Welcome back! Or Happy . . . First Time Here? Uh . . .
Holy shit, I’m never trying to write a normal intro ever again.
Today, I wanted to get back to writer talk. I have an important life update I’ll drop on you guys, but nothing crazy . . . Well, it is crazy, but not in a bad way or a great way. It can wait.
Especially because a really good topic came to me in my weekly zoom call with other writers last Saturday.
How to use a very specific type of realistic complexity in worldbuilding.
As I brought it up to my writing buddies, I realized, Maybe this isn’t a facet of worldbuilding everyone thinks about?
To put it simply, it’s the messy, microcosm-riddled complexity of both in-world institutions and pre-story timelines.
I took a week and tried doing some research about this topic, but I was only able to turn up a bunch of basic worldbuilding tips. Which means no one (from what I saw) has talked about this before. I’m choosing to believe that’s because I’m just obsessing over miniscule facets of writing again. But whatever.
I’d like to point out that I didn’t create this concept. I learned it from watching a DM on Twitch ages ago; Adam Koebel, who possibly still DM’s for the Rollplay D&D channel, used to do worldbuilding sessions for the games he ran and after watching a few, this one aspect of his approach to worldbuilding stood out to me. I don’t remember him calling special attention to it or naming it, but I’ve come to think of it as . . .
Uncanny Mess Realism
Okay. Hear me out.
Your basic worldbuilding for the guards in a Fantasy city is this:
The guards in this city are servants of the king and they ride horses from the stables at the castle’s guardhouse.
Uncanny Mess worldbuilding for the guards in a Fantasy city is this:
The guards in this city were a mercenary faction that was employed so long by the kingdom that they were folded into the military 300 years ago (which is why they’re called “the Wolves” [I dunno–it’s 3am] and why their coat of arms is the kingdom’s sigil with a full moon behind it. Among the Wolves, there are two pretty distinct mindsets–those who love the kingdom (who grew up here or came here because they heard stories of it and are content to protect it) and those who want to be Wolves because they have “Wolf’s blood” in their family line or grew up on stories about the sell swords (and who don’t care nearly as much about the kingdom and its citizens). Also, they use horses from three different stables–Lockley’s, West End, and Minish, which are all on retainer with the king. A normal person can still buy or rent horses from those stables, but their warhorses are technically property of the crown, shared by the Wolves when necessary. Yeah, the previous queen used the castle stables to outfit the Wolves, but the current king loves horses, so the castle stables are full of his personal stock.
Basic worldbuilding for a company that makes androids is this:
Android Co. [3:30am now] makes androids in its facility in Silicon Valley! They sell androids at their fancy chain stores, and even though they are the only android manufacturer in the world, their androids are incredibly high tech and basically human.
Uncanny Mess worldbuilding for a company that makes androids looks like this:
Android Co., like the 5 other major android manufacturers, gets a lot of their parts from third party manufacturers. Considering, for example, the highest quality processors come from one company and heat sinks come from another, they have a bunch of contracts with a lot of third party firms who ship parts to their factories. Even after you take into account proprietary technology, their androids are still about 40% identical to every other android on the market. Android Co.’s major claim to fame is the hyper realistic synthetic skin they use on their products, but even that is a commissioned variant from the same firm who sells to everyone because they make the best, least creepy-looking synthetic parts.
What I’m trying to get at here is that, in the real world, organizations and institutions are very messy.
If you go to the bear enclosure at your local zoo, and you see the one brown bear you’ve always seen there, who now has *gasp* an adorable bear cub with them, the temptation is go, “Aww! He/She had a baby!?” But, in reality, that cub was possibly brought in from another zoo or a sanctuary. In fact, if you’re not particularly keen on the bears, maybe you don’t even notice that the one brown bear you’ve always seen is a totally different bear–that yours was moved to a different zoo and a new one was brought in and you’re 30 feet away and can’t tell regardless.
Okay, it’s starting to sound like I’m roasting your ability to identify bears from 30 feet away, but no–what we’re focusing on here is that zoos 100% operate like that. All organizations do.
A security firm orders their uniforms from one local outfitter that buys shirts from a different company that mass produces them. Every pizza place in New York uses boxes that don’t advertise their pizzeria. I don’t know why, but clearly, there’s some needlessly complicated reason why that happens.
