Eliminating Superfluous Elements in Worldbuilding
Or, How to Ensure Your Setting is as Focused as it is Awesome
When 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons was released, Eleven Foot Pole did a review of one of the introductory adventures. The adventure featured all the usual suspects, an evil wizard, a secret lair, orc allies, a diabolical plot, a small village, and kidnapping.
The hook, also pretty standard, was that the orcs were kidnapping villagers. It was up to the players to step in figure out what was going on.
The villain’s scheme had nothing to do with the villagers. He wasn’t experimenting on them. He wasn’t sacrificing them to a god. He wasn’t even eating them.
So why were these orcs kidnapping people? No idea. It seems that the writer added it because that’s just what orcs do. It doesn’t even say the orcs were doing it for fun! Not only was there no reason for the orcs to kidnap villagers, it’s actually the only reason anyone finds out about the villain’s plan.
Does that sound like it increased the verisimilitude of the world the story was set in? Orcs randomly kidnapping people. Does pointless kidnapping tie back to the idea of heroes facing impossible odds and overcoming evil? It was a pretty comical expression of the notion that bad guys always send their henchmen to kidnap people.
What is a superfluous worldbuilding element?
A superfluous worldbuilding element is something in the world that doesn’t tie back to the themes and doesn’t provide opportunities to tell the sorts of stories you want to tell.
How do you identify superfluous elements in your setting?
You take an honest look at your elements to see if they actually support the stories you want to tell. I’d talk to your writing friends about it; they can help cut through your excuses. The first place I would recommend looking is your darlings and genre tropes. You’re more likely to include these elements because you like them, or out of habit. After that, look at the elements that have the greatest impact on your world, working your way down to the smallest elements.
Dragons in fantasy series are a good example of a genre trope. Let’s say you want to add the typical giant, treasure-hoarding, fire-breathing, flying, lizard dragon to your setting. What happens?
You have to decide how they fly, which means fiddling with the physics associated with flight or make their flight magical. You need to justify how they breathe fire. Either it’s magical or they have some crazy biology that allows them to do it.
What do they eat? Where does their food come from? Do they prey on the local farming communities? If so, why do those people stay there? Wouldn’t it be easier to move or kill the dragon?
What’s in their treasure hoard? Where does it come from? If it has gems and magical items, the dragon needs access to craftspeople capable of creating them.
Do you want all of this in your setting? If not, you should probably remove dragons. If you do want it, how does it tie back to your themes and the stories you want to tell?
You need to assess every element in your setting like this. If there’s an easier way to do it, I don’t know what it is. If you do find an easier way, I’d love to hear about it.
What do you do with superfluous elements?
So, you’ve realized dragons won’t fit in your grim-dark, low-magic setting where humanity is scrabbling to survive. Now what?
You’ve got a couple of options. You can create a new world that dragons will fit in. You can add dragons to an existing world. Or you can hold onto them until you find a setting for your dragons to live in.
Fiddle with your dragons. See if you can fit them in somewhere. Ask people for help. You may surprise yourself and stumble upon an interesting twist that not only fits dragons in, but does so in a unique, intriguing way.
It’s easy for superfluous elements to make their way into your world. And that’s fine. Your bush needs to be bigger than the topiary rabbit you want to shape it into after all. It’s important to identify and remove these unnecessary components though. It keeps your setting tight, engaging, and focused on the target audience. That said, never forget that you’re part of that target audience.
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