So after my first run of posts about worldbuilding, I took a break to edit Kill Screen #2—and with that task almost done, I’m ready to write some more, narrowing in on specific topics or problems around creating fictional worlds. Let’s get back to it, with Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Early in the first season of Avatar, we meet a character who plays a minor but memorable part on the show: the Cabbage Merchant. Actually, he’s not so much a character as a running gag. Every so often he shows up with his cartful of cabbages, and he ends up in right in the path of the good guys right when they’re being chased by the bad guys. His cart is smashed and he yells, “My cabbages!” And that’s his entire schtick.
He’s easily the least important of the supporting characters we meet on Avatar, and yet he’s one of the first characters who makes Avatar feel like a world, and not just a story. Why? Because he’s one of the first recurring characters we meet.
When you think of worldbuilding, you probably think of a herculean task of history-writing, and character-making, and map-drawing. You think of the legendary show bible at Lost or the deep lore of a game like Morrowind. We know that this stuff makes worlds. I mean, you’re practically doing it brick by brick.
But I want to approach the problem the other way: what is the least you can do to make a world? What are the fewest things you need to add to make a story feel like a world?
As rich and brilliant as it is, Avatar has a thin world. The show is driven by the stories of its two protagonists, Aang and Zuko. They have a strong supporting cast and their adventures take them across a fascinating planet, but the show is built around the plot, and it ends when their conflicts are resolved.
At the same time, Avatar does feel larger than the story we’re seeing. This is a living, breathing place that’s sucked up a corner of my imagination. Ever since I watched the show I can’t stop thinking about it, and my impressions of it – my emotional connection to it – goes deeper than choosing which episode I liked best or which character I had the most in common with. I don’t even think about details at all – it’s more like I’m just stewing on it, like the day after a two-week vacation or a thirty-course meal.
How did it do that? It’s not the history: we only have a dim view into anything that happened more than a century before the show starts, and we only really get to know two of the past avatars who came before Aang. The geography doesn’t matter much either. The Fire Nation is far smaller than the Earth Nation but the characters spend roughly a season getting across each one. In fact, it takes them just one season to get all the way from the South Pole to the North. The map doesn’t drive the story, so it doesn’t really interest us.
But one of the things that really makes the place feel big is the set of recurring characters, both important – the members of the White Lotus, the bounty hunter, the swamp people – and small, like the Cabbage Merchant. The fact that these people come and go reminds us that there’s a larger plot going on. They remind us there are many ways to look at the story that we’re following. They make the world feel larger simply because they’re gone for weeks at a time, and that makes us realize they have somewhere else to go.
In most works of fiction – like a short story – there’s a commonly-assumed rule that every single element has to have a purpose. But in a fictional world, you leave things around that may or may not be useful. Even the trivial stuff that didn’t interest the writers could find a fan in the real world. (Cabbage Merchant cosplay is not unknown.) This stuff may not be crucial to the plot – but it’s crucial to the imaginations of the audience, which is almost as important.