Cohesive v. Realistic Worlds: The Two Classes of World Building

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Revision, Feb 28, 2013.

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  1. Cohesive v. Realistic Worlds: The Two Classes of World Building

    I’ve spoken before of ways to classify worlds, be they by genre, level of detail, or manner of creation. I’ve also spoken about world/setting types and how they affect a story. Today’s workshop is over an entirely different way to classify your worlds. We will ask the question “are your worlds* cohesive or realistic?” Neither is wrong. However, they both give different qualities to the story you are trying to portray. You may wish a cohesive world or several cohesive worlds for a legend or mythological roleplay, whereas allegorical and political RPs very often function well in realistic worlds.

    Before we go any further, let’s define cohesive and realistic as used in this workshop. In this case, realistic does not mean modern or science fiction. Realistic worlds, for purposes of this workshop, can be any genre and tech/magic level. Likewise, cohesive does not mean ruled by one government, though that can happen. So what do these words mean for our purposes?

    A cohesive world or setting is one that is governed by its genre and archetype. It is less a living, breathing, mutable thing and more a representation of an ideal. While any world may have a uniting factor, be it a religious ideal, inhabitants, or a governing power, what makes a cohesive world stand out is that the entire world is strictly governed by its genre to the point that most places on the world will have incredible similarities. The tech level may be the same the whole world over, or the entire world may be in the same governmental set up, even if there are many governments. Pern is a cohesive world and an example of both of these. The entire planet even faces the same environmental crisis. Though this last factor can happen to any world, it is an important one for cohesive worlds as it explains why there is such an even playing field across the setting.

    A realistic world, in contrast, is not governed by genre and archetype. It may have several regions at different stages of development with different government types, embodying different archetypes and tropes. Realistic worlds or settings are usually made up of many smaller cohesive regions, but even within these cohesive regions, there are usually many voices and opinions to be heard. One might expect a cohesive agricultural world to have a down to earth farmer wherever one looks and farmland everywhere. A similar realistic world might also have a large scientific populace, mining, forestry, green industry, textiles, a diverse political mesh, and you will find that the populace is comprised of distinct entities whose opinions may not fit in with their pastoral designation.**

    Which designation your world takes on will directly affect how your characters are going to be seen. Cohesive worlds and collections of cohesive worlds tend to breed legends. These are those who rise above the status quo, leave to journey to other settings, or fight to protect their world. Because we are given such a strong idea of what the world and all of its people and social structure are like, the legend, the epic hero, has rules and a framework within which he is played or written. Very often, these heroes are prophecied or gifted. Even if they start off as everymen, they are almost guaranteed potential.

    Legends were once regional heroes, those passed down through oral traditions as folk heroes in communities and countries that shared a government or tribal structure, climate, and customs. They almost always embodied that cultures virtues or something that needed to change if they were heroic, the opposite if they were trickster or antagonist. One region’s legend does not affect another region nearly as much. Likewise, one cohesive world’s legend will work best within the framework of that world. Characters for cohesive worlds or settings should be archetypes and, if heroes, should be legendary material. These characters are larger than life but still believable by virtue of fitting with the setting.

    Characters for a realistic world, on the other hand, can be from any walk of life. They may or may not be everymen and may or may not be heroic. Groups can be ragtag and often have more conflict, but much of that conflict is internal. Realistic worlds, with their varied make up, breed moral dilemmas, and not the kind that only come up at the end of the movie. They lead to individual characters who exist, not as a paragon of the world, but as a part of a larger organism. Their smallest hard fought decisions sometimes impact more than their biggest heroic gesture. Realistic worlds are mutable, and the characters may not be as shining and virtuous or as powerful, but they are often in the right place to change the tide of a region or world.

    Realistic worlds often favor those who fight for others, who work to better something about the world itself and not just to protect it, and who have aspirations larger than their capacities. They are not born heroes, they work hard to rise above the pack. Even if they have slight advantages, it is completely up to them whether these are squandered or utilized and often different regions of the world will view each character’s talents and gifts differently. Also, NPCs will not be predictable based on region, so even in the most relaxed town, you may run into cranky grandma who won’t let the magic user of the group into her bookstore because she is scared of the occult influences. Characters for realistic worlds may start as archetypes but become their own entities. They fill an archetype role without becoming a trope. These characters should embody the struggles of life and be a part of the world without overshadowing it.

    Keep in mind, these are generalizations. Worlds may fall between the two extremes. You may have several cohesive planets that make up a realistic universe. You may have one world that appears cohesive until you start looking at the many many differences it holds. As for which is better, neither one is best, but some work better for certain things. Legends are so often tied to one culture that cohesive settings are best for generating legends, whereas heroes who earn it, conflicted heroes, and those who straddle that line of neutrality may shine best in realistic worlds. Here are a few examples.

    Star Wars is somewhere in the middle, but it leans toward cohesive. It has one spanning government and each world within it embodies some specific function, climate, or religion.

    Pern, as stated, is cohesive. It has a set status quo that, while bettered, still pretty much progresses evenly across the board. It shares tech levels, political structure, and has a common enemy. It breeds legends and has a very strong oral and written tradition (the harpers).

    Warhammer 40k is realistic with a cohesive flavor. Worlds may each serve a function, but characters and opinions are so varied, there is so much internal strife and so much moral ambiguity that it embraces realism more than cohesion. However, each species has its own cohesive factors, as well as each planet. This pretty much puts WH40k right in the middle of the spectrum.

    Star Trek (particularly TNG, DS9, and Voyager), despite having a federation, is more realistic than cohesive. Each species not only have their ways of doing so, internal fractures and conflicts, debates and troubles, they also are often represented by groups of characters who may have their own motivations and problems. Almost every episode revolves around a hard moral decision. In contrast, the original Star Trek was very Cohesive, to the point where it was pointed out that many races represented specific Earth world powers of the time.

    Torchwood is realistic. Characters have internal conflicts and faults, it is set on Earth with its many peoples, ideals, transitions, and shifting governments, and every aspect is well connected and fleshed out. Nothing exists in a vacuum, all things are tied to part of a living, breathing story and world.

    While neither world type is superior, it is much easier to build a cohesive world, particularly if you are building several cohesive worlds as part of a bigger setting. Alternatively, a realistic world can offer fantastic journeys and moral struggles that you cannot always match with a cohesive world. Most worlds fall somewhere in the middle, but keep these factors in mind while deciding how much time you have to devote to building your world and NPCs and where along the spectrum you want your new world to fall.

    So, what sorts of worlds do you favor?

    *As usual, we are using worlds to define any large setting, be it a continent, planet, solar system, or galaxy. Also, as usual, worlds can also be a part of larger worlds/settings.

    **The important thing to realize here is that we are discussing NPCs. Even on Cohesive worlds, it is very likely to have protagonists and antagonists that break the mold, but in those cases, it is very important that there is a defined mold to break. Cohesive worlds or regions breed legends. Realistic worlds breed heroes, it is true, but of a different flavor.
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