Atoms Knocking on Atoms
I think worldbuilders are a strange bunch. We mostly grew up worshiping detail and intricacy because we’re the type of people that like to dive deep into detail. I knew this when my wife asked me what Tusken Raiders looked like under their desert regalia and I started talking about the Rakatan Infinite Empire. This was all the product of a wookiepedia article that I dove into many years ago while playing KOTOR. I just wanted to know stuff. I craved the depth.
A worldbuilder abhors a knowledge vacuum. We just gotta know and there just has to be an answer or we feel like we got hustled. Or we write the story off as a ‘children’s story’.
You mean you don’t know why Hogwarts had plumbing even though it was built well before plumbing existed?!
There’s a sense that whatever we make should closely mirror the ‘real world’ in order for our audience (we often say ‘visitant’ because we’re high falooten narcissists) to ‘feel’ the reality we need to tone up the complexity because the real world is complex. Anyone who says different likes to deal in stale aphorisms and we all know it. Monocausal explanations for the stuff we see around us are usually conspiracy theories. So it stands to reason that if we really knew our world, like, I mean, really knew what was going on we’d know every atom that knocked against another. We’d have a carbon copy of our world but with dragons and junk. But we don’t. We don’t because we can’t. Our perspective is limited, we’re not blessed with omniscience we just have to make do with what we can see. This is our problem. We’ve set ourselves a goal with this simple equation ‘immersion = realism = complexity’ and via the transitive property have set up an impossible task. We’re too often trying to make atoms knock against atoms. To have our worlds stand up to nano-scopic scrutiny.
This is just how we’re wired. It’s one of the reasons that Seth and I started this podcast. We wanted to explore this stuff at its depth, we wanted to crack the worldbuilding code. We also wanted to just talk about worldbuilding a lot because, well, we love it.
But, Complexity is Great!
It is! Like, it really is. We can all name some of our favorite IPs that have depth and complexity to them. We all know that feeling of wonder and excitement that we get on seeing a big complex entity pull itself into focus for us. That moment where we solve the puzzle and understand how the heist is gonna work. It’s delightful and it’s like straight up black tar heroine for folks that are into worldbuilding. It’s the sauce.
But I think with a little analysis we might find that the wonderfully complex worlds that we love so dearly actually aren’t as richly complex as we’d like to believe. It’s just that the rough patches escaped our notice.
Think about Westeros for example. Beautifully detailed, rich, and immersive, especially with its political system that supports wheels within wheels. Medieval politics and history was clearly a passion of Martin’s and it shows with every stabbed back. Did you know that precious few of the main characters in GoT died in battle? Most were killed off the field due to intrigue and assassination. When you follow the story that feels surprising. There’s tons of battle. It’s just deaths in battle are for the little people. Lords and Ladies get captured and ransomed. That’s because that’s how battles were fought way back when and Martin knew it and that’s what he wanted to write about. You know what he didn’t care about? Demographics. Lyman Stone has a blog that talks all about it. The armies that were reported in the battles featured in ASoIaF could not have been as large as they were without Westeros having an unsupportably large population. *GASP*
This doesn’t mean he failed as a worldbuilder. It means that Martin loved politics, battle, and dragons and didn’t much care for crop yields and population densities. His story was good enough that your eye was drawn to what he wanted you to see rather than the stuff he didn’t care about. His narrative lead you along the garden path and despite your keen worldbuilding instincts and desire for perfection you, for some reason, neglected to look into the numbers. It’s okay, it literally happens to the best of us. That’s why demographers exist. To look into boring stuff.
My point here is this: Martin focused on what he cared about, maybe you should to because when complexity is applied correctly and with strong connection to narrative, it’s powerful.