servant, only to find out the extent to which England’s infrastructure has been constructed according to the whims of influential individuals.
We got to Oxford in little over an hour. The M40 is a very good road. So is the M4, come to think of it. I found myself wondering why we’ve got two really good roads to Oxford before we got any to Southampton, or Dover or Felixstowe or any of the ports.
Bernard explained that nearly all our Permanent Secretaries were at Oxford. And most Oxford Colleges give you a good dinner.
This seemed incredible – and yet it has the ring of truth about it.
‘But did the Cabinet let them get away with this?’ I asked.
‘Oh no,’ Bernard explained. ‘They put their foot down. They said there’d be no motorway to take civil servants to dinners in Oxford unless there was a motorway to take Cabinet Ministers hunting in the shires. That’s why when the M1 was built in the fifties, it stopped in the middle of Leicestershire.’
There seemed one flaw in this argument. I pointed out that the M11 [to Cambridge] has only just been completed. ‘Don’t Cambridge colleges give you a good dinner?’
‘Of course,’ said Bernard, ‘but it’s years and years since the Department of Transport had a Permanent Secretary from Cambridge.’
– Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, The Complete Yes, Minister
Here, the corruption is comical – those with the power to plan roads have done so to consciously make their own lives easier – but there’s also the suggestion of bias. It’s not so much that the powerful have decided to disadvantage those they serve, but that they have a warped understanding of a) where people need to be and b) the basis on which they should be making their decisions.
Equally terrifying, perhaps, but you’ll find that in terms of believability, cackling corruption can’t hold a candle to the blithe, entitled disregard of an official who simply hasn’t considered how their life differs from those they’re supposed to serve.Your world has been shaped by its systems – work backwards to figure out how.Click To Tweet
Finally, keep in mind that corruption and bias have a cumulative effect. If the last police chief took bribes, then all the systems are in place to tempt the second police chief to do the same. By the time the fifth police chief arrives, it’s an accepted part of his job – it’s normal – so taking bigger bribes seems more reasonable. This can keep going and going, each police chief taking a little more, until the system falls apart. Maybe they’re found out, maybe they’re killed off, or maybe they become more gang lord than official.
Unexpected timescale / Changing priorities
I’ve already talked about how a system’s flaws can degrade it over time, but there are many systems which are flawed simply because they didn’t take time into account. Everyone has heard the rumor of some governmental department or another still keeping their information on floppy discs or operating by paper records.
These systems might be accidentally hacker-proof (broken systems can have accidental perks, too), but they’re also cumbersome and hard to integrate with newer or more up-to-date systems. Despite this, they were a good idea at the time, but they weren’t updated as they went, and now the system is ‘flawed’ just because the world changed around it and there was no plan in place to keep up. This can also be the case with systems that were intended to operate on a short-term basis but never updated, or systems designed to deal with an immediate problem.
There’s a saying in the legal profession that goes, ‘Hard cases make bad law’. This means that setting a legal precedent in order to resolve a single complicated issue is often a mistake, as that precedent will then be applied to decade after decade of cases (the same is true of editing too, actually). This comes into play in Bill Willingham’s Fables.
The ‘Fabletown Compact’ is a document created when refugees from a fairy-tale war arrive in our world. Many have crossed each other in the past, but the only way to live and thrive is to present everyone with a clean slate, no matter what they may or may not have done. This is a catch-all solution to a huge problem that needs an immediate solution, and it works, but it means that murderers are allowed to walk around with impunity, and eventually gets in the way of investigations centuries down the line. Whether the compact was a good or bad idea isn’t the point – in a realistic world, it can be both – but it shows the maxim at work. Consider how the world of your story has changed since its laws and systems of governance were established, and you should find a troublesome rule or way of doing things that’s still hanging around.
Changing priorities follow a similar path, especially where groups of people have gained more autonomy and rights as society has progressed. For instance, in a society where women go from being a man’s legal property to being citizens in their own right, the whole system of law and commerce has to adjust. Sometimes, those adjustments are only made when the old laws start causing problems. Consider this in fantasy epics – if you’re trying to create a social underclass with your world building, think about how they got there. If a human can still refuse to serve a goblin (or receives preferential treatment over them), the reader will get a clear picture of that world’s social timeline.
Systems also experience changing needs – the policies put into place in order to grow a business, for example, might not benefit it once it reaches a certain size and starts to need stability. The same could even be said of a person.
Secondary consequences can often fit into the previous group, but they’re also worth considering on their own. Here, the idea is that the system works as intended but, as a result, there are unexpected or unheeded consequences.
Global warming would be a good example of this – economic and industrial development isn’t designed to avoid global warming, so it can’t really be called a failure within that system, but it’s certainly a serious consequence. Most systems have some kind of secondary consequence that it’s hard to imagine at their inception, and these consequences might take a while to become an issue or they might flare up right away (as in Godzilla, for example).
Misapplication is when a system is applied to – or extended to – a new area that doesn’t suit it. Arguably, there’s evidence of this within the prison system, where those suffering from drug addiction and/or mental health issues are handled in the same way as other offenders. Many studies have suggested that this is harmful, both to individuals and to their prospects of rehabilitation, but so far the desire to apply the same procedures to what’s sometimes seen as a homogeneous group has won out.
Often, a system which has been successful in one area is extended to another which is seen as functionally similar. Commonly, however, the new area varies more than expected, or has different features that render the system ineffective.
Isaac Asimov’s ‘three laws of robotics’ are a set of rules to stop artificial intelligences from injuring humans, though many stories have emerged from how unusual situations might warp them from their initial intent. The first law prohibits injuring a human and allowing a human to come to harm through inaction. This is fine for a robot dedicated to construction, but how would it warp or change if it was extended to a surgical robot, which needed to cut humans in order to help them?
