Worldbuilding: By Your Powers Combined

Many adventure-type stories center around survival, and by default most survival books and methods you run into are created with the core idea of, “what can you do alone?” Because the worst-case scenario for survival is that you are alone, with no one else to pick up tasks you falter at. And you have to be prepared for that, or possibly die.

But if a writer just uses these for their adventure research, I think they introduce a critical weakness into the story. As in, even if they have a cast of characters together fighting monsters, evading space aliens, or wandering through the zombie apocalypse, somehow they all seem to be fighting alone.

This is not how humans work. Humans form groups. For better or worse. Divide up tasks, generally with good reasons behind it. Mary’s a better long-distance shot, let her snipe the most dangerous zombies from a distance. Bill’s half-blind without his glasses but a great axeman, put him into the best leather we’ve got (human teeth don’t tear that well) and have him work clean-up. Sarah falls apart with even a hint of adrenaline, but she’s got great concentration and attention to detail; have her handle the medical supplies, sterilizing instruments, dosages. Dave’s got the head for numbers and maps, let him take point on suggesting where we might go to resupply….

And on, and on. Surviving alone is worst case. Surviving in a group, you rely on each other to cover your weak points. And you learn theirs, so you can move in and start picking up the slack before anyone gets so tired or scared that they forget to ask for help. If you’re writing a group of characters, yes, you have to think of how to portray each person so they stand out in the reader’s eyes. But you also have to think of how they interact as a group.

Maybe this is a rag-tag bunch of misfits you just threw together, and they don’t know each other’s strong and weak points yet, or how to fix them. Okay, doable. Leverage might be a good show to check out, as an example of a group learning to work together as a group. Or any buddy cop show that starts with an unlikely pair thrown together. X-Files, definitely.

For real humor I recc the ep “Bad Blood”, where we get a “he said/she said” version of the events that took place, and then the finale shows bits of how they were both wrong – and right.  I still get a cackle of the usual “location typing at the bottom of the picture” printing out “Davy Crockett Motor Inn” at Scully’s annoyed voice.

Mulder: “Actually, it was the Sam Houston Motor Lodge.”

Cursor: Stops, backspaces out the first, types in “Sam Houston Motor Lodge.”

Ahem. Think of your group of heroes. Think of what each one can do alone… and what they can do if two or more of them work together.

One fireman can’t hold a hose and run a ladder and watch for falling debris. Two? Three? Now you’re talking….


26 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: By Your Powers Combined

  1. Higher level–

    In D&D and monster hunter stories you often have a group that built to fight everything.

    Plausible if intelligence is infeasible, if anyone close enough to id the monster must fight to the death, but not when it’s not.

    Does allow more variation in the story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The thing you can do with a group to make the story “harder” even if they’re all OP is split the group up. That way the two sub-groups now have holes in their skill-sets someone else in the group can’t automatically fill. Of course, a group with good management might know that’s a risk and have planned for that…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I usually build a more generalist character, because I’m building not for “optimal” results, but for “this character is actually a real character living in that world.” This makes my characters somewhat weaker on average (amount dependent on system), but at least I rarely have to stuff I am completely unable to cover for (except at low level).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Or even just “you’re a night hawk and are least likely to fall asleep on night watch, as long as we don’t wake you before noon the next day”. Which is one theory why we have different circadian rhythms today! Someone had to watch for lions overnight… (Do I believe it? Eh, makes as much sense as anything I suppose…)

    Liked by 4 people

      1. An then we rearranged our social expectations and built a world that caters to the /morning/ people, and if you aren’t truly functional until 10/11 am (or later) then you /must/ be lazy…

        Liked by 5 people

      2. Worse, town morning people! [grumbles in ranch kid]

        It’s taken me years to get to where I wake up late enough to where “store opens at ten” isn’t hitting my natural lull-point to get ready for lunch– and “meetings start at 7:30pm” is similarly not functional, even now.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes well, I approach it from the opposite direction. My body is convinced that swing shift and graveyard are the perfect hours to be awake and active— the majority of the world doesn’t cater to that. And the job market isn’t as kind to the people who do work those shifts.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. :sympathy: One of our daughters has your natural sleep cycle, too. (It’s very useful during calving season, too– someone who is *able* to be alert in the middle of the night can save a lot of newborns.)

        The standardizing-just-to-standardize time thing is just stupid.

        Especially since those two shifts are the ones that tend to have the highest productivity, exactly because they don’t have as many customers– at least, not after they get the last rush of the people who are working during normal business hours.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. :reads post: THAT’S IT!!! That’s why so many shows today are so darn bothersome, and one of the stand-out items in anime. Anime characters work together to *help each other* on and off the field, because to know others’ weaknesses on the field means to know them *off* the field FIRST.

    It’s also why spy shows drive me up the wall; surviving alone amidst lies and treachery is not nearly so difficult when you have a group you can *trust* backing you up, and a spy is practically surviving alone by dint of “can’t trust anyone – not even my boss and colleagues, as they could be spies, too.” The spy is just in a maze full of potentially murderous people rather than alone in a desert.

    And a number of writers are retreating to spy-style thrillers and stories *even when there’s a team* backing the hero up. ARGH.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Burn Notice argh.

      Granted, I’ve only seen a season or two of it. But the eps where he’s relying on other people to help are so much more satisfying!

      And heh. I think this is going to be a minor theme in Colors; both main characters are used to “going it alone”, and have to learn to rely on other people when they can’t. Which, I hope, will build over several stories to situations where both Lee Cheong and Jason are actually extremely effective when forced into lone survival situations, because they’ve learned things from everyone else.

      (I have a recurring image in my head of Jason vs. werewolves. And he handles them, managing to take at least one surrendered one alive… and half the fun for the reader, I hope, will be by this time he’s so used to what Callers do that he’s shocked when someone points out that was absolutely terrifying to watch.)

