Worldbuilding: Failing Your Way to a More Realistic Setting

We return to my observations about writers’ bibles and worldbuilding as the wiki develops! In this case… it’s time to tell you that your flaws can be supremely helpful to you.

BAD RECALL IS YOUR FRIEND. For instance! One of my most egregious flaws is a bad memory. It’s so bad that my family and friends tease me about it all the time. (They’ve decided I’m a wormhole alien, from DS9: ‘you exist now, without linear time’. They’re not wrong.) I’ve gotten by in my life by being intensely devoted to list-making and note-taking, and that will get you far; in fact, it often gets you farther than people with good memories but lackadaisical attitudes toward record-keeping. But not all my leet skillz at jotting things down can change the fact that I have farmed ninety percent of data to an external system. One which—if you have a bad memory—you might misplace, or organize too poorly to use because after a while your stack of lists and notes gets so tall indexing it requires a computer.

In the past, while writing, my strategy for dealing with this was to look up as much information I could find about vital things, like my main characters’ eye colors and childhood traumas, and then… make up everything else. Even if I had the vague feeling I’d made it up before. “I need a sport for this walk-on character to be into. Um, I’ll make something new? SWIRLYBALL. Um. IN ZERO-G.” And then, a week later: “I need a sport for this new character to have played in the past. Didn’t I just? Oh, heckle, too much trouble. I’ll make something new! How about… WAR POLO. You play it riding the native animals, which are like velociraptors but furry, and they bite one another so that’s how it became about war, because while you’re trying to hit the ball with sticks your mounts are trying to eat one another!”

If you do this long enough, pretty soon you have sixty sports, all random, and no character interested in both, until you hit Story #12 and you want the characters to have a conversation at a sporting event and you happen to run into war polo while flipping through your stack of notes and you go, ‘OKAY THAT’S GOOD.’

I always thought of this particular habit of mine, of shrugging and making up new things because my memory was awful and my notes too voluminous to index, was a bug. It turns out, though, that it’s a feature, because it makes the world seem enormous. If I’d had a better system (or brain), the first time I named an opera house, I would have remembered it and every time I needed an opera, or a performance, or a cultural event, or to give a character an interest, I could have said, ‘Oh, obviously they’re a fan of the opera, and this opera house in particular!’ Readers would have started noticing that every opera ever mentioned was staged by the same opera house, and it would not have made that opera house feel famous, it would have made it feel repetitive. The walls of the world would close in: “This place has only one opera house. Only one form of High Culture even because EVERYONE IS INTO OPERA.”

By continuing to come up with truly trivial details and then forgetting them, they remained trivial. And that makes it feel more real than dredging it up as the answer to all possible references. It’s like talking to a person at a party and discovering they’re really into this thing you’re not into and that it’s complicated and has its own history and famous figures and events and you’re thinking ‘but it’s just a dog show’ or ‘it’s just orchids’ or ‘it’s just a single fantasy novel.’

One of the things I’ve had to tell myself as I started filling in the wiki is that I can’t stop making up stuff off the top of my head just because I now have an entire page of Alliance sports, or Chatcaavan foods. For the world to feel huge, it needs to feel deep, and the only way to achieve that is to keep adding things to it, no matter how minor. The minor things may, in fact, be more pivotal than the major ones.

I did make up an opera house, in an obscure story that was run once in a fanzine. I think that’s so far in the past that it’s safe to have someone be into opera again.

MISTAKES ARE YOUR FRIENDS. By now you’ve heard about all the errors I’m finding while hunting through the books, and how I’ve become resigned to that being the result of maintaining a contiguous universe for over 25 years. Not just resigned, but all right with it, and sympathetic to Past Me for all her efforts. The Peltedverse contains 29 canonical books, any number of short stories not yet collected for retail, some large number of non-canonical material so old it’s no longer available, plus thousands of sketches. At that point, mistakes become the Hand of the Artist Revealed, not something to be ashamed of.

Having said that though, mistakes are gold because they serve as random seeds for embellishment/worldbuilding. One of the hardest things to simulate when a single person is creating something is the real world’s unpredictability, absurdity, and haphazardness. Reality is not just large and full of detail (as from the previous section)… it’s also weird and unlikely and gives you many headscratch moments.

Explaining away your mistakes is a great way to simulate some of that. If you decide to frame your continuity errors as all true, despite being contradictory, then you end up in really interesting places. So, for instance, the interim captain of the Stardancer, who briefly served while Mertricia Heartfoot (Alysha’s predecessor) was on maternity leave, is listed in the canon under three separate names: Leary, Levy, and Lery. (Cue my facepalm.) This one is particularly egregious because Levy is already a character in the canon, the human admiral who sees Lisinthir off in Even in the Wingless. “They must,” I thought, “constantly get one another’s mail.”

And just like that, I could see Leary—the name I settled as his real one—getting mail from personnel addressed to Lery and Levy and being extremely annoyed. “They can build wormhole generators that take you from orbit to a planet in a single step, but they can’t manage a database so that it gets my name right!” In my head, Leary wearily pops a message to Levy. “Got your notice again.”

“Right on time. Thanks for forwarding it.”

Leary, who previously existed only as a few lines of description in my head, now has a bizarre piece of trivia associated with him that demonstrates the absurdity of the system. Does it excuse my error in the text? Of course not—me getting his name wrong as the semi-omniscient narrator can’t be explained away by in-universe issues. But I got to use that mix-up as a story prompt, and that allowed me to develop not just his character further, but also the world (the Alliance still has data entry issues) and his relationships (I now know that he corresponds with Admiral Levy).

I did this again with a Pelted character who swore by two different sets of gods, almost certainly because I forgot what species she was when I wrote one of her pieces of dialogue. Instead of panicking about that error (or beating myself up for it), I recorded it and let it lie there for a while. A few days later, I remembered that when two Pelted of different species have children, they usually genefix the resulting babies to either one species or the other: perfect. Obviously my double-god-swearing character had parents of different species, who genefixed her to one. She must have a brother who got genefixed to the other: instant family, with bonus instant family history! I bet she and her brother tease one another endlessly. “Big ears!” “Snaky tail!”

There’s no limit to the ways you can use your errors to springboard into diversification of your universe. One character describes a historical event as being driven by economics, and another by racism? Both true, or both false, scholars are arguing about it at universities and writing dissertations on their opinions. (Bonus: says something about each character, whether that’s about their basic biases, or about their educational backgrounds.) Described your starship engines as working one way in this book, but another way in a different one? Both engines exist! One is a modification of another, or one was discarded as less efficient, or one is an experiment, or one is more expensive and therefore not as common. Your character claimed to meet someone in college in one story, and then said they met in childhood later? Bad memory—maybe she’s mixed that person up with someone else, or conflated them. (Why?)

The latter is particularly powerful. “Oh gosh, wait, I’m remembering that wrong” or “no wait, I’m mixing that up with something else” is real. Do you remember every detail of your life? Exactly? I bet not. It would be weird if all your characters wandered around, spouting off their biographies in perfect detail as if they were reciting from an inner Wikipedia entry. In real life, most of us get things wrong all the time, or need to look at photos or journals to remember, or have our memories triggered by items (“oh, the souvenir I got when I was on my first date with you, at the fair.”). Let your characters have as faulty a recall as real people.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this particular article, doesn’t it. 😄

Anyway, my observations of the day. Questions and comments welcome, as always! But if you’re here to point out an error in the canon be aware that you will probably be directed to record it on the wiki. lol