Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Worldbuilding and the Chaos Mind

June Drexler Robertson
©2003, June Drexler Robertson

ost of us who watched the second Lord of the Rings movie marveled at how real the computer generated character of Gollum looked, even up against the very human actors.  Animators can achieve such realism today because fractal equations and other such chaos equations allow them to randomize their creations.  They can create creatures that look alive in ways that the 'logical' brain of the computer could not otherwise accomplish.

When I draw maps, I cause my hand to go into a sort of spasm when drawing the coastline.  The irrational movements make the shore look realistic.  That's chaos again in my quivering hand, making things more real.  And, then there is the quintessential demonstration of order out of chaos -- the Mandelbrot Set.  Study one of these elegant 'paisley-like' designs.  As you zoom in smaller and smaller, you find pattern after pattern.  The Mandelbrot is ever changing, yet never without design, no matter how deep you probe.

It would be nice if we could apply those same chaos equations to our worldbuilding, wouldn't it?  Who wouldn't want to generate a world that felt real at every level from pattern of the continents to the smallest alley in the tiniest village?  The problem is, how does one do that?

Too often, our creations fall flat.  They don't seem real, even to ourselves.  Or, worse, when they do feel real, they also look disturbingly derivative.  We followed all the rules.  We drew maps.  We studied the scientific theories on which we based our ideas.  We asked ourselves all the right questions and played suppose until our brains felt like they'd run a marathon.  Why, then, do our worlds too often seem either original or good, but never both?

Let's start with where all worlds begin, with an idea.  Ideas usually come to us like spirits, a flash out of nothing that we must grab quickly lest we lose it.  We usually know when we've caught a good one.  There is a kind of tingle that runs up the spine and the urge to tuck this idea securely away where it can't escape or be stolen.  Getting a good idea might be one of the most fulfilling, energizing experiences a writer can have.  It probably stands right under the exhilaration of actually finishing a project.  But, really, what is an idea?

Ideas happen when our mind randomly connects a few interesting bits into something new.  It is the creative brain sparking, the Chaos Mind at work.  We can't deduce what the natal idea for great masterworks of worldbuilding were.  Did Tolkien suddenly realize one day that the language he was creating was the tongue of elves?  Was Herbert's Dune spawned on the notion of what if a barren world produced the most important resource in the universe?  We'll never know.  However, one thing we can be assured of is that neither Middle Earth nor Arrakis was built on only one idea.  Worlds that feel real are made of hundreds, if not thousands, of small ideas, just as Gollum was generated by millions of fractal-randomized pixels.

You need more than a single base idea to build a world.  And that's where the problems begin.

I suppose it's possible to simply sit and wait until you are randomly struck with enough ideas to build a whole world, but most of us don't want to wait that long.  We want to create ideas consciously.  We want to build our worlds.  Unfortunately, while the original idea flashes from the Chaos Mind, what we build comes, too often, from the logical portion of the brain alone.

The logical mind is not creative.  It is prone to symbol and to stereotype.  The logical mind likes the expected.  And, when we build from this part of our mind, that's frequently what we get -- the expected, the ordinary, and the unoriginal.  There is a place for logic in the worldbuilding process, but it comes after the initial ideas are in place.  The base creative work -- the sparking of original ideas -- is not logical.

Somehow, we need to find a way to circumvent all that stereotypical, cliché thinking and get the Chaos Mind working.  We need to turn on the randomizer in our brain.

One method I use is list-association.  This method exhausts the logical mind, leaving room for the Chaos Mind to take over.

Begin with that initial idea, that tiny spark of the Chaos Mind.  It doesn't matter if your idea seems cliché or stupid.  The list-association will enliven it.  Don't have an idea?  That's fine too.  Begin with what mood you'd like your story to have.  I want to write a spooky fantasy is enough.

What we are going to do is take the base idea apart.  Remember, the base idea is really just two or more unrelated things that connected randomly in your mind.  For the above-mentioned spooky fantasy, the elements would be: spooky and fantasy.

Let's use an idea-based example: a village of ignorant peasants invaded by evil magic.

This is not the most original idea, but let's go with it anyway.  Were we to apply logic-based worldbuilding to this we'd probably begin by locating the village on a landscape.  Then we'd think about what the village specializes in -- farming, herding, commerce.  We might wonder if they have a liege lord and what he's like.    What's likely to develop is a fairly boring pseudo-medieval world with peasants straight out of a Pietre Bruegal painting.  Eventually we'll get to the evil magic, which will likely take form as some evil wizard being, well, evil.  We look at our finished creation, and yawn.  We've read this before, haven't we?  Of course we have, because the logical mind loves the expected and common.

Let's not do that.  Instead, let's try list-association.  When we pull the idea apart we have three components: villagers, ignorance, evil magic.  Put each of these components at the top of a sheet of paper.  Then make lists of associations for each.  Don't stop at the ten or so associations that come easily to mind, though.  Force yourself to make a hundred associations, or two hundred, or five hundred. 

What you want to do is run your logical mind totally dry, exhaust it.  You'll wind up getting silly just to fill lines.  You'll write things like: my mother-in-law, trashcans, and nothing.  The only rule is that you can't repeat yourself, so all of them are valid entries.  When you have finished your list only the top ten or twenty will look at all reasonable.  Throw those away.

What you want to look at is the ridiculous part of the list.


Back to our ignorant villagers and the threat of evil magic.  On the list of associations for evil magic I have a flock of ducks.  Boy, my mind was really running out of ideas.  Evil magic is a flock of ducks?  But, wait, don't dismiss the ducks yet.

What is a flock of ducks like?  They make a raucous, disturbing sound.  They migrate seasonally in vast numbers.  They take over every open water source in an area.  If you feed ducks, they swarm you.  What if we apply those traits to evil magic?

Evil magic signals its arrival with an eerie crackling noise on the wind overhead.  Each autumn, or spring, it settles into open water.  It swarms people if they try to draw it away from the water with offerings of grain.  This is getting a bit more interesting, isn't it?

I now picture a peasant in his hut, listening to the sound of magic overhead and shivering.  He glances toward the corner where he's put his jugs of water, each with a bowl of corn atop it to siphon away the magic should it try to taint his supply.  He won't be able to drink from the wells or the lake until the evil has passed for the year.  In the morning, he will watch as those poor souls chosen to seed the lake shore with grain trudge to what might be their doom.  The magic, after all, has absorbed more than one.

Maybe this village is the center of a short story.  Maybe it is but a chapter stop for a hero on the way to greater adventures.  Either way, this is not a place I've visited in a dozen other books.  It has unique traditions and strange magics.  It's original, because evil magic just might be like a flock of ducks.

The Chaos Mind can be turned to every aspect of our writing and worldbuilding from the creation of our maps to the details of a tiny village's traditions, to character development, to scene ideas.  By breaking the standard connections our logical minds so love, we develop true originality.  Try the list-association.  Then look for other avenues into your own Chaos Mind.  You'll be amazed where it takes you.