That complexity is just the way organizations actually work. They are these messy chimeras of intentions, business decisions, and contracts that are constantly changing. And making the organizations in your fictional worlds operate in this way will make them weirdly realistic.
If that is something you want to do.
As always, whether to use this approach depends entirely on what you want to do with your story. I build organizations like this in my stories for the same reason that I do pre-story timelines for my characters–it just adds potential fuel to my work and sometimes influences the entire story in important ways.
Another thing to keep in mind: organizations can be as Uncannily Messy as you want. Android Co. can purchase 100% of their parts from other manufacturers and have them assembled by a contractor. Or they can ship in 10% of their parts, the rest all proprietary, made in a massive complex of factories in Canada. Obviously, all of this is your call and subject to whatever facet of realism you think fits.
But I will add that . . .
Uncanny Mess Can Also
Be Applied to Character Timelines
Obviously, Uncanny Mess is a beast of timelines; in all of the example above, it is a tool I used to flesh out the timelines of different organizations.
However, even though a character isn’t assembled at a bunch of different factories, their pasts can definitely be that complex.
Which I only say because, was I was younger, the reflex was always to be like, “And before this character walked into the plot, he was a knight. He grew up in this town, became a knight, fought in the Old War, and now he’s old. A-a-a-a-and done.”
But, really, that knight’s history should be, “He grew up in this town. Maybe right when its trade in–oh man . . . Okay. Wait. I have to come up with what they traded in. Fish? Okay. Wait. So I guess he was a fisherman’s son? Maybe that affects how he talks? Did he hate fishing? Maybe that’s why he became a knight? Or wait . . . Maybe he loved fishing but he had to leave that town anyway? Maybe he, like, fell in love with someone in the big city, but had to become a knight to gain the status necessary to marry him/her? Okay. Whatever. He was a fisherman until he was 16. Then he went on a trip with his family to the big city, maybe to deliver a bunch of fish, and that’s when he met–wait! . . . How did he get to the big city? Was it on a ship? His family probably didn’t own it, so was it a merchant’s vessel, commissioned by the king?”
I mean, look, you don’t have to be as crazy as I am when it comes to designing characters’ pasts, but the potential to find some interesting facet of a character is always somewhere back there. There could be an experience he has on that ship that inspires him to become a knight–anything from getting to see different ports to living through a pirate raid, thwarted by a royal vessel full of knights.
Again, none of this is essential. In fact, there’s a very real chance that going back and entertaining all of this for a story you’re already writing would just be detrimental.
But if you feel like your characters aren’t round enough–if you aren’t sure about their motivations or what story you want to tell through them, maybe give their past a second look.
And if you’re writing an intrigue story centered around some organization and you’re having a hard time figuring out the pieces of the plot, maybe take a second look at that organization’s past.
And make an absolute mess of all of it.
Well, that was fun.
If you’re new here, I post in this web zone every Sunday. And I’m going to try to start posting as early in the day as I possibly can, because I’ve realized that by the time I’m posting every Sunday (usually at night), I’ve always missed a spike in visitation. So I tell people to stop by, and they do–to find nothing. I feel really bad about that, so I will officially start aiming for 12am on Sundays.
So, stop by next Sunday! Or, if you would rather just avoid all of this scheduling BS, you could always follow me here (a button on the left sidebar on desktop and the top right menu on mobile) so my posts can get emailed to you.
Either way, thanks for reading. I am flirting with the idea of making audio recordings of these posts–but that’s going to rely heavily on how easy it is for me to read them/the cost of apps and equipment. If it’s not too bad, I’m throwin’ the stimmy at it.
Anyway, until next time, take care, stay safe, and hug your cats! Just a full-on hug. Unless they’d hate that–LOL. Bye!
3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About – “Uncanny Mess Realism” in Worldbuilding”
This is very helpful. Kinda formalises something that I’ve employed on an ad-hoc basis before. You need to trade-mark the concept!
Thanks, Mote! Glad to hear it helped!
Also, eh–like you said, this is a thing you already use and something a lot of people do, I imagine. More just calling it out for a younger crowd, so it’d feel weird to lay claim to it in any way.
Besides, this post will be here. If I ever sell enough books for people to come to this site in droves, they’ll find this. And then, I’ll be content to be “the one writer” who talked about “messy realism? No. I can’t remember the name. Realistically Mess–Uncanny! That was it! Uncanny Messiness in worldbuilding . . . Or something.” LOL