"Diffence, Context, Process": Lessons in Worldbuilding from My History Advisor - Part 1: The Big Question

The Historian.jpg

When I was an 18 year-old college freshman, I enrolled in "Introduction to World Civilizations I" with Prof. Scott Smith.  I was only a few months removed from having been so successful as a history student at my (very) tiny high school that I was tasked with teaching sessions of underclassmen history courses as a way to keep me engaged.  As a result, I figured I was pretty hot stuff and "World Civ" would be my first chance to show a college history professor how awesome I was.

Turns out, Prof. Smith was not so easily impressed.  The first time I gave some smartassed know-it-all response to a question he told me that it wasn't enough.  He said I needed to think deeper, beyond just restating facts.  It was the first time, that I could remember, that my teacher didn't immediately praise my thinking on history.  I would eventually get that praise and recognition from Prof. Smith, but (thankfully without resorting to "hardass prof." stereotypes) he made me earn it.

My mentor and friend, Scott Smith.

My mentor and friend, Scott Smith.

Over the course of four years, I took many more classes with Scott (I eventually earned the privilege of calling him by his first name) and traveled with him to Russia as part of a intensive class in Soviet and post-Soviet history.  The title for this post comes from the mantra he made our Historical Methods class repeat as the core of historical study, but it applies just as well to creating fictional settings.

When I graduated in 2006, I gave him the stole from my robe as symbol of how big a role he had getting me to that point.

Scott died of cancer in July.  Earlier this week,  Linfield College (my alma mater) held a memorial for him on campus that I was too sick to attend.  So for a tribute, I decided I'd spend the next two weeks writing about some of the lessons he taught me* that I use when creating cultures, races, and worlds for RPGs. 

Asking the Big Question

The most important question in history and worldbuilding is not what happened, nor is it when or where it happened.  In most modern history, where, what and when are fairly reliably recorded.  This is also true when creating a fictional world.  The record a writer creates for their worlds is flawless in a way that even the best history can't be.  If I decide that X event happened in Aimsir or A.R.G.O., I cannot be wrong. Even if the version I present to readers may be deliberately unreliable or skewed, I can know exactly what happened if I want to.

Even who and how, which are far more nuanced questions than the above, can only get you so far.  To see what I mean, let's look at the following narrative with just the what, where and when with the occasional who and how, but missing "the big question."

*Spoilers for GOT and SOIAF... I guess*.

Ned Stark resided in Winterfell. Ned Stark leaves Winterfell by riding a horse.  He arrives in Kings Landing and is named Hand of the King.  He does research and learns that Prince Joffrey is not the son of King Robert's, but of Queen Cersei's brother.  Ned warns Cersei that he knows this.  King Robert dies without Ned getting an opportunity to tell him.  Ned ask Littlefinger to help him make Robert's brother king and Littlefinger agree.  When Ned goes to take the throne, Littlefinger sides with Cersei and Ned is arrested.  Ned negotiates a deal with Cersei to be released to guard The Wall at the edge of the North, but Joffrey decides to execute him.  Illyn Payne kills Ned with the sword called Ice which Ned used to own.
Seriously, Ned?

Seriously, Ned?

Besides the obvious lack of George R.R. Martin's superior prose, that is a boring way to think about Ned's story because it doesn't answer The Big Question.

By now, you probably know what The Big Question is and having been screaming at me to just say it:   "Why?"

Why does Ned go to King's Landing to work for King Robert?  Why does he warn Cersei? Why does Littlefinger betray him? Why did he trust Littlefinger in the first place?  Why? WHY???????????

It's one of those things that always appears in advice for writers and it's the reason actors are so concerned with their characters motivations.  Answering, or at least asking, why somebody does what they do is what makes a story interesting and... for lack of a better word... human.  

Granted, when presenting a narrative to an audience, we don't need to answer every why or even make our answers explicit.  You probably asked and answered some of the whys in the narrative above based on past experience or knowledge.  For example, you probably don't need me to tell you why it matters who Joffrey's father is, but it is still a why that needs to be asked and answered to understand the story of Game of Thrones. The fact that the audience instinctively fills in some whys is a great example of how important why really is.

The same is true when creating a society, culture, or civilization for a fictional setting.  Why do the Kontio, who we explored last week put so much effort into gathering supplies and preparing for disaster?  Because their leaders got a mystical vision of an apocalypse.  Why do Sandhoppers paint strange marks on their fur?  To show that they  have accomplished something of value to their band.

Of course that brings up the questions of "why do the Kontio trust these visions?" or "why use painted symbols to signify achievement?" And then, possibly, a why that explores deeper, and then one deeper than that.  These whys, what I'll call the "deep whys," are the questions that are vital to creating a world that feels as though it is occupied by believable people making believable choices.


Deep Whys are the heart of good history, good storytelling, and good worldbuilding.  But what stops us from asking "why" in response to every answer until we sound like a stereotypical toddler?  Next week, I will attempt to answer that by going bit deeper into answering the Deep Whys and talk about the framework I use when creating societies, cultures, and races for use in gaming.

If you would like to support education and the memory of an excellent teacher and historian, Scott Smith's family has set up a fund at Linfield College, here.  When asked the gift designation, choose other and write "Scott Smith."   You can also find Scott's book, Captives of Revolution: The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolshevik Dictatorship, 1918–1923 on Amazon. 


*Scott would want me to give credit where it is due so I will note that many of these lesson are additionally derived from the ideas of "Thick Description" found in the anthropological works of Clifford Geertz and others that have seeped into the study of history.  It also references the works of historians like John Tosh, and Robert Darnton.

My usual nerd audience might remember Darnton as the guy who wrote "The Great Cat Massacre" which included the creepy 18th-century version of Little Red Riding Hood that Neil Gaiman referenced in "The Kindly Ones."