Constant Adventure vs. Constant Worldbuilding

A day before this posting, I finished reading Jon Mollison’s new novel, Adventure Constant, about an astronaut who gets stranded on an alternate Earth where battles are fought with swords and modern tech is nowhere to be found, but counterparts to the familiar modern nations exist. He befriends a Hawaiian warrior and agrees to help him rescue his kingdom’s princess, but little does he realize that the kidnapper has a more sinister plot in mind.

As I read this, I realized something about the tale: it forced me to evaluate settings in a new way and break out of staid thought patterns.

Adventure Constant is a story that cares so much about building a fun world that it completely junks wonkish world-building logic in favor of what sounds cool. No explanation is given for why counterparts to familiar Earth nations sprang up, you do not question why the existence of Carthage, the continued rule of the Pharaohs, and the failed colonization of Africa gave rise to similar historical events, and you do not care to hear about economic minutiae or extensive national backstories. You’re given just enough information to orient you, and the characters get back to the plot. It is yet more proof of a key tenet about fantastical tales: Worldbuilding does not matter.

Yes, you read that right. Worldbuilding doesn’t matter in the least.

The anime Dragonball Z had very little of it and went on to do very well. Pokemon has a very ad-hoc, thrown-together style to its world. There is evidence that much of J. K. Rowling’s worldbuilding was haphazard and after-the-fact, when the series was already a global phenomenon.

And we haven’t even got to the funhouse that is Marvel and DC.

One would say that only one of those is literature; it’s disingenuous to say that a video game, a line of comic books, and an anime show that detailed, Tolkien-style worldbuilding is unnecessary, especially since those properties have a worldwide reach that most works cannot hope to have. However, this does not matter; those works are enjoyed in spite of their worldbuilding flaws because they have something far more important than dull facts and figures: engaging characters (and in Pokemon’s case, engaging gameplay.) Creating characters the reader cares about matters a lot more than making sure a bunch of setting details line up because you are reading a story, not a textbook. Stories are about characters; textbooks are about information.

As Professor Awesome states, too many authors get so caught up in little setting details that they forget to make good characters, often treating them as an afterthought that can be dropped into the thick tangle of the backstory. It’s better to do as Mollison does and focus on the characters and their struggles, not the price of silver in the 15th year of Emperor Whocares’ reign. It will result in a better story overall.

I happily recommend Adventure Constant to anyone who likes an adventurous tale, well told. Buy it here on Amazon.

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16 Responses to Constant Adventure vs. Constant Worldbuilding

  1. Mary says:

    Eh, that link isn’t very good evidence for the weakness of Rowling’s world-building, since it mostly harps on the lack of PCness.

    And has some glaring flaws itself. Identifying the British with muggles, as if the wizards it complained of were not wizards.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      It was the best I could find on short notice. Rowling’s wizarding world does seem a bit thrown together, not some meticulously plotted-out thing like Tolkien.

      • Mary says:

        That it was. And what is worse, there were places in the story where — either looking back and reflecting, or even at the point of reading — you think, huh, why didn’t they do that? it’s clear that it’s possible.

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  3. MegaBusterShepard says:

    “Characters drive the story not the world”. Oh dude this on so many levels. The problem with most grand sweeping epic fantasies is that they get bogged down in the details and forget that the protagonists are the core of the story. If they aren’t fun to read about it drags down the quality of the writing. It’s probably why John Carter and Dejah Thoris are still so relevant in this day and age, because you genuinely care about what happens to them.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      I agree with this assessment. The actions of protagonists matter most.

      • MegaBusterShepard says:

        Very true. Also another good way is for the characters to relate world building through their experiences rather than a long expository info dump. Their reactions of a certain location or characters goes a long way to convey the type of environment their in rather than an impromptu history lesson.

        To be honest that kills my immersion.

        • Rawle Nyanzi says:

          I don’t mind infodumps as long as they’re kept short — just enough to orient the reader, not giving a history lesson, as you say. That being said, my own work has a pretty big infodump in Chapter 3, but it is implied that the explanation is given to all who enter the Lesser Heaven. Also, that is the only infodump.

  4. Pat D. says:

    I haven’t read Adventure Constant but that is some incredible cover art. A guy fighting ninjas with a shark-toothed club? Gimme!

  5. Andy says:

    It used to amuse me when I’d see people, some of them published authors, whine about David Gemmell’s worldbuilding. “But I’m doing worldbuilding right and his is so bad, but he’s so much more successful. Why won’t senpai notice me?!” Worldbuilding, made-up history, magic systems…all this stuff modern fantasy authors insist is how it’s done just doesn’t really matter compared to having a plain good story with interesting characters who have clear goals.

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