Sometimes creators of some of our favourite worlds run afoul of a few tiresome Worldbuilding tropes. Here are seven clichés that need to stop cropping up in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.
Header Image Credit: Dragon Age Inquistion Concept Art by Matt Rhodes. It gets a few things wrong, but overall Bioware’s Fantasy World is pretty well put together.
7. The Evil Empire of Evil Evilness
Bad Example: The Leaders of Valkyria Chronicles’ Empire, who are totally not Anime Nazis you guys. No wait, they are.
Look, we get it – we English people were kind of massive d-bags as we gallivanted our way across the world colonising stuff for our Empire. A healthy mistrust of authority is occasionally a good thing. But why is it every Empire we come across always some giant conglomerate of absolute, totalitarian evil? Why isn’t a Federation ever the dick, or a duchy, or an alliance? Nope, always an Empire. There might be some inherent douchiness to the process of creating an Empire, but please, if you’re writing about one, don’t make them this singular mass of moustache-twirling badness. Give it some layers. Make some conflict. Anything but another Evil Empire.
6. Faux-Medieval Europe
Bad Example: Dragon Age’s Thedas skirts around this one. It’s not geographically Europe (although if you flip it upside down you kinda get something like it), but you’ve got your vaguely English guys, your vaguely Spanish Guys, your vaguely French Guys and your occasional vaguely Irish/Welsh guys.
This one’s a bit specific to Fantasy settings, but there’s nothing like a bit of Medieval Europe for your Fantasy, right? I mean, look at all the guys who did it excellently, your Tolkiens and your Martins and your what-have-you. But that’s not all Fantasy has to be. Author John Wiswell wrote a particularly great rant a few years ago on the overuse of Fake-Europe in fantasy worldbuilding:
But if you’re not fascinated with it, if castles and rolling hills are simply all you’ve seen lately, if you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings flicks and want to make your own — then don’t write another Medieval Fantasy. Fantasy ought to be a non-denominational cathedral to the imagination, where any idea, no matter how impossible in reality, can flourish and enliven us. It’s not about new sub-genres, but about use of your pages. China Mieville ought to be one colourful brick in a mosaic of new materials.
Fantasy can encompass so many different themes and environments. Yet another round of Ye Olde Europe-e is getting awfully boring.
5. Insert Apostrophe Here For Exoticness
Bad Example: Stargate both messed up and used this one correctly – Apostrophised names like Teal’c and Rya’c where the apostrophe is used to denote an honorific or surname are all right, but then you get the Goa’uld, Tok’ra, Zat’nik’tel guns and Tau’ri…
Unless you’re using an apostrophe correctly, keep them out of your names. There’s nothing more clichéd than characters t’alk’ing li’ke they’re (see that one’s needed!) bl’oo’dy id’iots. Like all linguistic tools when you’re creating new worlds, punctuation should have a point, and not be liberally sprinkled over every world just for some visual flair on something that’s written down. That is, unless you’re writing about a race of perpetual stutterers.
4. The Single-Use World
Bad Example: Almost every Star Wars planet ever. Forest Moon! City World! Ice World! Desert World! Water World!
Although you might have a world that’s been terraformed for one specific purpose – see the Tea plantation planet of the excellent Ancillary Sword – but it’s not natural or smart to have a world that is made up of a single ecosystem. The worlds you make should be diverse and interesting places, not singular masses. This doesn’t just go for ecology and environments, but the races that inhabit them too (more on that later).
3. Common Nouns out the Wazoo
Bad Example: Destiny, Bungie’s latest shooter. You know, the one where The Guardians must wield The Light given to them by The Traveller at The Tower (where you can talk to The Traveller’s emissary, The Speaker) to fight The Darkness and go to The Black Garden because The Stranger told you to, and… ugh, you get
the point The Point.
Naming things is fun, and while yes, referring to it with an unspecific Common noun (usually prefaced by a ‘The’) to it can give a a setting or a concept a sort of grandeur to a name, but if you over do it – like the examples from Destiny above – it just makes you sound rote and unoriginal.
2. The Homogeneous Race (That’s never Humanity)
Bad Example: A lot of different races in both sci-fi and Fantasy can fall into this trope, but let’s go with the classic granddaddy of them all with Tolkien’s Elves, who are all snooty nature lovers, or his dwarves, who all love gold and live underground, or his Hobbits, who are all simple agricultural folk.
A similar lack of diversity that leads to single-use worlds can also happen to whole species too – this can be especially common in sci-fi when a whole planets are seemingly populated by one homogenous mass of the same people without nations or alliances or any sort of diversity, but it can affect anyone. A race without different political identities or religions or nations or any sort of grouping is one without much culture to it or any sort of interest. If everyone is all the same or of the same disposition and all agree about something, where’s the the interest in that? Races should be multi-dimensional and nuanced, not sweeping generalisations made flesh.
Bonus points if this is contrasted with Humanity being lauded and portrayed as a diverse and multi-cultural race and are special because of said diversity. If you can write diverse humans, why not any other diverse race?
1. The Precursor Civilisation
Bad Example: Halo’s Precursors. They’re not even Halo’s only Precursor race, theres another called the Forerunners (seen above). Precursors for everyone!
Want some instant Worldbuilding? Bam! Someone (usually super advanced) was here before, did everything before, served as the basis for all the technology that present races have, and are usually involved in whatever the current plot is for some reason (usually because they were probably taken out by the current Big Bad in an endless cycle of everything that has happened before, happening again). Not only is it a sort of cheap shorthand to instantly add depth to a world, it also seems to have been the hot new thing in the past few years that’s seen several properties latch onto it and try their hand. Not everything has to have happened before!