Why do moths seem to fly headfirst at the nearest electrical light source? There are a few different theories, but here’s the one that serves our needs.
Some entomologists believe moths zoom toward unnatural light sources because the lights throw off their internal navigation systems. Moths didn’t evolve around bright lights, after all; they evolved at a time when all the light on Earth came solely from the distant sun, moon and stars. In a behavior called transverse orientation, some insects navigate by flying at a constant angle relative to a distant light source, such as the moon.
But around man-made lights, such as a campfire or your porch light, the angle to the light source changes as a moth flies by. This confuses it.
– Natalie Wolchover, ‘Why Are Moths Drawn to Artificial Lights?’ from LiveScience
In this explanation, the moth has developed an incredible (and dependable) system of navigation. Unfortunately, the sudden (in evolutionary terms) invention of ubiquitous artificial light has thrown up a huge roadblock, adding a massive problem to a system that just can’t adjust quickly enough to counter it.
This kind of rapid change in circumstances happens with surprising frequency, especially in geopolitical and technological terms. Consider, for instance, a trade caravan. Maybe that caravan of people has taken the same route for a thousand years, but recently a landslide blocked the path. What happens next? In a perfect system, they take another path, or clear the previous path, and everything’s fine. Instead, think about all the things that could go wrong. Such a dependable trade route would probably have led to some settlements along the path; settlements which are now devastated by the lack of trade. Even if the path is cleared, can these fragile economies recover? What if some caravaners stick to the new path, even after the old path is cleared, because there’s less risk of a similar accident in the future, while other stay with tradition, perhaps feeling betrayed? What does the interruption of trade mean for various markets, and what foods are now delicacies because the usual deliveries couldn’t be made in time?
Such random questions have, in the real world, formed and dashed companies that went on to be global brands, or else established the parameters of a national cuisine. The flaws in your world don’t have to emerge from your systems; sometimes, it’s more effective to think of something that’s true and then work backwards. You want the flag of your fantasy kingdom to be blue? Fine, but decide at what point in history using blue dye became a good decision, and why. Want your character to be struggling against loads of other people for one job? Great, but knowing what tanked that particular job market will benefit the realism of your world building and the complexity of your story.
Practical application to world building
So those were a few forms of flaw that crop up in systems, but it’s worth reflecting for a moment on how they can be applied to your world building. The main area to watch out for is the arrangement of races/locations in fantasy or sci-fi stories. It can be tempting to give everyone a ‘corner’ of the world and then expect them to stay in it. The elves get the forest, the trolls get the mountain range, the kappas get the swamp, or else there’s a planet of war-obsessed aliens, a planet of peaceniks, a planet of merchants, etc.Even if you need a system to work well, consider who it disadvantages.Click To Tweet
The problem with this is that it treats groups as a single, perfect monolith, and that’s not how people work. Humans have shown themselves to have no tolerance for areas we’re not allowed – it’s not in us to give a mountain a wide berth because there’s a dragon inside; we’d throw army after army at the thing until our society was ruined or we could visit the mountain without fear. Even on a smaller level, there’ll always be a human who decides to work the forests because there’s money to be made, or a really, really strange elf who just prefers life with the trolls – and if there’s one, there’s a hundred, because no-one’s really all that unique.
Likewise, it’s unlikely that a whole race evolved to just love war. That’s not to say that you can’t use this kind of trope in your world building, but you need to think of it as part of a flawed system. Maybe the races used to mix, but we’re in the aftermath of a war or atrocity?
In the Mass Effect series of games, the Krogan race are ‘uplifted’ into galactic society before their own society has adequately matured. As a result, they become a threat to the galaxy. They fulfill the ‘war-like aliens’ cliché, but because they’re genuinely unnatural, and come from an understandable but flawed system, they’re far easier to accept as a real aspect of the game’s world.
Another thing to watch out for is perfect technology. There are so, so many works which include an AI that always knows what you’re talking about, no matter how you phrase your request. This is fine for conscious machines, but basic systems (like a system that controls someone’s house) should struggle occasionally. That’s not to say that there’s any problem with a sophisticated system, but everything needs setting up – throw in a scene where the owner is programming in loads of variant phrases, or where they use a weird combination of words that the system can’t quite decipher, or even just show the system downloading a ‘language pack’ of new cultural references, and it works. The perfect system that can intuit ‘Give me something blue’ as meaning you want a cocktail rings untrue – think of how many times in a week you don’t know exactly what someone means.
This is something that the series Black Mirror handles with incredible skill. All the technology feels real – it’s a little fiddly, or needs to be set up or fully downloaded before it’ll work.
The key to using flaws in your world building is to think of the world you’re creating as ‘now’. No system really exists in stasis – not true, unfaltering stasis – and so what you’re really designing is the current iteration of your world. From there, think about how the world reached that point, and then think about the natural trajectory of that journey. If nothing else, try to figure out where the money and power comes from. That’s what the systems are built around.
Flaws benefit world building
Considering the possible flaws of a fictional world is what made writers like Philip K. Dick and J.R.R. Tolkien masters of their craft. They knew the unlikely betrayals and technological advances that resulted in their worlds, and they invented minor flaws and major upsets to give their world building the unmistakable texture of age and experience.
It might sound daunting to do the same for your own world, but remember that every system has a flaw. All you have to do for research is find a system that works a little like your own and observe where it’s deviating from its ideal form. It can be tempting to spend weeks world building – in the car, in the shower, at work – so go ahead and do it, but then take a few days to mess it up a little, too.
If you’ve finally found the perfect, non-fluctuating system, or you subscribe to one of the other schools of moth navigation theory, let me know in the comments.
For more advice on successful world building, check out Speculative Fiction World-building Techniques You Need To Know. Or, if you know you’re spending a little too long over your world building, try How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published.