Worldbuilding: People Like Us

I was watching an episode of Unfettered Shogun, many of whose episodes can be found here on And it struck me how many tropes we think of as modern were here in 1700s guise. Traveling entertainers who are actually seeking information on the whereabouts of someone who “mysteriously disappeared”. Said lost at sea guys actually being the kidnapped experts who created the Secret Formula! (How to make expensive white sugar from local brown sugar.) A dogged investigator tracking down details that indicate Foul Play has occurred. There was even a case of “impersonate the chauffeur”; a ninja knocked out a boatman and took over poling so he could listen in on the Evil Plotting.

It had, in short, everything you might want out of a heist or detective show. Just in Tokugawa Japan, with swordfights instead of a shootout.

And that’s the way stories should be. The setting and cultures may change, but whatever your story, people are still people. Ancient Egyptians tried baldness cures. Victorians had nipple piercings. I have no doubt that colonists in the next solar system we get to will be checking the news flimsies for the latest 3D vid star gossip, border skirmishes between Mars and the Belt, and their lucky numbers.

I think this gets lost in a lot of fantasy and SF. On the one hand, fair; if you’re writing a Heroic Story you may not want to get bogged down in all the petty details of people keeping up with the Joneses. (Or the Rameses.) On the other hand….

“The Fate of the World is At Stake!” only gets you so far. You can tell one, maybe a couple Grand Stories that way. And they can be great stories! Who doesn’t love Star Wars, or ID4?

But if you want to make a long series with recurring characters, the kind readers and viewers know they can kick back with again and again… you may want more human-scale problems. Jewel thefts. A family get-together that has to go right; or at least not so wrong the fire department’s called in. Illegally imported bunnies.

(That last is how A Swift Kick to the Thorax starts. Sample looks good; plan to get the book when I can.)

People love stories larger than life. But they also love seeing people like them – maybe a little prettier, maybe a little luckier – come up against the most annoying of life’s problems and find some kind of solution. Whether that solution is getting swept off your feet by a noble alien warlord or setting the boss’ car on fire is up to you.

I personally have a taste for “rewarding good and punishing evil”, which is clearly seen in Unfettered Shogun. But I’m also good with Zankuro, another jidaigeki where the low-ranking samurai so named scrapes out an unconventional living a la Harry Dresden or Jim Rockford, never able to do more than break even when the next bill comes due. But he has friends, and at least he does manage to break even. We should all be that lucky.

Make your worlds fantastic. Make your stories awesome. But never forget your characters are people. And when you deal with people, with all their drama and weirdness… you never know what might happen next!

9 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: People Like Us

  1. Little wins are a big draw for me. Sure grandiose is good and all, but seeing characters trying to etch out a living for themselves, or finally break a streak of bad luck with one little thing are what really pull me in.

    Explains a lot about my own characters. None of them want to save the entire world, just their small part of it.

    And if that get others to try and save their obigwig, and others and so on…*That* to me is a big win.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’ve had more trouble with writers who can’t imagine people who are different. People who really believe that they are subordinate to their social superiors and that democracy is dumb. That the family business is a duty. That the gods are real and the rites important.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Had a similar experience reading War and Peace. It’s basically a soap opera, just with the entire 8+ seasons all in one book.

    The one that struck me was it had the original boy crazy French maid. Except, in context she was a much more real character. The only thing she thought about was how to get a husband, and she would pretty much give up anything to be able to marry into the nobility, but these were real concerns for her, and the character acted on them in believable ways.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. War and Peace makes so much more sense once you realize it *was* released chapter by chapter… just like a Tv Series. And now everyone is trying to binge-watch it after there’s too many seasons to do so properly!

      My high school literature teacher *did* manage to get us to read it… by having us skip all the stuff about Napoleon that wasn’t a part of the soap opera back in Russia. That cuts down a good chunk of the book length and keeps the plot from stalling at random points.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Yeah. There were whole chapters at the end I just flipped through because they were just long author monologues about geopolitics.

    I did not know it was released serialy. I had thought he’d written it mostly in reverse?

    As I understood it, he wanted to write a story about the Novemberists, and felt he had to get into the backstory of how the characters got to that point, which ended up turning into War and Peace, and I sort of figured the long politics rambles were the initial world building from that before the book got out of control?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. War and Peace has a very… odd… composition history, including several drafts of it!

      The first draft was finished in 1863, but it wasn’t until 1865 that it was published serially. This serial publication was finished in 1867 but… Tolstoy didn’t like this version and heavily rewrote the entire novel between 1866 and 1969! This version had a very different ending than the serialized version. This then got published as the actual *book* War and Peace.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Dry socks.

    I can’t remember what it even was in– but someone got a pair of dry socks and were so pleased that it really sold the character to me, because usually you just get told “this is painful and/or uncomfortable” and then nobody DOES anything about it.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. The Summon Bigger Fish style writing is why I got out of 9-1-1. Their disasters kept getting more and more over the top, especially the season premiers. Each one had to top the one before it, and it just got to be too much for me. The started getting to Final Destination level complexity, if not always lethality.

    Liked by 1 person

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