We’ve talked Utopias, their rarity, and how and why to create them in our worlds. We’ve talked Dystopias, their commonality, and why to create them anyway despite their near-omnipresence. I’d like to discuss a related, similar issue in worldbuilding – what happens when “good” and “bad” parts of the setting meet.
It’s an area near to my heart because stories and games, tales and legends, are often written on the borders, the liminal spaces, the transitions. It’s where the richness grows, when things cross over. Even a conflict or a difference is a chance for rich worldbuilding and storytelling.
Also because mostly when the Good and the Bad collide it’s often implemented in a manner that’s terrible.
So, let’s start out with what often goes wrong when Light and Dark decide to unload a can of whupass. Sometimes you have to put up the warning signs before someone goes off the worldbuilding road.
The Two Kingdoms
Imagine two kingdoms, good and bad, near each other. You know the story, because we’ve seen it a thousand times.
On this side the happy nice people, on this side the mean and oppressed.
On this side the great place to live, on this side the horrific hellhole.
On this side the good king, and on this side the bad king.
And in the middle, we readers and writers and gamers wondering just what the hell happened that two groups sitting next to each other turn out so radically different. We’re also having trouble really buying into this because the contrast is so obvious, so blatant, almost contrived.
Admittedly after awhile we may not care. A bad world in, say, an FPS isn’t always noticed as long as the weapons or targets are interesting. Maybe we don’t ask much from the world. However . . .
. . . there’s just that empty feeling. Something is wrong, something is missing. It’s not even a middle ground between the two, it’s just that there’s two extremes without logic or reason.
That’s the problem, really with writing good-and-evil colliding – namely we start writing stereotypical good, stereotypical evil, stereotypical collisions but we’re not actually creating a world. We’re tossing tropes at other tropes in a kind of trope dodgeball to see which trope wins.
The problem with writing good-versus-evil is that we start writing the contrasts not the world.
The Dangers of Contrast
When we write contrasting or conflicting elements, when our world has conflicting factions and groups, it’s very, very easy to turn your setting into a battle of opposites. Soon you’re writing biases, assumptions, and extremes without actually building the world. The ideas you have fly apart and the more you try to hold them together because there’s nothing to hold them together, no world beneath them – the faster the ideas spin and the further they fly apart from sheer centrifugal force. It’s like thinking if you crank a wheel faster it’ll stop falling apart.
When we create conflicts in our world, it’s very easy to let the contrasts become the setting. Because we see the differences (or start with the differences), we don’t build worlds, we pile on stereotypes, tropes, and assumptions. The entire edifice can fall apart because it’s not built – it’s piles of stuff, piles our frantic efforts at resolving discrepancies only make worse. The edifice isn’t alive because it’s a pile of dead parts.
A few examples:
Once you start getting into contrasts, the contrasts can take over worldbuilding. At that point good and evil, free and oppressed, functional and dysfunctional become shallow shadows and your world become unbelievable.
Creating Good Versus Evil
In creating good versus evil, of contrasting civilizations and individuals, it’s important to go back to several truths of worldbuilding:
The Big Truths
There are two truths to take away for handling the collision of good and evil in your world.
The first big truth, is as always, that your world should be built, and infusing it with tropes and such isn’t worldbuilding, it’s making a false setting, a kind of Potemkin village of the soul. Even when good and evil conflict, it should be part of good world design
The second Big Truth is that we do enjoy and think in contrasts. That’s part of being human and of our systemic thinking. This is not always bad – so allow me to add to what I have said earlier.
In the hands of some talented authors, in the appropriate stories, contrasts are part of it. Maybe you really are doing a four-color comic world, or something full of legendary archetypes. Sometimes tropes and contrasts are the goal of what you’re doing, they’re archetypical.
But you need to do these things with your eyes open – or be aware when you go into the mode of using contrasts to see if that’s your goal. Then you can work his into your world design, and make sure it works, and is explored.
So there is a room for contrasts – consciously used. But good world design will make sure that they’re believable and understandable. If these kind of archetypical creations are not appropriate, they’re best avoided.
When good and Evil Collide, make sure you know why it’s a head-on accident, a fender-bender, or a near miss. Good wordldbuilding and a broad perspective can do this – but it needs to be combined with good self-awareness so you don’t fall into tropes and pointless contrast.
Purposeful and conscious contrast, on the other hand, can be used by the appropriately talented worldbuilder – but only when appropriate.
Otherwise, it’s just a pile of stuff.
– Steven Savage