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
So we discussed the odds of things in your world, of knowing how likely things were. Now let’s talk the thing you’re writing the most, the odds you know but don’t realize you know, and the most important part of your world and he tales in it.
In fact, I’m going to tell you that what your stories are about, your world everything about them, is about what’s normal. No matter how freaky your character, strange your plot, normal is what’s important.
And you need to know what’s Normal in your world.
The Importance Of Normal
Normal in your world is what is reliable and predictable. Gravity works, rain falls, and Dz’orgak the demon lord is made from the blood of the Fallen God which is why every ruby gem is his eye spying on your sins. Normal are those truths that your world rests on as sure as we rely on the sun rising.
Enormous amounts of worldbuilding and tales inside those worlds rely on a grounding of normal. Roadways that re reliable, swords made of metal, reproductive biology that ensure species go on, and so on are just normal – what you can count on so you can build a world of it, even if some may change Normal gives your world a foundation so it actually is something, and gives something for readers/gamers to understand and apprehend.
If there’s no sense of normal, then the world itself becomes meaningless. Now in a few cases this might be your point, but in general worldbuilding is about building – making something. Normal has to be assumed, a foundation must be there, or everything is meaningless.
Even if your world is weird to us, having a Normal means we can understand it, relate to it, and thus believe it and enjoy it. It just may be a rather odd normal.
Weird Needs Normal
This normalcy is important not just to provides believable world but to help people relate to what goes on it it – which often are anomalous events and characters.
Tales often deal with exceptions to the normal because stories are often about deviations from norms – I mean if there’s no deviation not much may actually happen to tell. This deviation could be as big as a war among galaxies or as small as a quirky set of characters at a coffee shop who are weirdos. However the normal provides the grounding to tell you what the abnormal means.
Some characters specialize in the abnormal – the policeman who investigates crimes, the warrior who fights invaders, the psychologist who deals with insanity. There’s a reason we love stories with people like that – they’re interesting as something happens. They try to restore normal (or find a new one) and that’s what the story is about.
Normal lets you understand just what the abnormality you’re often writing about means.
Sort of the normal abnormal. If you don’t know normal, these anomalies become nonsensical or worse, “inappropriately normal.”
Going Away From Normal To Get Back To It
Knowing the Normal of your world is also important to understand events and thus stories that take place in it. Most people’s travails, most tales, most great wars and small quests, are either seeking a return to normal or a new normal. Normal is also a “goal” of people to get to, even if normal only exists in their head.
Now of course this normal may not be possible, or desirable, or realistic. The normal a character or a culture may seek could be a complete delusion. Which is important because there’s normal and normal if you get my drift . . . but that’s also part of the world and your tales.
The True Normal And A Character’s Normal
Knowing what’s normal in your setting helps you understand character motivations and expectations. The average, the reliable, the likely affect people, providing a ground for what happened or a contrast to their own crazy lives. Expectations of what is normal for characters – and often what they’re seeking – comes from their ideas of normal.
Characters may have an inaccurate ideal of normal. How many times in history have we seen people long to return to “normal,” when their idea of normal was a self-deceptive mix of nostalgia and ignorance? How many do we see now?
There’s normal and then there’s the normal in our heads. We need to understand what our characters expect to be normal – and what is really going on.
In fact, characters may just not understand normal or want to. If your universe is one of magic and a scientific civilization refuses to admit this, then you may know normal – but the characters don’t. That’s quite a tale to tell, yet the whole point is ignoring normalcy.
You need to know what’s normal. Your characters well may not – which of course is part of things you’d be writing on.
Their inaccurate ideas of normal may be common enough that their abnormality is rather normal.
Audiences And Normal
Your audience will almost immediately need a set of normal expectations to understand your work – often a tricky business when you’re creating a crazy world. As noted earlier, people have a natural sense of odds and likelihood – and in turn, of normalcy. They’re going to look for it right off the bat.
Audiences can usually sense if your world has some “normal” in it. We’re good at finding coherence in settings, and if your world doesn’t have rules and its own normal, people will pick up on it. They may not care, they may not need much “normal” to figure things out (magic works, wizards blow stuff up a lot might be enough), but they need something. If you don’t give that to them, the world will lack meaning to them.
It also gets a bit tricky to communicate your setting as people have to get it, while at the same time it’s rules may be a bit odd, and you don’t want to overexplain things on top of that. That requires some careful writing of your tales, to avoid over-explaining or under-explaining the world you built.
This is ultimately where you, the world-builder, have to figure out what’s normal. Oh sure you’r not going to spell it out, but you need to know.
So how do you know your normal in your world?
I find, rather interestingly, we usually build “Normal” into our worlds by instinct. You can’t have a coherent setting without some rules and norms and so on. In fact, to try and make your setting weird enough for your goals you may have to actively make it stranger.
However, I think we’re helped in worldbuilding by being aware of normal and what’s normal. Much as when I discussed the odds, we should spend some time analyzing what is normal and expected in the world. Even if we never use it directly, it helps us build the world.
Here’s a quick guide to the Normals to look for
- The Reality Normal: What is the nature of reality. Hard science? Everything has magic in it? What does this mean for your setting (if anything). Sometimes this is boring as you say “actual physical laws, next.”
- The Setting Normal: What are the norms of your setting or settings. Drought or flood, many mountains or huge plans, and so on. This helps you build the setting, and understand how characters and cultures interact with it. If your setting has a lot of desert, the norm is “dry” and the norm also is going to be finding water.
- The Culture Normal: What is the normal for cultures characters are in, the expectations, ideas, and language. There will be both the “Norms” of the culture and the normal parts of the culture, what is expected and what is common. A culture may put great value on honesty, but may have sexism built into it that is common but rarely analyzed as it’s so regular.
- The Personal Normal: What are a characters own experiences, understandings, and so on – and how normal are they? A character may be utterly average (dare I say normal) with one outstanding trait. A characters’ experiences may differ radically from others – making them seem disconnected or perhaps making them wiser.
Note these norms are all going to play into each other. If you have a desert culture that values honesty but has the inbuilt assumption men are violent, a male character raised by water thieves as a calm master of disguise is going to really be something read. How many times will someone ask “are you sure he can keep calm pretending to be this guy?” and what plot points could you explore.
In doing worldbuilding, much as I note it helps to note odds and some of the math of your world, consider what’s normal. Definitely put it in your worldbuilding notes as a reminder for yourself so keep you grounded in what you do. It’ll remind you of what should happen – or remind you in what case it’s time for things to get abnormal.
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.