There’s no shortage of experts on writing a good story. Fantasy and science fiction is especially focused on the aspect of building believable and interesting words. This is pretty much entirely the wrong focus most of the time. While there are no doubt many folks who love to hear about the economic models of Middle Earth or how Cloud City floats, I’m willing to bet that even they don’t care that much if the story is interesting and the characters doing something worthwhile. Consistency and story logic is certainly important, BUT it isn’t nearly as difficult to make a believable and compelling alternate world as some folks would have you believe.
Don’t believe me? Well, you really should. I’m a professional novelologist. This sort of thing is kind of my job, and having ten standalone fantasy / sci fi novels to my name should count for something.
Fine! I’ll give you the secret to successful worldbuilding, but only because you asked so nicely.
It’s The Flintstones.
The Flintstones is some of the finest, most accessible worldbuilding in all of storytelling. It’s also a great example of storytelling intent as well. The show itself is pretty standard in its plotting and characterization (though that isn’t a weakness), but everything about Fred Flintstone, Bedrock, and the cast that surrounds him is flawlessly executed.
The skeptical among you might say that this is just a silly cartoon show. Or maybe not. If you’re a fan of mine, you probably have some passing appreciation for The Flintstones. But maybe you’re a new visitor who stumbled upon this site for entirely different reasons. Maybe your cat walked across the keyboard and just happened to type in this site, and here you are, compelled to read onward.
The first thing we must acknowledge is that The Flintstones is indeed mostly a silly cartoon show. It isn’t great literature. It isn’t television for the ages. It is, in many ways, a mostly forgettable sitcom with mostly generic characters who have just enough life to fill a half-hour with their wacky antics. But this doesn’t diminish the excellent worldbuilding at work here.
When you break it down, The Flintstones knows exactly what it is, exactly how its world works, and exactly what it is trying to do. You might say that the world itself isn’t believable, but that is wrong. The problem here is that many mistake Plausibility with Believability. This is not a plausible world, but by its own standards, it is entirely believable. Fred is part of a “Modern Stone Age Family”, and that phrase alone tells you everything you need to know about Fred and Bedrock.
So of course these cave people live in stone houses and wear animal skins, but they also have television and automobiles. They have appliances and household conveniences in the form of trained prehistoric animals, and Bedrock is a perfectly functional analogue of a modern day city. Fred’s attitude is less caveman and more beleaguered working stiff. And, like Homer Simpson long after him, he lives for the simple pleasures.
We don’t know how Bedrock was actually built, and caveman technology is a mystery. How the heck do you have TVs made out of rock, and what makes their cars keep going once they get them rolling? These would be legitimate questions if that was the point of The Flintstones, but that is most assuredly NOT the point. If it was, the show would’ve been cancelled instantly as writers bent over backwards to create plausible explanations for the implausible. Such efforts are either doomed before they start or a distraction from the characters and their adventures, which is what we’re really there for.
Seriously, does anybody actually wonder how they trained dinosaurs to function as draw bridges? Is anyone yearning for schematics for a working stone radio?
Incidentally, this is why the Great Gazoo never meshed with The Flintstones. It’s not that he is any more or less believable than anything else. It’s that he’s a weird sci fi element in a stone age setting, which could work if he was a stone age future element. The Flintstones did have an episode where they traveled in a time machine made out of rock, so it’s safe to say anything goes in this setting, but only within the framework of its modern day cavemen sensibilities. The Great Gazoo sticks out like a sore thumb because a little green man who looks like he should be in an almost entirely different cartoon is always going to seem wrong.
It’s well established at this point that I wear my weird influences on my sleeve. I love old pulp and Saturday morning cartoons, and many of the greatest of those understand how to make a great world without mistaking drowning in details as storytelling. Duckburg and St. Canard might not be real places, but each has their own sense of reality. I don’t have a clue about the real world economics of Cape Suzette from Talespin and why air travel is the predominate method of cargo delivery. I don’t need to know. An explanation is unnecessary. Just like I don’t really give a damn how Drake Mallard makes his living when he’s not Darkwing Duck.
I really liked the Disney Afternoon, just in case that wasn’t readily apparent.
These shows might not be hard science fiction, but they still work at creating settings worth visiting that have some consistency, both visually and thematically. Darkwing Duck is a comedy show, an exploration of the standard themes of superheroes, and both a reconstruction / deconstruction of those very same themes. Just as The Flintstones and Jetsons are two sitcoms set within the framework of their own subgenres. And if you think just because they happen to be cartoons that this doesn’t count then you’re dismissing the skill that went into creating them.
Certainly, worldbuilding can be more complex than these examples, but the important thing is that they NEED NOT BE. A character and their world can be compelling and wonderful without having to explain every little detail OR even the occasional big detail either. There’s no need to worry about where Batman bought the Batmobile. Just as there’s no need to worry about the workings of a wooly mammoth vacuum cleaner. These details are not the story. They’re not even great worldbuilding. And obsessing over them tends to distract from the characters themselves, and if we’re not there for the characters, we might as well be reading a history report and consulting an atlas.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,