Posted on by Steven Savage


(Way With Worlds Runs Weekly at MuseHack and Seventh Sanctum)

So last time I noted how David Brin had gotten me discussing the idea of the Idiot Plot or the Planet Of Morons – the idea the hero(es) are the only things saving the world, which is also corrupt and stupid.

The thing with this plot is it degrades society – and degrades the characters and the world. It makes the heroes stupidly unbelievable, it makes the villains shallow or uninteresting, it makes the world improbable.. It’s in short dumb and inaccurate and psychologically toxic when it’s everywhere.

But I’d like to expand on this in what is hopefully my last Heroes and Villains post on worldbuilding. Yeah, I know, unlikely, but still.

Namely, if you don’t resort to the Idiot Plot and the Planet of Morons (and you won’t, right?), here’s my thoughts on how to make the story or game interesting while preserving world integrity. Because you do want to engage the reader, but you also want to have a good, believable world setting.

First, let’s get to the heart of the matter.

The Core Truth

The core truth of combining good writing and good worldbuilding is to make sure your cast are essentially the best people to tell the story. Being selective and planning well early on can keep you from falling into tropes.  As your world and characters flesh out, you make sure that you’ve got the right cast to tell your tale, make your game, etc.

Decide on how the world works, how the story goes, and then pick the best perspectives, or ensure your worldbuilding supports your narrative choices.

It’s back to “Lenses.”

The best “hero” in your book is someone who:

  1. Has the most believable influence on the outcome.
  2. Has the best perspective on the situation.

There of course may be multiple heroes. They may see things at different time. You have to switch perspectives. You may have to fudge a bit for narrative to get them together at the right way(believably of course). But those two rules help you make sure your heroes are really, well, heroes – and good characters to tell the story.

They also open up opportunities. The guy that makes the vaccine against the alien bioweapon and the two-fisted grunt who delivers it are both heroes – and their interaction could be fascinating.  Maybe a “secondary” hero is so good at providing perspective they tell the tale (Dr. Watson, anyone?).  These two traits could lead to a plethora of realizations, plot, and character opportunities.

Now as for the villains. The best villain is someone who:

  1. Has the most believable influence on the negatives of the situation
  2. Has the most invested in the negative outcome.

Note of course the villain doesn’t have to be “evil” here, or think of themselves as evil. They just are invested in and causing whatever adversity is going around.

Now to make things easier, a few models I use hat don’t involve Planet Of Morns to explain the hero/villain thing.

Try These Heroes

  • Right Person Wrong Place – A great hero is one who is the right person (skilled, etc.) having to cope with whatever adversity comes up. A lot of real-life heroes are like this – you don’t often know you were the “good guy” until after.
  • Get The Band Together – Often it’s a legion of people making things happen, so maybe your tale or game is an ensemble cast thing.
  • Ready And Possibly Willing – If adversity approaches someone may be groomed to be the hero – they’re essentially a weapon. They also have supporting heroes in those that made them what they are.
  • Sliding Saviors – It may not be the heroes all work together, but each has a role to play in fixing things. Maybe your narrative hands off between them, or you have an evolving group of protagonists. That combines easily with other models.
  • This Is My Story – If there’s no major heroes but many, pick a good “lens” and look at one of the people making things work. Perhaps you scale back from a global story and tell it from one perspective.
  • We’re The Legion – Sometimes a group of people are rained/made into heroes, such as a military unit. THis is a great chance to have an ensemble, a hero (the leader or a specific member of the team), or slide between.

Try These Villains

  • Wrong Person Right Place – Maybe the villain is someone taking advantage of a situation. The power is there, they got to take it, and problems start.
  • I Am Trouble– A series of events (trauma, war, medical experiments, poor upbringing) end up creating someone specifically meant to create trouble (even if it wasn’t the intent).
  • Top Of The Creep Heap – There’s always people conspiring together for good or bad. One of the bad ones may come to the top and be the villain by default they’re the leader of a band of a-holes.  They may not cause all the problems, but can be a pretty good central villain.
  • For Love Of Evil – Maybe out of the band of people messing things up one person is the most interesting to explore and study, if there’s a “bad guy point of view.”
  • Down The Spiral – In a case of a real meltdown type situation, it may be that there’s plenty of people who are villains, and its hard to say who is the bad guy. A post-apocalyptic or conspiracy story may fit this.

Note that none of these ideas require the world to be dumb, or in cahoots with evil, or the hero to be some Omnicompetent amazing person. It’s just a perspective that fits your setting designs, your world, and the right people.

Worth A Thought

I find these various viewpoints are useful because they make you think – about writing, about people, about setting. In turn, it’s not just that you become a good writer, but think about the world you made – and perhaps our world as well.

A good world is a giant, whirling thing, all parts fitting together in an amazing ballet. It spins stories constantly if you make it well. Then you get the painful thrill of deciding how to relate them.

But when you think about who the hero really is, who the villain really is, you get to know the world better and often surprise yourself as well as the readers. And that’s always worth it.

Oh, and your story doesn’t resort to an annoying trope that can go die in a fire. Which is good.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at

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