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Thing about the concept of ‘clownworld’, is that it describes a behavior pattern that at times may seem to be a maze of potentially murderous people. It is not actually a maze of potentially murderous people, but the breakdown of usual markers for navigation, and of usual markers for us/them, tribe, and danger makes it very easy to take that way.

      One answer that story writers can have is writing an actual maze of murderous strangers. Quite a lot of those are jerks, and are not writing darkness in order to show light.

      Right now, I kinda want stories that are a bit more reasonable, and are very far away from mazes of murderous folks.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. One story that can be understood as focusing on the light in such scenario is Spy x Family.

    But, that very clearly is establishing that a stranger, who every reasonable indicator would suggest is murderous, is not that way. And it is mutual.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. What’s really frustrating is when they have companions, but they don’t use them because the MC can do everything.

    After all, if that one is really good at using an axe, doesn’t that mean the MC is less good?
    That’s almost bad!
    And they can’t be bad at anything!
    So they go out of their way to show that they’re great at using an axe.

    And when they do cooperate, there’s the expectation that everyone has to contribute, so you end up with the Eigen Plot where each character fights one miniboss that’s perfectly matching them.

    You could totally show differential contribution.
    The torchbearer might not be doing as much as the others, but they’re still critical.
    Or the person hanging in reserve might not ever be needed at all.

    That allows you to have a group with diverse skillsets, but not have to jump through hoops on every story arc trying to shoehorn everyone in.

    The medic is a very important part of the team, but they’re perfectly happy being useless on a mission.
    That means things went well.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Maybe this is a rag-tag bunch of misfits you just threw together, and they don’t know each other’s strong and weak points yet, or how to fix them. Okay, doable. Leverage might be a good show to check out, as an example of a group learning to work together as a group. Or any buddy cop show that starts with an unlikely pair thrown together. X-Files, definitely.

    One thing that you can do, that hardly anybody DOES, is have someone roll up their metaphorical sleeves and take over preparation for Dropped In Together camp, on screen.

    So, you have a group of new people. And they’re together. K, why? Well, they just survived. They’re hungry, and tired, and kinda scared.
    Well, I don’t know about you, but in that case– I want a fire, and I want food. And I probably want to feed people because taking care of people and also everyone together and also doing something.
    And I will tell people to, say, clear out this area for a fire pit, or pick up some branches nearby, and frankly I can and will go full on interrogation if I think it’s needed. (Especially if I am spooked, because Doing Something reaction.)

    I am not going to be a leader, but give me a job and I’ll figure out how to do it, and am willing to grill folks to find out what they can do. Especially if they’re kind of shell shocked and need to be pulled out of it.

    This setup is helpful dramatically because you get to establish characters, how they will describe their skills, and you set up a conflict that can be resolved effectively. Because Bossy Girl is not a great leader, although Team Mom can be a good guide– have Tactical Person get involved, say, by Bossy’s pushing stepping on something that matters to him.
    The 90s TMNT team did a pretty good job of various character types, especially since their Mentor character did most of the team mom stuff, and it wasn’t instantly obvious who was doing leadership things. (It’s also a fun way to figure out what kind of a person you’re dealing with, if they think Raphael was The Leader or not. The arguments are epic!)

    Adding new people to the team?

    Same kind of dynamics can be involved– and don’t be afraid to duplicate skills, that lets you have two people doing a job, which means you can have interaction.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. “And I will tell people to, say, clear out this area for a fire pit, or pick up some branches nearby, and frankly I can and will go full on interrogation if I think it’s needed.”

      That is certainly something that is missing in most such scenarios in stories.

      What we get instead is “Some dude tries to get things organized and some other guy says ‘you aren’t the boss of me’ and then everything falls apart.” *Stern look at JJ Abrams and LOST*

      The response to “you’re not the boss of me” that no one ever seems to use is “Okay, if you have a better idea, we’re all ears.”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. :deletes a very long and detailed section:

        Yeah, it’s like they’ve never BEEN around any kind of actual Problem to observe what people do, and who it is that starts telling people to do stuff.

        The other common response to “you’re not the boss of me” is “and I’m not your servant. You expect to sit by the fire, help make camp. We have things to do.”

        They also are really fond of having “The Leader” or “The Strongman” being the person who does this stuff, when it’s more likely to be “The Medic.”


    2. This was one of the good parts of the old versions of the Swiss Family Robinson. When they got dropped in it, even while fearing for their survival, the father stepped up and _got them organized_, and through example taught the rest how to respond to new situations like that.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. One notes that in superhero comics, the superhero teams’ idea of teamwork is pairing off against the supervillains correctly. Somewhat more when there’s a lone villain, of course.

    Justice by Jim Krueger and Alex Ross does it better.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A second factor to team situations, even before and aside from individual specialties covering different areas, is that some things are gated behind “sufficient X”. Many of those _can_ be worked around by building the right tools (say, for example, a hoist to lift and hold logs while building a wall), but often it can more quickly and simply (and without needing to take time to build all the tools first) be brute forced by simply adding more hands (even not overly skilled/strong/etc ones).
    One skilled person trying to build a wall alone, in a survival situation, will probably need more time (that is _needed desperately_ for more important survival tasks) than three or four mostly unskilled people working as a team (so long as they’re not critically ignorant of the worst dangers during building). Specialization really becomes most useful once you move on into long-term survival, which is conveniently also when you’ve had the time to actually learn a bit about what everyone is capable of.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. *Waggles hand* A lot of light novels have the same “lone hero does everything” slant, unfortunately. I think it’s mostly a problem with newer writers in the west who’ve never had to work in groups to do even slightly dangerous things.


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