A way with worlds: 35 - Normalcy
by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum
Page 1 of 2
Last week we discussed knowing what the odds are for occurrences in your
world. Maybe you know the odds of various occurrences on your world, but, do
know what is normal in your world, what is average, what is expected?
In fact, just how are you defining normal in your world? Do you even have an
idea of what is normal in your setting or how people define it?
Knowing when things are odd or noteworthy in your world is one thing - the
flipside is knowing just what is normal in the setting you've created. We don't
think about "normal" as often as we should when we create our worlds.
However, "normal" is a slippery beast that can trap you when you pursue it.
So, let's try and chase it down . . .
When we describe normal in a story world (and the
real world), it usually comes down to math: "The average age is 32", "the
average Grutalian lives 100 years," etc. We usually pick a number or a category
that can be defined by a number (years of education, etc.) and call it normal
for our worlds. It's simple, easy, compact, and doesn't take too much work.
When we describe normal in our worlds, thus, we're all too often discussing
simple mathematical averages. Mathematical average (called "The Mean" in
statistics) actually describes very little of the world - it's a simple
mathematical calculation, that's it. Add up all the numbers involved (like ages
of everyone in a population), divide by how many numbers you added - bang, you
have the mean.
The mean is also virtually useless to a writer. In fact, having done
scientific research, I can say it's not exactly the greatest tool for hard or
soft science either. It doesn't really get useful until you apply a whole bunch
of other mathematical tools, and needless to say I doubt you care about
For instance in a world where one out of every one-thousand people are
vampires, would you say everyone is 1/1000 vampire? You wouldn't. In a world
where one out of a hundred people is a wizard, does that mean everyone has
1/100th the magical skill of a wizard? No.
That's why having an idea of your means - be they age, education, etc. - in
your world doesn't mean very much. In fact, it's very easy to just yank a mean
out of the air as a quick guide, a number that seems right - but as a guide,
it's not very helpful.
In fact, there are other mathematical constructs used to describe "normalcy"
beyond the mean, like median and mode (which I won't bother to describe). Yes,
even statisticians have varied definitions and ideas of normal - and you don't
want me to get started on alphas, betas, standard deviations and more. Don't
even ask about Factor Analyses.
What is important about normal is not the mean - its distributions of
DISTIBUTIONS:Let's say I've designed a world and the average
person has a high school degree. Does that mean everyone does? Does that mean
fifty percent of my characters do? What does it mean?. What can do you do with
that knowledge? Give everyone in your cast a high school degree? Give fifty
percent of your cast a high school degree?
In the case of the "high school degree" what does matter is what percentage
of the population has that degree - and has more education or less. In short,
when needing to know what is normal in your worlds, know the distributions -
such as what percentage of people have a certain level of education, or how
of a world is dry land.Next Page
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