Worldbuilding: Icons & Big Ideas (What All Prominent Fiction Has in Common)

Worldbuilding is a process vital to the creation of good fiction.

Worldbuilding is something I’ve thought a lot about over the past couple of years, due to the process of building my sci-fi universe Esotera. I wanted to make a world that’s interesting, immediately recognizable, and logical.

Jeez, that’s a lot to ask for – and not an easy task. For me, at least, it started with a passion for reading and watching sci-fi and apocalyptic material over the years. I like Blade Runner and I like Mad Max, among other things. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to make something that’s like a mix of those two worlds?’

So, you see, I started out with a big problem.

I didn’t have anything immediately recognizable as its own entity, logical (the world just ‘is’ – there’s no understanding or logic as to how it became that way), or interesting (at least not inherently).

I had a hodge-podge world consisting of the small things I happen to like in the above-named worlds. The atmosphere. Some of the themes. Some other random bits. But that wasn’t enough to have a cohesive world that people would care to explore or remember.

So, with the help of a writer and close friend Shawn, we walked through taking this world from a vague concept with no real substance to something that’s more well-defined.

While we are by no means done with this process and we are constantly refining the world of Esotera, I identified what I believe to be the cruxes of creating an interesting, logical, and unique world.

Set your fictional world apart

Imagine that you want to get investment to make a film. Can you tell a potential investor in 30 seconds or so what your world is and what makes it unique? Better yet, can you describe your world in a few sentences and make it interesting and obviously identifiable from other worlds in its genre?

If it’s a sci-fi world about robots controlling the Earth, that has of course been done before. What makes yours apparently different and makes people think, ‘hm, I wonder what life is like in that world? I want to know more.’ Terminator had Skynet send a robot back in time – that’s pretty unique. The Matrix had people living in an entirely artificial reality, oblivious to robotic domination. I, Robot (even though some people didn’t like it) had the creator of the robots design one robot that would help subvert the otherwise stereotypical robotic uprising.

You probably get the idea. Each of these worlds, as well as others I will list, have two things in common. Please note: I do think there are exceptions, but in my observation, most worlds fall along these lines.

Each world has an identifiable icon.

Every unique fictional universe contains an icon of some kind. Often this icon is connected to or has a vital role in why the world has become how it is. If not part of the world’s development, the icon will play a big role in events to come, which your story will explore.

Some worlds have multiple icons. The stronger they are, the more identifiable the world is.

The big whale of examples is Star Wars.

Let’s just think about the original Star Wars from 1977, also known as Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. This film doesn’t delve too deep into the dichotomy between Sith and Jedi. However, right off the bat, Star Wars presents a powerful icon almost right away; the lightsaber. As the ceremonial weapon of a long-gone order of knights who fought against evil, the lightsaber represents many things. The lightsaber connects multiple elements together that shape Star Wars and make it what it is. It connects the Jedi, the Sith, and most importantly, The Force. The lightsaber icon also explicitly ties Luke into this fateful mix when Ben Kenobi gifts Luke with his father’s lightsaber.

The icon, in this case, the lightsaber, is a representation of how the world has been shaped and what makes it so unique. Not only is the lightsaber easily identifiable, but it is deeply connected to the path which the universe of Star Wars and its sentient races have taken; one influenced by the following important fact…

Each world has a ‘big idea’ that utterly transforms it

In every distinct and popular fictional world, there are one or several elements or events that make the world immediately distinct. Every world has a ‘big idea’.

This big idea has changed the world in such profound ways that without it, the world would be changed completely. The introduction of the big idea utterly and completely transformed it into what it is. Not only does this massive transformation cause dilemmas which make for interesting story possibilities, but it makes a world that is identifiable.

The big idea helps create a world that you can explain on the elevator (in 30 seconds). In the context of a single, normal film (perhaps set in our contemporary world), this ‘elevator pitch’ is often discussed by writers, directors, and producers. The elevator pitch is essentially your characters ‘world’ and its ‘big idea’ that transforms the character’s ‘world’ boiled down to its essence.

In Star Wars, the ‘big idea’ is the force.

“Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Ben Kenobi, Star Wars

In Star Wars, the course of all life has been irrevocably affected by the existence, and exploitation (by good and evil forces) of the Force. Without it, Star Wars would just be another space opera, with spaceships, robots, lasers, bad guys, good guys, and so on.

