[The original version of this post is from Tumblr, as a series of posts on my worldbuilding project, “Super Change World,” and is being posted here because of its relevance to worldbuilding in general.]
Not every idea that I have for Super Change World makes it into the final version, of course. Even the stuff that I’m posting here is subject to revision, especially in the details, and some things stuck around for quite a long time before I got rid of them. I want to talk about two of the things I’ve removed, why I removed them, and the lessons that you can take for your own projects.
I also want to say, since we’re talking about ideas which, by definition, I’m no longer using, that everything with a “Super Change World” or “SCW”-type tag is in the Creative Commons unless otherwise noted. A lot of things that I write about won’t be applicable to your project, but if you think that something I’ve written about looks real shiny and you want to take it, then please do so. This notice, or one like it, will appear periodically, but do not take its absence to mean that I’ve changed my mind.
I’ve previously talked about how there are no humans in SCW (sort of), but this wasn’t always true. Originally, humans were actually very common and much of the shapeshifting powers of other Beings revolved around humans (e.g. selkies, who can skin you and wear that skin to take your form, weren’t just looking to get hands but were specifically trying to become human). After the majority of other Beings became weird in some way, though, I decided that humans also needed to be weird.
I considered a lot of options, some of which went into my resource book Humans Are Weird. A couple of ideas which didn’t get in there had to do with how humans come into existence: Riffing off “found in a cabbage patch” folklore, my partner suggested that human babies were found in produce fields, but it was impossible to get rid of the “cabbage patch kids” association if they were found in cabbage patches, and something bugged me when I thought about them growing in patches of another kind of plant. Eventually, these humans turned into their own kind of Being, mandrakes, and I was left once more wondering what to do about humans.
My next idea was inspired by Sky / Star People myths (because there’s a lot of myth-riffing in SCW), where humans are descended from people who themselves quite literally descended from homes in the sky. There was some civilization of humans out there, and they had built spaceships and some of them had deliberately colonized or crash-landed on this world. Another group of humans might even be living in an orbital station up in the sky or something like that, and visit from time to time.
Ultimately, however, “spacefaring humans” didn’t seem to fit the aesthetic of the setting, and in the end I scrapped that idea (at least for this setting). I’m not sure whether I or my partner originally suggested it, but somewhere in our discussions we considered the idea that humans just…didn’t exist at all, except as this weird shape that every magician knew how to create.
SCW’s lack of humans is now one of my favorite aspects of the setting, and one which I strongly consider other people try out for for their own settings. Even if humans are currently a major part of your world, take a week or two to think about how it would look if there were no humans (this is not mutually exclusive with taking a couple of weeks to imagine your world with only humans, which is also worth doing before or after you do this exercise).
Lesson #1: If an aspect of your world doesn’t seem right then continue to play around with it, even if you have to periodically go back to other parts of the project while this problem sits on the back burner. By keeping at it, you’ll come away with something that’s much better than what you had when you were tempted to say “eh, it’s good enough.”
Lesson #2: Question your basic assumptions. Some people think they need elves and dwarves or at least some kind of nonhuman in their setting, and it works fine with humans and nothing but humans. Many more people (including most of the first group) think they at least need humans, and that might be usually true, but it isn’t always. What other assumptions can you question, and how much more distinctive will your setting be for questioning them?
Originally, SCW was meant to exist alongside our cosmos. Super Change World was not a world which was just fundamentally weird, but rather a world which had not yet “settled.” It was currently mutable, and had been more mutable in the past, and at some point in the future it would become fully static, like our world, and retroactively have a static history.
The gods were a specific kind of life form which traveled through the cosmos in groups and made new worlds. Every group of gods had a god who was the sun, and the stars in the sky were also sun-gods with worlds of their own. Elves and vampires were part of this cosmic ecosystem, too, and had come from Elsewhere. The implication was that there were bears and apples and other familiar organisms in SCW because Earth had been generated through the same process as SCW, and “there are bears and apples and other things around on any given world” was just the way that things work, in the same manner that planets are round in this universe because that’s just the way that things work (at this point in development, SCW was a round planet, not a ringworld).
Then there was a shift in the deeper metaphysics of SCW (which I’ll get into on another day), and it was no longer the case that the stars had to be suns, which meant that the existence of a sun-god near SCW no longer necessarily implied that the suns located elsewhere were also gods. This meant that the stars were free to be something else, and what they ended up being were living creatures which rose into the sky at night to feed on luminiferous aether or whatever other mysterious substance exists up there (I haven’t figured that out yet).
This is really good stuff, in my biased opinion, and I hope that part of you was wondering “Why did that get removed? I really like that!” at least once in this section or the last, but you have to kill your darlings when you’re worldbuilding as well as when you’re writing, and this just didn’t fit.
That doesn’t mean that everything attached to the idea has to be removed, however. Elves are (at least at the time that I’m writing this) still a peculiar folk from Elsewhere, whose appearance, minds, and even way of interacting with the world and its laws are all a little alien. After all, the gods had to have come from somewhere, even if the nature and purpose of that arrival is no longer as straightforward. Maybe that Somewhere will turn out to have just been Here, Before Things Happened, and the gods appeared ex nihilo, but if they can appear Here then something else, somewhere else, can also appear There.
Lesson #3: I’ll say it again, kill your darlings!
Lesson #4: “I haven’t figured that out yet.” It’s okay to have holes in your setting which even you don’t know the answer to. In fact, it’s often useful to fill holes and answer questions in ways which make more holes and raise more questions. Just make sure that these holes are of the “missing information” variety rather than the “internal contradictions” variety (the difference is that the former can be fixed by expanding your setting and adding to what’s there but the latter can only be fixed by changing some part of your setting which already exists).