This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
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:
- If you’ve ever been a fan of old films or literature, you’ll remember how many characters smoked. That changed over the years, and a friend of mine (who smoked) once bitterly complained that smoking had become the mark of the bad guys. Contrast had reigned in a small way -but he had a point.
- The “perversion pile-on.” How many times do you see a villain or antagonist written as a walking pile of mental illness, questionable sexual habits, and so on. They eventually become unbelievable as you wonder how many one could function (and hasn’t died of multiple social diseases, a drug overdose, or liver failure).
- How many times are Rebel’s allays the good guys? There’s often that assumption in many a tale or world or game, despite the fact that real-life history hs its share of rebel groups who want more oppression, control, and are generally jerks. I recall the Zero Punctuation review of FTL, where reviewer Yahtzee commented how odd it was to see the Rebels as bad guys – it was that unusual.
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:
- Everything happens for a reason. Your good guys, your Kingdom of Light, is there for a reason. So are the bad guys and the Empire Of Massive Oppression. They are both spawned from one parent – the larger setting. Focus on why.
- Sustainability. Things have to last and exist for a reason – you’re not exactly going to have the Hero defeat the Empire Of Starving Peasants because realistically he won’t have to (unless someone is propping up the Dysfunctional Empire). Sustainability and stability are needed or your good kingdom or your evil imperium won’t exist long enough for anything to happen. I find being aware of sustainability in settings helps mitigate extremes very well.
- Perspective. History usually teaches us that people don’t always realize what colossal a-holes they are, and nations, empires, and groups are often the same way. This is vitally important in making things realistic and in both understanding the “why” of your setting and the sustainability of its elements. Maybe the Evil Kingdom is sustainable as, after once being invaded, the people there will do anything for stability and protection, including endure oppression and attack their neighbors.
- Direct conflict is not inevitable. Many nice people, good folks, and benevolent nations have happily put up with evil, with bad folks, and even secretly worked with enemies. Good and Evil don’t always collide, sometime they strike a deal and hold hands under the table – for awhile, because . . .
- Conflict itself is inevitable. However, conflict among different groups is usually inevitable simply as goals don’t align. Temporary alliances will fray – and many are temporary. A look at history will tell you how often this happens – and that also helps you spot when conflict happens in your story. Sure the Benevolent Solar Empire and the Tyrant of Pluto struck a deal, but neither truly trusts the other, so at some point . ..
- There’s more than two sides to every story. The why and how of things is always a bit more complex. Explore your settings and characters, even the evil and foul ones, make them believable, and you’ll learn a lot. It makes a good world, good tales – and any conflicts that to evolve much the richer.
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
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.