WAY WITH WORLDS:
By Steven Savage
Archives available at The Way With Worlds Home Page
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 you 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 them.
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 elements.
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 much of a world is dry land.
So, maybe in your world 50% of people have high school degrees, 10% have less than that, 30% have a college degree, 7% have a masters, and 3% have a PhD. So, on average, a randomly selected person would have a high school degree, and half my main cast (if they were selected at random) would have a high school degree.
And none of this relied on the mean. It's all statistics. You may start having flashbacks to the previous column - and you should.
To give an example in my own work, Xai. Religion is a big part of the story and the culture of the setting, so I know the distribution of religion - what percentage are synthesis,, what percentage are Christian, what percentage practice the native religion, etc. However, there is no "average" religious belief that actually exists, merely the odds one will belong to a particular belief set (or a syncretic belief set), and some chances are higher than others.
In designing your world, you need to know the distributions of elements in your world - what percentage of people are what religion, what percentage of a planet is ocean, what level of income is most common, etc. Then you can get an idea of how your world works - and what is likely and unlikely.
SO, IS THERE A NORMAL?
Something in your world may be very common that people consider it normal. Some elements may be common enough that people think of them as normal. But "normal" itself isn't easy to grasp - normal is just a concept.
If this sounds like my last column on odds seen through the looking glass, that's exactly the point - there are no normal, only odds and how they're portrayed and perceived. Normal is a matter of perception and perspective, and playing statistician with your world may end up confusing and misleading you - think of how often someone's tried to convince you something was "normal" by arcane math.
Know what your characters think of as normal. Know how the odds of your world work. Don't get bogged down in statistical calculations and simplistic definitions - you'll find no help and many possible traps.
Simple math won't describe what is normal in your world - because "normal" is actually a very subjective concept. Instead, understand the individual likelihood and distributions of various elements of your world and write from there.