Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Creating Believable Societies

My oldest has been obsessed with Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon lately, and I’ve been sick this week, so not only have I allowed my kids to watch a little more TV than normal, I’ve been watching it with them.  I was very happy that they wanted to watch something that I love so much.

I’ve blogged about the series before, but I think that there are so many great lessons from this series that I have a few more blog posts written in my head that I might share soon as well.  But this time I watched the series, I paid close attention to the world-building.

The world-building is excellent in this series.  It matches the tone and spirit of the story being told, which is far more important than being realistic.  There is a lot thought and details that went into to creating the world, but for this post, I want to look at the societies that were created and why they worked.

I’ve blogged before about world-building basics, but this time, I want to focus on how to make those made up societies feel real using examples from Avatar the Last Airbender.

1.  Think about how your speculative element would affect the day to day life in your societies.

There has to be a reason why your story cannot be told in our world.  It could be a complex magic system or a different history or religion, but there has to be something otherwise why not just place the story in our world, sure make the world building a lot easier.  J

No matter what the elements are in the story that necessitates an alternate world, how those elements affects the society must be thought out carefully.  The society will feel real if it has logically adapted to those speculative elements.

For example:  in Avatar The Last Airbender, there are four kingdoms each based on the element (water, earth, fire, and air) that individuals in each race can bend (manipulate).  I found it interesting how the bending of the different elements affected the society of each nation.

The location of each nation is related to their bending element.  The Water Nation had tribes at the North and South poles, surrounded by water and ice.  The Wind Nomads had temples on mountains and cliffs.  The Fire Nation settled on a string of islands created by volcanoes, and the Earth Nation lived pretty much everywhere else.

I also love how the bending plays into the day to day life of the societies.  How the walls surrounding the great cities in The Earth Kingdom don’t have any gates, earth benders bend the earth in the walls to let people in and out, and the Northern Water Tribe does the same thing with walls of ice.  The mail delivery system in the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu uses a system of tubes and shoots that requires earth bending to get packages up, and the Fire Lords throne is protected by a wall of flames.  These little details of using bending in the daily lives of the people in different nations is what makes the world feel real.

It is important to think about the magic in the world or the technology or religion or whatever elements you add to the world you’re creating and decide how the people would use them to adapt, and how those elements would affect the daily lives of those live in that world.

There is no right or wrong, only what is logical.  There are a million different ways the creators of Avatar could’ve gone, for example:  the water tribe could’ve settled on islands or a rain forest or on floating cities on lakes or oceans, but the settling at the poles makes perfect sense too.  All you need to do is choose a logical direction and add those little details, and the society will feel real even if it is far from realistic.

2.  Don’t make any race either all good or all bad. 

This is extremely important.  Nothing feels more false to me than one society being brilliant, moral, and perfect in every way while another is brutish, selfish, and the epitome of evil.  There is going to be good and bad in all societies just like there is good and bad in all people.  Avatar did a great job showing this balance.

The Fire Nation commits genocide on the Air Nomads before the story begins.  They believe they are superior to all the other nations and are trying to conquer the world.  This seems pretty evil, but the Fire Nation itself is not shown as evil only misled by the Fire Lord.

There are many instances where Aang and his friends save innocent Fire Nation citizens (once from Jet trying to flood a Fire Nation controlled village and another in the Painted Lady episode).  The previous Avatar was Fire Nation and he fought against the Fire Lord to protect the four nations and keep balance, and Aang comments on having Fire Nation friends before he was encased in ice for a hundred years.      ***SPOILERS  ***     Uncle Iroh is shown to be a wise, noble character who wants to stop the Fire Nation, and Prince Zuko eventually joins Aang’s side.

The show makes it very clear that the entire Fire Nation isn’t pure evil.

Also, the other kingdoms aren’t perfect either.  The Northern Water Tribe refuses to train Katara because she is a girl.  The Airbender monks threaten to remove Aang from his beloved guardian because they believe the guardian is too soft on Aang, and the corruption and conspiracies in the Earth Kingdom city Ba Sing Se reviles any of the evils of the Fire Nation.

The point is that the creators of Avatar show that all of the nations, just like all people, are flawed.  And this is important in making the world believable.

3.  Be aware of your own culture biases.

Just one more caution when creating a new society.  Be aware of your own culture biases.  We all have them.  Try to treat all cultures even fictional ones with respect.  One of the greatest things about writing is being able to see things from another’s perspective, and if you keep an open mind while world-building you might not just create a more interesting, complex world, you just might become a more tolerant and accepting person in the process.


P. S.  I also found this great post about world-building. Check it out.


  1. Awesome, awesome post!! I've been struggling with my WIP's magical world, and this is SUPER HELPFUL. *off to click previous world building links*

  2. I loved this post! What a great example of world building. Avatar is, without question, one of my favorite shows. My husband and I started watching it long before we had kids. (Embarrassing to admit.) I don't think it's hard to see why, though. So many aspects of the show are done so well that it would be difficult not to love it. World building is certainly one of those aspects where the writers excelled.

    Just out of curiosity, have you had a chance to watch The Legend of Korra yet?

    1. Thanks Trisha. There is no shame in loving Avatar. I first watched Avatar flipping through the channels to find something for my kids to watch while I made dinner. I ended up glued to the TV watching episodes while my kids ran off to play. It's just great story-telling IMO.

      I haven't seen The Legend of Korra yet. I don't have cable anymore, so I have to wait until it's available on Netflix.

  3. Great post. I especially appreciated #2. LOTR might have gotten away w. an evil empire, but I think nuanced cultures - and nuanced villains - are much stronger.

    1. There are stories where black and white villains work like LOTR, but I prefer more depth. I don't think an all good or all evil society ever works. I think it only worked for the Orgs (?) in LOTR because their society wasn't fully explored and they were essentially controlled by Sauron.

  4. I have never watched this show. I have read books that pull me into another world.

    1. You should watch this show. It's on Netflix, so go get it. :)

  5. Great post MaryAnn! I'm so glad you turned me on to the wonder that is Avatar! Unfortunately, my kids watched them all while I was gone and now I'm going to have to finish the show on my own. They claim they don't ever want to watch it, but people slowly sneak in to the room whenever it's on. I think the world building is definitely one of the reasons we like it so much.

    1. Yeah, I'm glad I converted you. It really is an amazing show. :)


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