But the Force utterly and completely transforms the universe of Star Wars into what it is. The major conflicts of each movie revolve around the actions of people that try to shape the galaxy using the Force. These stories are dramatic because of the massive impact Force users have on general existence, often despite the will of the lay general population of the galaxy.

All unique fictional worlds have a big idea.

The breakdown: examples of well-known fictional worlds

I did some digging to make sure my theory held up to some examination. I’m sure it’s not perfect, but I think it’s a useful way to look at the creation of your fictional world (it’s certainly helping me).

Here are a few popular fictional worlds and what (in my opinion) sets them apart from the background noise of a myriad of fictional worlds. This also allows me to give a good description of what the world is in a couple sentences (I will only do this for a few).

Star Wars

The Icon(s): Lightsaber, Darth Vader (in all black), Princess Leia (in all white)

The Big Idea: The Force

Summary: Far in the future, where humans and alien species have spread across the galaxy, two ancient and long-warring ideological orders vie for control of the galaxy by harnessing a mysterious energy called ‘the Force’ which permeates all living things and grants extraordinary abilities.

Dune

The Icon(s): Planet Dune, Sandworms, Spice, Fremen

The Big Idea: The Butlerian Jihad. For non-Dune fans, this war against (and eventually costly victory) against rogue AI led to the necessity of space travel without computer guidance.

Spice. Spice grants limited prescient abilities to those who consume it, allowing space travel guided by humans. This ‘Spice’ is incredibly valuable because it can only be found on one planet in the entire galaxy; the harsh desert planet of Dune.

This one is a bit harder to nail down since it is quite intricate and there are many things that heavily affect the world, so I included only two of the most influential.

Art by Manuel Robles.

Summary: Far in the future, the Atreides royal family is one of virtue, but flagging power. Granted control of the planet Dune by the galactic emperor, the Atreides are soon pressed on all sides by their enemies. However, the Atreides heir Paul takes true control of Dune by integrating with the native population. When he fights to become ruler of Dune’s fierce native people, he leads them to control the spice and defeat his enemies.

Fallout

The Icon(s): Vault Boy, Vault-tec Vaults, Power Armor, Pip-Boy Device

The Big Idea: Post-WWII breakthrough in miniaturization of nuclear fusion. This led to cultural stagnation (stuck in 50s culture), the huge, exponential advancement of technology in a different direction, and ultimately, nuclear devastation.

Summary:200 years after nuclear war has devastated the planet, ‘vault-dwellers’ who survived generations in underground shelters emerge to an ugly world transformed by nuclear radiation and filled with mutants, famine, death, and chaos.

Halo

The Icon(s): Spartan II Supersoldiers, The Flood, Halo Rings

The Big Idea: Remnants of an ancient, advanced civilization permeate and continue to influence sentient species.

Summary: 300 years in the future, Humanity experiences relative peace as it spreads through the stars. However, Humanity makes first contact with an alien alliance known as The Covenant, which begins ruthlessly destroying Human worlds in search of ancient technology for their religious ‘Great Journey’. Upon discovery of massive ring-worlds and conflict over their control, Human-Covenant conflict releases an ancient and evil parasite that threatens to destroy all sentient life.

Mass Effect

The Icon(s): Reaper AI, Commander Shepard, The Citadel

The Big Idea: A fleet of ancient artificial intelligence periodically sweep through the galaxy to destroy all sentient organic life.

Summary: Humanity enjoys a relatively stable alliance with a variety of alien species through the galaxy. However, when an elite Human soldier of this alliance discovers an ancient artifact, it imprints him with the memory of a past civilization destroyed by an unstoppable alien force. The artifact also tells him that this force will soon return. The alliance of species must unite to destroy the threat of The Reapers, or all sentient life will be destroyed.

Isaac Asimov’s Fiction – Three Laws of Robotics

Blade Runner – Replicants

Ghost in the Shell – Complete cyberization of Humans

You get the idea. Can you think of any other fictional worlds you can dissect in this way?

Some examples of worlds that lack uniqueness:

The Road – world dying after a nuclear war and follows several survivors of the apocalypse

Book of Eli – world dying after a nuclear war and follows several survivors of the apocalypse

Alien – fairly standard sci-fi world (before the newest films added to the universe) with little distinctive elements… except, of course, the Alien itself.